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On Wednesday August 6, the Truth Has a Voice Foundation gathered representatives from the Chaffee Housing Trust, Habitat for Humanity and the Chaffee Housing Authority for an open house at the Salida Scout Hut.

Truth Has A Voice Foundation (THAVF) hosts open house on workforce housing at Salida Scout Hut. Pictured at right front, Cheryl Brown-Kovacic, THAVF President. Merrell Bergin photo

Displays on housing data, policies and videos of personal housing stories from “We Are Chaffee” set the stage for the discussion that followed.

A panel of seven community stakeholders, led by facilitator Leslie Matthews represented small businesses, a renter, construction, lending, and ranching/agricultural interests.

Panelist JD Longwell Trustee of the Town of Poncha Springs was unable to appear as scheduled, due to a medical issue.

Matthews led off with a handful of eye-popping statistics from the just-completed Chaffee Housing Needs Analysis and Production Goals.

  • Average rents have increased 43 percent since the last needs assessment in 2016
  • Average home prices have increased 41 percent since 2020
  • 435 homes are needed NOW; another 670 in five years

Truth Has A Voice Foundation panel prepares for workforce housing discussion . Left to right: Leslie Matthews, Becky Gray, Norma Cady, Scott Simmons, Rob Gartzman, Jeff Post, Abby Hutchinson, Niki Stotler. Merrell Bergin photo

Rob Gartzman, owner of three unique restaurants in Salida cited the struggles he and fellow restaurant and retail owners face. Everyone from the Front Range wants to work here – until they learn about the lack of housing, then no one applies.

Gartzman, a “serial entrepreneur” has two other business concepts in development, including one to address workforce rental housing. Yet even Gartzman said that the housing crisis is already so severe that he might not be able to keep his operations here over the long term.

He said that the area really needs rentals, yet builders want a quick project and an easy profit then move on. He urged that local governments seek out the few builders who do rentals, incentivize them and adapt land use and zoning policies to make it all work.

50-year Chaffee resident Norma Cady, a highly educated and multi-careered service worker is trying to retire – at age 71. More than “housing-burdened”, she has faced a series of significant rent increases and in January, has no idea where she will live, after the next increase forces her to leave. She says her Social Security, pension, and meager savings plus a part-time job driving for Chaffee Shuttle still will not cover her expected housing costs.

No Silver Bullets, Need all the Spokes on the Wheel

Realtor, developer, HRRMC and Chaffee County Economic Development Corporation board member Jeff Post likened the housing crisis to a bicycle wheel; needing all its spokes (elements and solutions) to solve the problem and keep the wheel turning. “There isn’t one silver bullet.  Land use codes, keeping open space, addressing each income level; all are important and it’s a tough balance”, he said.

Post felt that public-private partnerships are needed as federal grants are not available at the Average Median Income (AMI) levels needed here, even in this newly designated “rural-resort” community. He suggested that projects be looked at on a “cash flow” basis, instead of just seeking a one-time donation to incentivize a developer to get affordable housing built.

Chaffee Housing Authority Director Becky Gray briefly mentioned the potential property tax measure on the November ballot. She then said there were pros and cons to using CHA funds to either subsidize an affordable housing project build or to subsidize the rent. What makes the most sense, Gray said was for the CHA to work with the development community and local governments and try to reduce the fees imposed on new projects, making them more affordable from the start.

“Being homeless is worse than being jobless”, she added, in a nod to panelist Cady, while speaking towards the potential need for rental subsidies, at least in the short term until the housing crisis is stabilized.

Diving briefly into technical terms, the most common U.S. practice of “Euclidian zoning” (named after the Village of Euclid, OH) was defined and contrasted with the new “transect” zoning strategy adopted by Poncha Springs. In Euclidian zoning,  a community is divided into areas in which specific uses of land are permitted (residential, low-density, high-density, commercial, etc.). According to Gray, this development practice has been associated with “structural racism” and redlining, yet it is the predominant type still in use.

In “transect zoning“, Gray described a visual of a “bulls-eye”, with the city center in the middle; having the highest density, tallest homes, businesses, and structures closest to lot lines. As you move out from the center, the density decreases until you reach a point where agricultural land begins. This strategy might allow Chaffee County to maximize infill while taking advantage of existing infrastructure, and lowering ongoing housing and city service costs for all residents.

The Fading West Factory. Courtesy image.

Scott Simmons from Fading West said that the new factory-built housing methods they are using will help address affordability and be one part of the solution. Yet they had to increase the sales prices of their first homes from $189,000 to over $400,000 in just two years to keep up with material cost increases.

He cited government statistics that lumber and plywood had increased 87 percent since 2020 and building materials overall were up some 50 percent.

The standardized designs that Fading West produces can be used for a variety of housing types. Their limiting factor is also people; right now, despite ongoing job fairs,  they can’t staff another 120 people to create a second shift.  And, even with their indoor, year-round work with benefits, the construction workforce is aging out. With their model, they may fare better than traditional on-site construction builders will.

Hutchinson Ranch owner Abby Hutchinson spoke in favor of preserving ranch and farmlands. At the same time, she said that landowners also need to set aside some of their lands to house workers and not have to bring them in from as far away as the San Luis Valley, which is not sustainable for anyone. She also made a strong appeal to keep the history of the county and its ranching and farming way of life alive.

Chief Operating Officer of High Country Bank Niki Stotler rose through the ranks at the bank working extensively in mortgage lending. She said there are success stories of people being able to get highly desirable USDA home loans, but that they take lots of work- even years to pull the pieces together. She stated that the bank works with the CHA and others on affordable housing projects by waiving all their fees and reducing interest rates to the lowest “next to nothing” that they can.

“The only way this problem will be solved is by working together”, said Matthews in summary. “The West was won through community (not by ‘rugged individualism’)”…We’re at a place where the pain level has gotten high enough; if we put together a brain trust of the people in this community, we can do something about this”, she concluded.

Who Will Lead The Next Steps?

While the evening was a great way to get people to focus, share a common experience, and provide an accurate summary of the current crisis, what still seems to be lacking is overall, high-level coordination.

As one audience member shared, reducing the crisis will require a county-wide effort, including all the municipalities, while still making decisions suited to the needs and unique history of each. Philanthropic investment, coupled with business support, jobs, transportation, and health all work together to complete a complex jigsaw puzzle, providing affordable housing and a decent quality of life for all.

The Board of Chaffee County Commissioners (BoCC) came together in 2020 with diverse community stakeholders to help us survive (and even thrive) during two years of the pandemic. It would seem that a similar model could build on the momentum to date and forge a path to cut this crisis down to size before the county loses what makes it so attractive.

The Foundation has been sponsoring a series of films and community discussions to open dialogue across cultural divisions within the county. Previous sessions focused on polarization and cultural conflicts as well as the impacts of social media. This is their first effort to address a critical community problem that spans our county boundaries, our income levels, and our political views.

Featured image: Truth Has A Voice Foundation (THAVF) hosts open house and panel discussion on workforce housing at Salida Scout Hut. Pictured at right front, Cheryl Brown-Kovacic, THAVF President. Merrell Bergin photo