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Understanding the housing shortage in the Roaring Fork Valley

Joleen Cohen

Landlord raise prices, get choosy as housing dearth deepens

Finding decent housing in Aspen and parts of the Roaring Fork Valley has always been difficult. But the increasing shortage in rentals, especially in the Mid-Valley, is having a significant impact on residents. In the first in our series about housing in the Valley, Aspen Public Radio’s Elise Thatcher has this story.


I’m in a house in the Mid-Valley overlooking a manicured golf course. It’s between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, and my host is very friendly. Her name is Naomi and her son is watching TV in the background-- but I can’t tell you much else. She’s hesitant to share more personal details because she wants to talk about her rental situation, and she doesn’t want to make anyone mad.

"We're just looking for another place to live, cause we just don't want to pay the extra money...in [the] rental,” explains Naomi, referring to the monthly rent she and her husband are paying for their home. When the landlord got in touch about renewing their lease, there was big increase. “When he offered it was $600 more, on top of what we’re paying,” laughs Naomi. That’s on top of the more than $2000 they’re already paying each month.

“Not that we don’t feel that it’s not worth it,” she says as she looks around the house, which is newer and has similarly updated appliances. “It’s just putting more than half your income into housing is just kind of ridiculous. So we’re just opting to... find something [more] affordable.”


Credit Elise Thatcher
Matt Harrington, of Sotheby's International Realty in Basalt.

Naomi and her family are caught in the middle of the increasing housing shortage in the Roaring Fork Valley, which is especially tight in the Carbondale area. We’ll get to why there’s fewer options in a minute. First, landlords are capitalizing on having the upper hand, raising rents by hundreds of dollars a month. They’re also getting more picky about tenants.

“Now when you go look at a place you have to fill out background check information, credit report check information,” observes Cynthia Wheeler, who lives in New Castle with her family. She started the Roaring Fork Rentals and Roommates Facebook page. “You have to give multiple, multiple references, if you have a pet they want pet references, they want shot records for your pet. I mean it’s insane the amount of things that they want."

Wheeler herself is looking for a new place for next year, and she’s actually pretty upbeat about the rental market. But she’s really noticed a drop in places that take a furry friend.

“I feel that [renters] get really comfortable, and their family starts growing, and the ideal family always includes a pet somehow, and more and more people that own homes that rent are not wanting to put up with the damages that pets cause.”

There’s more unsettling examples of choosy landlords, including single parents getting shut out. Several participants on Wheeler’s page say they’ve had a tough time finding a place for a couple, even with a great track record.

“I know of a young lady whose rent went up a $100 a month, over here in Arbor Park,” says Matt Harrington. He handles real estate and property management at Sotheby’s in Basalt. “She called me, said Matt, I’m leaving, and I have a dog. And I said, don’t leave. Stay where you are. I think she was paying $2300, it went up to $2400 a month. Will she heed my advice? I don’t know. I wish her well.”


Harrington and other rental matchmakers confirm prices are going up because landlords want to take advantage of the market. “I’m sorry to say yeah, to an extent,” he winces. ”Something we were renting for last year for $1500 [and] this year will be $1800 or $1900.”

If the would-be tenants seem like a perfect match, Harrington will advocate for dropping the price. But he points out many homeowners are only now breaking even, after paying more in their mortgage payments than they could charge for rent during the recession.

As for why there’s fewer rentals out there, even in the last year, Harrington has a loooooong list of reasons. “Our local economy is booming: sales in residential and commercial, which is creating jobs,” he explains. “So we’re seeing a lot of people from coming out of the area, relocating here for work opportunity.” With prices increasing, people with good rentals are staying put, so there’s less turnover.

Shari Nova also handles property management and real estate. She’s at the Coldwell Banker Mason Morse office in Carbondale, and has noticed how Carbondale has developed a reputation for being a outdoorsy, cool place, recently highlight by Men’s Health. (Glenwood Springs is in the running now for Outside Magazine’s top towns, too.) Nova says she’s been running out of rentals in Carbondale.

Credit Coldwell Banker Mason Morris
Sheri Nova is property manager at Coldwell Banker Mason Morris in Carbondale.

“I’ve had 2 or 3 owners in the last year either move back, or have one of their family members move into one of their smaller places,” says Nova. Then there’s more people relocating from out of state-- not to mention the trickle-down effect from rising home prices.  “At the end of last year, a lot of my owners, that were sort of my accidental landlords, started putting their places on the market and finally being able to cash out and move on.” It’s possible some of the Airbnb postings in the Valley… as part of the home sharing service... are also former rentals.

One of the would-be renters posting on the Rentals and Roommates Facebook page is Holly Goscha. She lives in Tennessee and is searching hard for a place for her family. “My husband got a job with the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs. We are thrilled, we can’t wait to come.” Goscha’s hubby starts mid-June, so it's coming down to the wire.

Credit Holly Goscha
Holly Goscha and her family are planning to relocate from Tennessee to the Glenwood Springs area.

“We have three young children, and also two dogs and a cat.  So, it’s just been really hard... every time a home comes up for rent, it seems like it’s gone, and usually they won’t ever allow animals anyway.”

Like Cynthia Wheeler, Goscha is trying to stay upbeat. She appreciates how many people in the Valley, including folks at the Roaring Fork School District, have tried to drum up leads. But Goscha and her husband have worried about ending up living in a tent all summer. Last week Goscha thought she had finally lined up a rental, but then it fell through.

“More people are coming now for jobs, which is kind of sad because they don’t really realize probably what it’s really like here,” says Noami, at her Mid-Valley house. She’s decided her family will probably have to move to New Castle. With rising rental prices, they’re thinking about eventually buying a place.

Editor’s note: Our series continues next week, when we’ll take a look at what local governments are doing to address the Valley-wide rental housing crisis. If you have a housing experience you'd like to share, please send your story to elise@aspenpublicradio.org.


Credit Elise Thatcher
Rifle resident Brenda Hough would prefer to live in Carbondale or Glenwood Springs.

Housing squeeze highlights limited Mid-Valley affordable housing options

The rental housing shortage in the mid Roaring Fork Valley is ratcheting up. As Aspen Public Radio has reported, rapidly increasing prices and restrictions are having a significant impact on residents. In our second story in our series, Aspen Public Radio’s Elise Thatcher takes a look at the subsidized housing options in the Mid-Valley.


Brenda Hough is tucked inside Starbucks on a rainy morning in Rifle. She lives here with her boyfriend and is a home health and hospice nurse. Most days Hough drives up and down the Roaring Fork Valley for work.


“So I am a case manager, so I see patients in their homes,” says Hough. “I’ve got very wealthy patients and very poor patients. So I’ve had them living in mansions, right to living under the bridge.” Her boyfriend is an electrician and works in Aspen— so they’d both prefer to live in the Roaring Fork Valley. Their first choice was Carbondale, but now they think they’re more likely to afford Glenwood Springs, if they move.


“Honestly Carbondale truly is out of [our] range,” sighs Hough. “Unless you really are able to get on something fast and move on it, but it’s just so few and far between.” The couple are like other residents who are either being priced out of the Mid-Valley or don’t make the cut with increasingly choosy landlords.


Government subsidized housing has long been an option for residents in the Upper Valley, where property values skyrocketed decades ago. Pitkin County and Aspen have partnered to create one of the biggest affordable housing programs in the state. Someone interested in renting or buying through the program can start by calling one central phone number to get the details.


But for residents in Basalt down through Glenwood Springs, the options are confusing. Say Hough and her boyfriend wanted to rent in the affordable housing inventory. Here’s what they’re looking for. “We want a little space,” muses Hough. “You know, a decent sized house-- a garage, big yard, nothing super spectacular.”


But they don’t want a townhouse. Both have kids who visit, so they need more than two bedrooms. That automatically rules out the vast majority of rental affordable housing options from Basalt to Glenwood. Most units are smaller.  Hough and her boyfriend could go through what’s called a voucher program.


“So they go out, and find a community they wish to live [in],” explains Katherine Gazunis. “And a landlord  who is willing to work with us.” Gazunis is Executive Director of the Garfield County Housing Authority. “We pay the landlord,” she continues, “the difference between what the tenant can afford, and the fair rent that [they charge].”


Right now more than 400 people are receiving that assistance, to the tune of more than $3 million last year alone. But Hough and her boyfriend likely earn far more than the cutoff for qualifying for such assistance.


If they decided to compromise on the size of their home, and rent one of the existing affordable housing units, it would be tough to land a spot. There’s about 200 units, ranging from studios to several bedrooms, scattered from Basalt to Glenwood Springs, with few vacancies. Hough would have to call several different places to figure out if a spot opened up, because there’s no central office. Seniors have more options, with another approximately 200 units to apply for. But again, the vast majority are booked up. Aspen Skiing Company and the Aspen School District have affordable housing programs of their own, adding more Mid-Valley units to the mix.


“We have around 234 deed restricted homes in that Roaring Fork Valley area,” says Kristel Langford. She’s also with the Garfield County Housing Authority. “154 are Carbondale, Glenwood Springs has about 7 deed restricted homes, and Garfield County has about 43.” Langford helps people who want to buy these homes, created mainly by development requirements. Buying a place usually has income and job requirements. And judging from the interest she’s had, Langford believes there’s a demand for more.


She has three homes under contract that would have been close to what Rifle residents Brenda Hough and her boyfriend are looking for. The units have three bedrooms, a garage, and cost less than $300,000.


“In the Carbondale area we recently sold about 4 or 5 homes. Right now I have 2 available homes on our website,” says Langford. “We are expecting a couple more homes coming out in the future.”


Those two available, though, wouldn’t be a good fit for Hough. At two bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms, these are too small. Plus, with a more than $400,000 price tag, the units are beyond their budget.  


In the Upper Valley, Snowmass Village has a well established affordable housing program with hundreds of units for people who work in Pitkin County. In Aspen, Chris Everson is Project Manager for the City of Aspen’s part of the Aspen Pitkin County worker housing program, which is selling off the last new units at Burlingame Ranch. The one we’re standing in is under contract.


“These are affordable, for sale condominiums. We recently completed the construction of new 82 condominiums,” says Everson, glancing around a one bedroom condo, around seven hundred square feet big. “And we’re starting to look forward to what might be the City’s next affordable housing development.”


The extensive Aspen and Pitkin County program, which boasts under 3,000 units, is likely to continue growing. That’s because inventory is shrinking for a number of reasons. “There seems to be a consensus on the City Council, or least last we spoke in January, that rental housing is what’s needed most,” says Everson. “So that should be the focus of the upcoming public outreach.”


Aspen will hold events this summer to get feedback from locals, to find out what kind of development they’re comfortable with. That would apply to three town properties. The multi-million-dollar funding of that housing program is in stark contrast to the collection of separate affordable housing options in the Mid-Valley and Glenwood Springs. And it’s not clear whether local governments have the appetite for expanding the latter.


Editor’s note: Our series continues next week. We’ll find out whether developers are proposing new projects, and if there is support is for more building in the Mid-Valley.   




Housing development picking up in the Roaring Fork Valley


The Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission will review a proposed housing development in El Jebel today. It’s a project that could bring needed affordable homes to an area seeing barely any inventory and skyrocketing prices. Aspen Public Radio's Elise Thatcher continues our series on the housing shortage today with an exploration of new proposed developments, and some already in the works.


Jon Fredericks is working in a cozy Carbondale office, with his dog hanging out near his desk. Fredericks is a planner with the firm LANDWEST, and he's working on the large development proposal called The Tree Farm. "We are proposing a 71 acre development project in the midvalley,” he explains. “There is to be about a maximum of 400 residential units."

It would be across Highway 82 from Whole Foods in Willits. "The units that we are proposing are to be kind of smaller in scale than what we would typically see in the midvalley,” Fredericks continues. “So we're looking at townhomes that average anywhere from 1300 to 3000 square feet on the largest end."

There would be condos, too. But most of the units would be apartments, with a mix of free market and affordable housing rentals. "There is a serious need in the midvalley [of units],” says Fredericks, “whether deed restricted or they are actually affordable just in virtue of being fairly priced rentals. There's a serious lack of housing in the price ranges that we're looking at."

Which, to be fair, would likely start on the higher end for free market rentals, with studios going for $1500, one bedroom apartments at $1600, 2 bedroom apartments around $1900 - $1900 and three bedrooms for around $2100. That's based on today's prices, so they could change. The land is owned by a family living nearby, and Fredericks is adamant the development would be built piece by piece, based on market development. If approved by Eagle County Commissioners this year, one or two apartment buildings would likely go up first. If all goes as planned, commercial space and public trails would be built...and open space would be included.

Tamra Allen is the Planning Manager for Garfield County, further down the Roaring Fork Valley. She’s seeing a different flavor of proposals. "A lot of what we're seeing in Garfield County are people developing existing lots,” says Allen in her Glenwood Springs office. “There are lots of subdivisions in the County that have lots of capacity left. And so we are seeing, currently, a lot of those lots being developed." Allen says the County has “double the number of new residential starts that we had last year. In a matter of one year. And we're only half way through this year."

A lot of that infill approach is being carried out in the Ironbridge and Aspen Glen subdivisions, between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale. There's also some in Battlement Mesa and Silt. Allen says most are by homeowners or property owners who plan to live on the lot. A smaller percentage are in anticipation of someone else moving in-- some of those are in Pinon Mesa, near Colorado Mountain College's Spring Valley campus.

One proposed sizable development is called River Edge. "It is a subdivision between Carbondale and Glenwood,” explains Allen, “and they have an estimated 360 plus units that they would actually go through and plat a subdivision for and come back later and develop. We'll see where it goes, but it actually in the review process now." The review has gone on for several years with questions about whether it's a good fit for the area.

Officials in Glenwood Springs and Carbondale say most new residential development there is also is infill. And there are two rental complexes under review in Glenwood. The town may get a small new subdivision. The city paused rules that require developers to include affordable housing for the last few years, to help spur new development.

Stacey Craft is a rental matchmaker with Happy Real Estate in Basalt. "We need to be building not just affordable housing but we need to be pushing through housing approvals to get some projects built," says Craft by phone. Carbondale Realtor Lynn Kirchner agrees new homes are needed, but points out a major factor in the Roaring Fork Valley. "So many of the communities are against growth of any sort,” she laments.

Many residents and local governments take pride in preserving open space and often avoid new construction, pointing out it’s a key part of what makes the area attractive and enjoyable to live in. But Kirchner finds a contradiction there. "Each community has to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. You can't have it both ways,” she says. “You can't want to attract all these people to the Valley, and expect them to just come and go. They've come here, they want to live here, they've gotten jobs here."

Which leads to another key factor brought up by nearly everyone interviewed for this story. "If you look at the state demographer’s projections for the tri-county area, which is Pitkin County, Eagle, and Garfield county, they are projecting over the next 15 years, a 30% increase in population,” says Fredericks at his Carbondale office. “Which is, it's somewhat hard to fathom.” Fredericks isn’t sure what percentage of the Tree Farm project would house existing Valley residents or newcomers. The Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission will consider the proposed development and take public comments tonight.