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Teacher struggles to find legal, affordable housing

I know a woman who is living full time in an off-grid-capable, fully restored vintage travel trailer. For a while she was moving it every couple of weeks on public land; then it became challenging to get to work every day, and she knew that legally she couldn’t keep doing that. So for now she’s parked on some friends’ private land on the edge of town. She wakes up every day, grateful for their compassion and wondering if today is the day that she’ll be asked to move due to current Chaffee County regulations. Telling her story here increases that risk.

She’s not a drug addict. She’s not irresponsible with her money. As a matter of fact, she has a nearly flawless credit score and is completely debt free. She’d pass a background check. She’s a mother of three children who are kind, responsible and nearly full grown. She’s also the grandmother of two sweet babies.

She’s 48 years old and never saw her life leading to this ‒ but it did. And she’s okay with that. She’s actually learning to embrace her new living situation because of the freedom from debt that it brings.

She was married for 16 years. She has a college degree in elementary education with a minor emphasis in teaching middle school science. Once her kids were born, she left her teaching career to raise them because it was what she and their dad wanted for their family. She home-schooled her three children in the early years so they could have more time together; she simply wanted to teach them herself because she loves teaching.

They started out in Durango, but she and her family moved to Chaffee County in 2005; the divorce happened in 2010. From 2012 to 2015 she was a homeowner in Salida as a single mom; then, one day she realized that she eventually wouldn’t be able to afford the $1,600 per month mortgage when child support payments ended. So she did the responsible thing and sold the house when prices went up and she could make a profit. (It was this sale that allowed her to purchase the travel trailer so that she’d have a home to live in on her own one day.) After they sold the house, she and her children moved from rental house to rental house at the rate of $1,200-1,400 per month.

Along the way, she worked as a newspaper reporter, a retail store clerk, a freelance writer and a small-business owner. She’s an active member of the Salida community. She served on the board of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chaffee County for many years, and she finally landed a teaching job at a local school ‒ a job market that has been tough to break into in Salida. She’s a “productive member of society,” whatever that means.

In the last year, her two younger children, now teenagers, decided to move in with their father; subsequently, child support ended nearly overnight in March. Fortunately, she had a plan for somewhere to live, so she gave 30 days notice to her landlord and moved into her trailer on April 1 of this year.

This woman isn’t looking for pity, but she is looking for options and a willingness from others to recognize her perspective ‒ to walk even a minute in her shoes. She’d like the county to see that there are as many different stories in this housing crisis as there are RVs parked in people’s yards and on public lands.

She’s spent the past nine months looking for land to purchase in the county, but over and over she hears the same story. “Camping” in a recreational vehicle is only allowed for two weeks in the county. If she buys land, she’ll be allowed to “camp” on her land for up to three months, as long as she has a building permit. And she can renew this permit once.

But she won’t have money to build once she buys land, so this doesn’t work for her. She’s considered land in Saguache County, but Salida is her home, her community, her tribe. This is where she works, where she’s laughed and cried with friends, where she’s raised her children, and where her children will return as they eventually raise their own families and come home to visit.

Yes, she could get another job. She could leave school at 4 p.m. and then go to a night job waiting tables or stocking shelves. But for what? Just so she can afford over-inflated prices for a home she doesn’t really want? Is this a quality life? It would take years to save enough to build. Besides, she doesn’t need or want a place to live. She has a home, and it’s beautiful. She just needs a stable place to park it. A place where she can put down some roots and grow a few tomato plants.

As she hikes the hills and mountains surrounding Salida and Buena Vista, taking in the vastness of it all, she wonders, “Isn’t this the land of the free? Shouldn’t we be free to choose to live in whatever type of housing we prefer, particularly on private land, as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights and peace of others? Am I going to have to leave the Ark Valley before too long and find community elsewhere?”

I know these are the thoughts that pass through her mind because this woman is me.

This is the first in a series of installments on affordable housing and homelessness in Chaffee County. The next installment will address facts and data regarding the county’s current housing crisis. If you know someone who’d be interested and willing to be interviewed for the series, please email Anonymity for interviewees is not a problem.