It’s no secret that low rental inventory and rising home costs are straining Montrose’s housing resources. To move toward a solution, organizations and local governments need a targeted approach, based on data, not just anecdotes, members of a regional stakeholder group say.
They are trying to tackle the housing crunch on a regional basis, one that does not stop at arbitrary jurisdictional lines.
“My big issue is everybody keeps talking about affordable housing, but nobody has been able to quantify what we really need,” said Montrose County Commissioner Sue Hansen on Friday, fresh from a Washington, D.C., roundtable on housing.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson invited county commissioners from across the nation to discuss issues, specifically the federal regulations that may be hobbling their efforts to supply needed housing.
Hansen said Carson is “an inspirational leader,” who was more interested in hearing the counties’ issues. “One of the things about this administration that I find satisfying is they are looking at local officials. It sure makes you feel like you’re being listened to. It was very beneficial,” Hansen said.
Local housing issues are driving a regional needs assessment that moves beyond the general understanding that there are insufficient affordable houses and rentals, Hansen said.
“We want to go about it in a wise way and not be reactive, but proactive,” she said.
A targeted approach with specific information will help the region tap into new state resources, said Erica Weeks, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of the San Juans.
Weeks, with Hansen, is part of the stakeholder group, which also consists of representatives from the City of Montrose, Montrose County Housing Authority Executive Director Susan Barrientos, representatives from Housing Resources of Western Colorado and others with a direct hand in meeting housing needs.
Weeks said recent state legislation allocated one of the most significant pots of money for housing needs, in the neighborhood of $70 million.
“With that, what the legislation is going to do is create availability of funding to meet regional housing needs, but regions need to have a good idea of what priorities are,” Weeks said.
The stakeholders are working to line up hard data.
“Resources are always limited, so we want to (prioritize) in the most strategic way possible,” she said.
Although there are jurisdictional boundaries — between the city and county, for example — local markets spill over them and intersect.
“In terms of local markets, we can draw boundaries that exist along city, county (lines) … but we know the region operates as a market as a whole and there are not invisible boundaries. Our group has been talking about the best way to truly understand regional housing needs and we believe that overlaps into regional markets,” Weeks said.
The idea is to assess strategies and priorities from homelessness to homeownership and, from there, better allocate resources, she said.
“I don’t necessarily see the entire state being on the bandwagon of looking at housing on a regional perspective; it is easier to look at it on a jurisdictional perspective. What I’m really proud of our stakeholders for doing is acknowledging this is a regional issue,” Weeks said.
The Montrose County Housing Authority needs more funding from HUD, both to cut down its wait list, but also to help recipients of the federal Section 8 housing vouchers it administers be able to afford rent.
Barrientos during a Wednesday meeting of the Montrose Regional Council of Governments said MCHA began the year with a waiting list of about 200 people. The list was so long, MCHA had to stop taking applications for now.
“We need more of a HUD budget. Our payment standards don’t even begin to compare to market rate, so our people have a hard time finding a rental,” Barrientos said.
The waiting list was closed in mid-March, meaning MCHA is not taking applications and probably won’t resume until this time next year.
“We have, however, been removing people from the wait listing, issuing vouchers, a few a month,” Barrientos said.
The housing crunch also affects school districts, which, statewide, are grappling with the issue of student homelessness, she also said.
“We keep plugging away, but it’s an uphill battle,” Barrientos said.
Some affordable housing options are coming online in Montrose.
Habitat’s triplex units on South Park Avenue are close to being ready for occupancy, after a few hiccups including, most recently, the theft of interior doors from the homes.
“We are excited to wrap up this project. We’re excited to start in on new projects that can meet the community’s needs,” Weeks said.
Barrientos on Wednesday spotlighted the Woodgate Trails apartment complex, which recently opened for people 55 and older.
Woodgate Trails is a tax-credit property, with 50 one- or two-bedroom units. The project’s developer is required to fill the 50 units, but, although nearly 200 applications were submitted, there were specifications with respect to income that have left about 19 of the units unfilled, Barrientos said.
Some of the units needed to be filled by people who make 40 percent of the area median income (AMI); others were designed for occupancy by those making 30 percent AMI, she said. Still other units are structured for 50 percent AMI.
The AMI in Montrose is $44,000.
“So they have filled the 30 percents very quickly and still had over 45 to 50 people that qualified for the 30 percent. Those people just didn’t get helped, basically,” Barrientos said.
Any housing helps, Montrose City Councilor Judy Ann Files said. The city was the pass-through agent for Woodgate Trails’ Department of Local Affairs funding.
“We are so desperate, even for rentals, in these smaller areas. Anything we can get, whether it be people who are building apartments, or taking advantage of new zoning to put two or more units on a lot downtown — anything like that is going to help the housing,” Files said.
Colorado Outdoors LLC earlier this year received low-income housing tax credits through the state, with which to offset the costs of building workforce housing at its business and residential park in northern Montrose.
Files welcomes that, but it will take time to actually build the units, she said.
“We need housing now,” she said, so the city is doing what it can to provide incentives.
Taking a look
Ouray and San Miguel counties have done their own housing needs assessments, but that data could be a building point for broader understanding, Weeks said.
“Housing is one of those issues that is not relegated to our own little corner. Housing overlaps onto so many other aspects of community wellbeing. If you don’t have houses, it doesn’t matter how many jobs you say you can attract, if they (workers) don’t have a place to live,” she said.
“ … We understand this is kind of our baseline. We want to be really specific so we are working from data and not what we feel is true.”
Hansen pointed to people commuting to Telluride for jobs — all the way from Mesa County. “We decided looking at it regionally was smarter. We are exploring how we do that. Before we start building or planning, we need to think about the options,” she said.
The meeting in Washington was revelatory, she added.
“This is not a Colorado issue. This is a nationwide issue. We have to do it in a way that is good for the community,” Hansen said.
She took some time in D.C. to visit the National Association of Counties, which she said has data Montrose could possibly extrapolate for its needs assessment.
“You have to know the data and what you’re really dealing with before you embark on a broad-based effort,” Hansen said.
The whole goal is to make solid decisions about housing, and Habitat is a natural role model, Hansen said.
“They’re already doing this. I know the county doesn’t want to become a builder of affordable homes,” she said — but it does want to help ensure there is ready inventory for people moving here for work, as well as for current residents, so they can remain part of the community.
Factors that could be assessed include commuter traffic, wage leakage — where wages are earned in one community, but spent in another — and the possibility of rehabbing existing “entry-level” mobile home housing.
Then stakeholders could approach economic development entities to see whether people are not bringing jobs to town because of a lack of housing, Hansen said.
Montrose has many tourism-based jobs, so it’s worth looking at whether it has jobs that enable people to buy homes, Hansen said in offering an example of factors to assess.
“It’s really collecting the data. We need more data to be able to make some of these decisions,” she said.
The stakeholder group is putting together a request for information document, which would precede a formal request for proposals for the needs assessment.
“We are not wanting to waste time on this, because the funding is from the state Legislature and is going to start being available next year,” Weeks said.
“We’re preparing in as strategic of a way as possible to be ready for when funding is available, so we can maximize local dollars with what’s available outside, which lessens the costs of meeting our needs.”