To Afford or Not to Afford

townhouses 1019

The only thing people like less than sprawl is density.

–George Sibley

A man named Robb owns the embroidery shop a couple doors down from us at work. We send our embroidery customers to him; he sends screen printing to us. He uses our shop as a “short cut” to his truck; we use his spare boxes. On Thursdays he comes by expressly to pick up our spare copy of the Crested Butte News.

Robb for many years lived and worked in Crested Butte. Then, as rents got higher up there (long before Vail — which is shorthand for “long before Vail Resorts Inc. took over ownership of Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR), the ski area”) he moved his embroidery business down to Gunnison. Then he remarried and moved himself to Gunnison as well.

So it seems he’s in a better position to say what I think all the time, as he looked at the front of the CB News: “Those people. They scream about affordable housing, then sink every project that comes along.”

The headline for both local papers this week was the apparent imminent collapse of a proposed affordable housing project two or three miles south of the town of Crested Butte. It was going to be called The Corner at Brush Creek, and it engendered controversy from the moment the county selected this as the winning proposal for some acreage where the Brush Creek, or Skyland, road joins Highway 135.

Decades before we got to this point, the county, the towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte (two distinctly separate entities — distinctly) and CBMR went in together to purchase this corner, variously cited as anywhere from 13 to 17 acres. You’d think someone would notice a difference of four acres, but I guess not.

And then this piece of land languished as the area around it built up, some of it across the highway as an industrial park, but a lot of it with big houses on even bigger acreage.

As prices in Crested Butte have gone up and up and up, with a tiny ratchet down following the Great Recession, and businesses have started to moan that they can’t hire anyone because none of their workers can afford to live in town, there’s been louder and louder demand for “affordable housing.”

Which comes with inherent problems, the first of which is: no two people seem to agree on solutions. Many people think deed restrictions are the answer; my green, socialist-tending builder Dusty is not one of them. He is a free-market guy, and at least at one point felt the answer — that only people in his position could offer — was to subsidize his employee by helping him build a house at cost. Almost immediately after the house was completed, however, the employee left Dusty for a non-construction job with better pay plus benefits.

In Crested Butte — maybe it’s just because the problem is more acute up there, and we’d have the same issue down here, but I doubt it — Robb is right: they want affordable housing until any project is proposed. A trailer park that has now been there for a couple of decades was boisterously derided; when the Housing Authority proposed to build affordable apartments on a plot near the entrance to town perhaps a decade ago, you would have thought the world was unraveling.

The reliably left-leaning editor of the CB News led the crusade: this building will DESTROY the character of our town. It will be this hulking wreck blocking everyone’s view. [Meanwhile, the giant arts center proposed for directly across the street was okay.] How can they DO THIS to our town?

The building went forth anyway. It sits half a block off the entrance to town and looks like it’s been there forever. It’s a very attractive building that matches the rest of the town’s Victorian architecture, and it provides a place to live for people like Pat’s friend MJ, a long-time resident who would otherwise be pushed out.

I would argue it didn’t destroy anything at all, but only enhanced the town. Although I think the paperwork needed to rent one of the units is crushing, and I’m not sure the place has ever filled up. Maybe it has, finally, but it took a long time to get there, if it has.

So of course the Town of Crested Butte immediately opposed The Corner at Brush Creek proposal. So did all the residents of Brush Creek, who insisted, no matter how disingenuously, that this was most certainly not a case of Not In My Back Yard. Surprisingly, the much-more politically conservative Mt. Crested Butte also came out against it, leaving only the county and CBMR in favor. At least three of the partners need to agree for the project to go forward.

As is typical, none of these concerns came up during the request-for-proposal portion, but there has been plenty of hue and outcry ever since, and the developer, a man from faraway Houston, has altered and rearranged and tried public campaigns to get more people on board with his proposal. I can’t remember how many people were supposed to be housed in the initial proposal; I kind of think we’re “down” to 240 residents in I’m not sure how many units. (I confess: I stopped paying attention to the specifics some time ago.)

This fight has been going on for two, possibly three years now, and the businesses in town are still moaning that they can’t find anyone to work for them. A lot of 14-year-olds got hired this summer — just like the mining days!

But I don’t know how much any of these affordable housing proposals — students at Crested Butte High School designed and built (with professional assistance) an affordable house that went to a town employee in a lottery — are really helping.

Real estate agent Cathie Elliott once told me that the way to lower prices is to lower demand. Either people move out, or more housing units get built. Since we had that conversation, entire rows of townhouses, very densely packed, have sprouted in Van Tuyl Village, all of them populated the moment they get built, it seems — and the prices just keep going up. Many of these townhouses, jammed on top of each other with a view only of one another and the backside of Tractor Supply, sell for $350,000 or more. That’s hardly “affordable.”

Gunnison has its own affordable housing project underway, maybe, sort of — I haven’t heard anything about it since the city awarded the project to the same man building a lot of the townhouses (and not to Dusty and collaborator Susan Wyman, who proposed small, energy-efficient houses), and ground is being broken on a project similar to the one in CB, the building that was going to destroy the entire character of the area and yet somehow didn’t. (Nary a peep from the residents of Gunnison regarding this new building — I’m not even sure most of us know it’s being built.)

Habitat for Humanity has a house currently under construction, and I’m seeing several in-fill projects taking place in the city limits — a couple blocks from downtown a garage got repurposed as housing, and right next to it is a new structure of garage and house/apartment, with room at the front of the lot for another house.

But the Pat’s peeps who rent say their rents are going up, and while I’m hearing that housing prices are “softening,” all the listings still start at $370,000, which just doesn’t count as “affordable.”

I don’t have the solution any more than anyone else, but I’m with Robb: you can’t demand a solution to the problem and then object to every proposal out there. Well, I guess you can; Crested Butte has and does, but it’s not a good look.


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