This article was originally published by News from the Highlands.
14-year-old Callie Lawson lives with a broken bedroom door that’s left open all the time, losing her privacy. A teenager’s nightmare. That’s just one of the many repairs her family’s aging mobile home needs—repairs that most handymen, who aren’t used to working on factory-made structures, either don’t know how to fix, or that they don’t want to tackle. Jeff, Callie’s father, is also losing patience over rent increases on the trailer lot and a leaking roof that he can’t afford to fix. Meanwhile, Callie’s mother, Kim, longs for a home that has been unattainable since childhood: “I’m 52 and I’ve never lived in a frame house.”
The real estate crisis in the Roaring Fork Valley area of western Colorado, where the Lawsons live, is like a persistent virus that’s only getting worse with each passing year. The region is framed on one side by the relatively affordable “Down Valley” towns of Glenwood Springs and Rifle and on the other by Aspen, where the average home value is about $3 million. Even the average home in the valley now fetches over half a million dollars.
But now, residents of Roaring Fork — including the Lawsons — are getting some relief. The local branch of Habitat for Humanity is building Wapiti Commons, a 20-unit community that is slated for completion next summer. The project features units that are not only affordable but also net-zero: the development will produce as much energy with its solar panels as its efficient appliances consume, reducing utility bills. This is not a custom made one off piece; It’s part of Habitat’s plan to show that sustainability can be standard and not just a luxury add-on. Habitat sees Wapiti and its sister site Basalt Vista as templates for what’s to come. The first houses will be completed in the spring.
The West’s recreational and gateway communities have long struggled with housing shortages. Scarcity worsened during the pandemic — and spread to once-affordable areas. Brian Rossbert is executive director of Housing Colorado, a nonprofit political group. Rossbert, who grew up near a ski resort, saw first-hand how the crisis deepened in the mountains. “People are being pushed further and further away from their jobs, while much of the housing stock is occupied by second-home owners and short-term renters,” he explains. The installation space is also limited in the thin, ribbon-shaped sections between the mountain ranges.
The strain is being felt across industries and demographics. Service workers in the Roaring Fork Valley struggle to make ends meet and schools struggle to retain staff. According to a 2018 survey, only 8 percent of seniors in the area said they could find quality, affordable housing. Wapiti, which will include eight dedicated units for elderly residents in Rifle starting at $185,000, was designed with these local tensions in mind. Jeff Lawson’s daily 20-minute commute to his job as a child care manager in Rifle, for example, will shrink to the bicycle distance. But home security is the development’s main selling point. It’s important to prioritize property, says Gail Schwartz, Habitat’s president of Roaring Fork: “To keep people you want to stay in your community, long-term housing is critical to what it does emotionally.”
Turning this vision into reality was not easy. The first step was working with the local government. For example, in exchange for urban land and $100,000 in waived permit fees, Rifle received a dedicated unit for one of its employees. Those deals compensate for some, but not all, of what Schwartz calls the “gap” — the $125,000 per unit shortfall created by selling units well below the market price. The remainder came from state and federal grants, corporate donations, and other partnerships that supported initial research and development for Habitat’s Net Zero designs.
All of this has provided a working model for future Habitat developments. However, the best place to see the fruits of this labor—Habitat’s investment in technology, the endless requests for grants—will be in the wallets of Wapiti’s eventual residents. The average monthly energy bill for a unit is expected to be around $14 per month thanks to the energy efficient design.
Whether solutions mitigate Mountain West’s housing crisis or only fragment its edges will depend largely on the region’s ability to scale-up interventions to the scale of the problem. According to a 2022 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, only one Mountain West state provides more than 50 affordable housing for every 100 needy residents; Colorado delivers 29 units per 100, and it’s far from the worst.
Schwartz believes a permanent solution requires more than individual housing developments, which can often take years to complete. The Roaring Fork chapter relies on mass production: Specifically, a modular house factory in Rifle to make 200 net-zero houses a year from recycled steel that’s rolled into sheets and stamped into prefabricated components that are then “put together” like a kit ‘ says Schwartz. Habitat is currently raising funds for a company that would occupy a reclaimed uranium mill and investigations into the safety of the site are pending.
According to Rossbert, Colorado’s affordable housing deficit now exceeds 225,000 units, and despite the efforts of nonprofit developers like Habitat, it continues to grow. That could change with the passage of a voting measure last November that will allocate 0.1 percent of annual income tax revenue — an estimated $300 million a year — to building affordable housing, along with a host of other measures, including accelerated permits and deposit help. “This legislation is monumental,” says Rossbert. “We’re talking about going from the ability to produce thousands of units to tens of thousands of units a year.” Schwartz hopes other developers will follow Habitat’s lead. “You will have funds that can support communities to do more projects like Wapiti,” she says.
The Lawsons won’t have to wait that long, though, just until this fall. “I will have a home for my family, for Kim, for my children,” says Jeff Lawson. “I look forward to it.”