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More mountain towns taking drastic measures to address housing shortages

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The town of Crested Butte implemented a 12-month moratorium starting in June 2021 on short-term-rental licenses due to the area's housing crisis. 

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — Increasing housing prices, rent, construction costs, more remote workers and short-term rental (STR) properties have created an environment that is making our state’s beloved mountain towns practically impossible to live in for the people who are at the heart of the community. 

Rocky Mountain PBS has found affordable housing is practically non-existent in several towns, like Ouray. 

It was our first story published on this crisis and it garnered responses from people all over the state, many saying: it’s happening here, too.

Join the conversation here.

Rocky Mountain PBS has started checking on situations in these towns. You can use on the navigation bar below to learn more about each town.

Crested Butte

The town of Crested Butte, nestled in the Rocky Mountains south of Aspen and west of Buena Vista, is making headlines this summer. Town council declared an emergency for the housing situation in the town of fewer than 1,500 people.

“So, on June 7th when we did our analysis. We had 115 job openings, full and part-time openings listed in different sources, and we only had one unit for rent,” said Troy Russ. 

Russ is the Community Development Coordinator for Crested Butte. 

Russ said this emergency declaration will allow the town to bypass some zoning and government bureaucracy because the town needs housing now. Not in six months—now. 

The first thing the town was able to do under the order was buy a bed-and-breakfast that will be used for housing. People will be able to live there full-time starting August 1st. Without the emergency order, Russ said people wouldn’t have been able to move in until November. 

The order also allowed the town to pass camping rules that would allow people to live and camp in town without going through council or public debate. 

“We wanted to hear our residents and let our residents understand we hear them,” said Russ. “We are committed to helping resolve this issue and raise awareness in the county and the state and the federal level this is an important issue.”

This housing crisis all came to a head during the last year. Housing shortages in mountain towns have been building up for years, but the pandemic pushed it over the edge. Russ blames a big part of the problem on the change to remote working. 

“The advent of remote working wiped out whatever available housing supply we had and that really is the last six to nine month phenomenon,” said Russ.

[Related: Storage units becoming as hard to get as affordable housing as wealthy remote workers take over the high country]

Without affordable housing, restaurants and other businesses in town are not able to operate at full capacity despite COVID-19 restrictions being lifted. Russ says that can sometimes leave two-to-three hour waits at restaurants.

“It’s impacting the quality of the experience but more importantly, it’s gentrification on steroids,” explained Russ. “You actually lose long-term residents; you lose people who have been here for generations and we’re losing that now and that’s the more important impact.”

Another big part of the reason for the shortage in Crested Butte are the STR properties. Vacant homes are being used for things like Airbnbs instead of housing local workers. Russ said council addressed it this past Monday, July 19, by passing a 12-month moratorium on new STR licenses after hours of public comment. Now, that kick starts what Russ calls “a very comprehensive” housing study in September with a change in short-term rental rules expected within a year. 

Any concerns this move will curtail tourism—an essential part of the town’s economy—aren’t warranted said Russ. He said none of the 212 rental units are 100 percent occupied, so he’s sure there won’t be a dip.

“So, if we lose a license, we are confident it’s an elastic demand and they will find another short-term rental in town, or they’ll find it on the mountain (Mt. Crested Butte).”

Town council on July 19 also took steps to a ballot measure for this November that would create a second-home tax. The wording isn’t final, but the idea behind it is to provide money to the town if a home is bought but is left empty for the majority of the year. 

Crested Butte does have several long-term housing projects in the works, too. They’re planning to put out Requests for Proposals (RFP’s) in October to developers for 45 to 50 units. Town officials hope construction will start in the spring. Then, more units will come in the following years. But in Russ’ mind, that doesn’t solve the problem. 

“They [the developers] won’t build it without government subsidies, period. There hasn’t been a free-market rental built in Crested Butte since the late 1990s,” said Russ. “So, if we want to house our complete population, [the] government needs to reexamine its role related to housing and maybe formulate it very similarly to our interstate system.”

That’s the broad goal for Crested Butte in making that emergency declaration on housing: to get the attention of the state and federal government to address the very serious issue.

“Crested Butte is a unique community like every community across the U.S. and if you lose the people who make that character, you’re a different town,” said Russ. “So, we’re very concerned about becoming a ghost town to which only visitors are here.”

Pagosa Springs 

Further south, in the San Juan Mountains, the 1,800 person town of Pagosa Springs is having just as many and similar concerns to Crested Butte and Ouray. STR’s and COVID-19’s remote working world are pushing the housing crisis to a boiling point. 

“We were expecting this growth rate over the next five years, not really anticipating what really happened in a 12 month period,” said James Dickhoff, the Director of Planning for the town. 

He, like Russ, said that the housing problem has been steadily getting worse over the years and then was recently amplified. Dickhoff said that last year, many second-home owners came for the summer and never left.   

“Now we know the internet didn’t blow up and Zoom worked perfectly fine, everybody’s like ‘Wow, I don’t have to live in Houston anymore. I can live in Pagosa Springs and keep my Houston, Texas job,’” said Dickhoff. “We’re seeing a lot of that migration.”

In just the last year, Dickhoff said the median home price in Pagosa Springs has gone up by 33 percent, now sitting at about $360,000

Of those homes, the planning commission has just recently determined that16 percent of the homes within town boundaries are short-term rentals, and of those homes, 60 percent are owned by people who don’t live in the community. 

“We’ve seen a plethora of properties being sold, the tenants being asked to leave and then those properties are converted to short-term rentals,” said Dickhoff.

Unlike Crested Butte's recent moratorium on new STR’s, Pagosa Springs is still in the stage of figuring out if they can or should limit those licenses. 

“STRs have provided a humongous benefit for our tourism industry,” explained Dickhoff. “We don’t have enough hotel stock inventory to serve the number of people who want to be here.”

The problem to try to get more hotels in the town then goes back to benefits STR’s are seeing. Right now, those owners are paying residential taxes on STRs as opposed to commercial taxes, making it less costly. 

“One hotel operator said it would be cheaper for him to buy a bunch of residential properties and convert them versus building a hotel. And we could use a hotel,” said Dickhoff.

He believes there needs to be drastic change for STR’s and specifically wants the state to address that. 

“The department of housing really needs to do something, they are so entrenched in their old way of doing business,” said Dickhoff.

Until that happens, Pagosa Springs is trying a number of things to help get through the current economic crisis. That includes stopping tourism marketing for the town. 

“After this last year, we’re hearing a lot of people requesting us to stop marketing to attract people because we had plenty,” Dickhoff said with a laugh. “It’s just been crazy.”

He said that most businesses in town have been breaking records every month during the last year, but are unable to attract enough staff to operate at full-capacity because there is nowhere for them to live. 

Right now, there is one Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) project in progress, which should result in 34 units this year. Dickhoff says others are waiting in the wings. Ultimately, he said, the developers need more incentives to build affordable housing in the town.

“We have to figure this out locally,” said Dickhoff. “And what local incentives can we bring to the table to entice developers who are doing very well selling market rate products.”

So, Dickhoff says the town is working with multiple partners like the school, hospital and utility companies to offer a greater incentive package which would allow for longer deed restrictions, keeping the housing more affordable and below market rate. 

While more housing will help Dickhoff agrees with Russ that just more housing won’t solve the problem. 

“We don’t want our workforce living in marginalized housing, right? We don’t necessarily want to push everybody to live in a 225 square foot apartment or in a tiny home or something that’s not a more equitable housing environment for our workforce,” explained Dickhoff. “We want them to be embedded in our community and living within the community they work in because that’s what makes a downtown district vibrant.”

Pagosa Springs town leaders have discussed an emergency action for housing like Crested Butte because the situation is dire. 

“You open up our local paper, and there are literally three and a half pages of help wanted ads and three rental units available. All priced too high for our service workers to afford,” said Dickhoff. 

He hopes the state will change the way it works and offer more incentives for developers to building affordable housing. In the meantime, Pagosa Springs is trying to find any possible way to help its workers.

“We’re trying to look at every single tool and every avenue and every opportunity out there that might be able to get more housing stock for the workforce,” said Dickhoff.


Update on Nov. 3, 2021

Voters in the town of Telluride have split on regulating short-term rentals (STRs) in the town as it, along with many Colorado mountain towns, are facing an unprecedented crisis for housing.

Ballot question 300

Voters turned down a citizens' initiative to put a cap on the number of short-term rentals in the town. Ballot question 300 failed with about 60 percent voting against it and about 40 percent for it. As of 9 a.m. on November 3, just over 1,200 voters cast a ballot on that issue. The question asked to limit the number of short-term rental business licenses to 400 each year, determined by an annual lottery. 

Just getting the question on the ballot was a challenge for the Telluride women who started the initiative. It faced an official protest when signatures were submitted. The protest was ultimately withdrawn before the hearing scheduled at the end of August could happen. 

In a Facebook post, the women who started the initiative wrote they are proud of the work they've done to put short-term rentals at the forefront of the housing conversation. For now, they say they are exhausted and plan to take a break while celebrating the wins their side did have with short-term rentals.

Ballot Question 2D

Part of the wins celebrated for the side hoping to regulate short-term rentals in Telluride include the passage of ballot question 2D. This question increases the fees on business licenses for short-term rentals by about double what the current rates are. That extra money will go to the town's affordable housing fund. It also puts a cap on STRs at the current number of licenses issued for the next two years. You can read more details about this question here

Questions 2A, B, and C also passed in this year's election. 2A deals with restructuring the town's lodging tax while 2B and 2C amend the Telluride Home Rule Charter.

You can find all results for San Miguel County elections here. 

Update on Sept. 23, 2021

A citizens' initiative to reduce the number of short-term rental licenses in the town of Telluride has successfully been approved to be on the November ballot. The initiative, question 300,  limits short-term rental business licenses to 400 each year, determined by an annual lottery.

The women who created this initiative have faced many hurdles, the latest being an official protest against the intiative. Telluride resident Stacy Ticsay filed the protest  last month partially on the grounds of a misleading and speculative title for the initiative. The protest argued that using an “impermissible catch phrase” — long-term rental opportunities for local residents — should invalidate the petition. However, the protest hearing scheduled for August 31 was canceled after Ticsay withdrew the protest the day before, according to the Telluride Daily Planet.

A post on the initiative's Facebook page on August 30 celebrated the protest's withdrawal. It says, in part, "We are relieved this frivolous protest is being withdrawn, of course. But we are also confused and dismayed that this protest WASTED taxpayer dollars and, quite honestly, wasted everyone's time and energy. Do you feel exhausted by it all? We certainly do. But hang in there with us...There is REAL work that needs to be done with all members of our community coming to the table, finding common ground and solutions to our housing crisis!"

Voters in Telluride will make the final decision on November 2. 

Original story below from Aug. 11, 2021

A popular ski area in the winter and one of only a few Colorado towns designated as a National Historic Landmark District, the town of Telluride is home to about 2,000 people. But finding homes for those residents has come to a breaking point. 

“The amount of gentrification we’ve seen, the amount of displacement we’ve seen, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here since ’87,” said Amy Levek, the co-founder and executive director of the Trust for Community Housing, a nonprofit.

Levek has worked as an elected official in the area before, and calls her nonprofit the “evolution” of her experience. Trust for Community Housing works with various partners to increase the amount of housing available to locals.

“Mountain communities have always been desirable,” said Levek. “But it was a limited group of people who would choose to live there and that has all changed in the past year, year and a half.”

She isn’t alone in that sense of change in Telluride. The housing director for the town, Melanie Wasserman, is also worried about the current situation.

“The need for housing has reached a high pitch.... the emergency siren is wailing,” Wasserman explained.

In her position, Wasserman helps to run the housing operated and managed by Telluride. She told Rocky Mountain PBS the waitlist for units is about 160 to 170 people deep and the town only has 196 leases total.

The shortage of current affordable living space is affecting all areas of life in Telluride. Levek believes, like others, that is a large contributing factor to the shortage of workers.

“Businesses have shortened their hours, closed certain days. Other restaurants are only doing takeout because they can’t find enough employees to operate their dining rooms. Retail is relying on teenagers. It’s across the board,” said Levek.

Levek also believes the pandemic has shifted the general perception people have on where and how they can live and work. She feels many people are now more willing to leave Telluride.

“Even people on the lower end of the economic spectrum have realized they have options,” said Levek. “Across the board people have realized they can make different decisions about how they live their lives.”

That shift, among other factors, has left a lot of Colorado’s beloved mountain towns in jeopardy. According to Zillow, The median home price in Telluride is now $1.1 million, an 8.4 percent increase from last year.

“We are in the most serious housing crisis that I have seen in Telluride in over 40 years,” Kathy Green, the president of a construction company and resident of Telluride, wrote in a letter to the Telluride Housing Authority Subcommittee. 

The subcommittee held a special meeting Tuesday, July 27 to discuss the town’s housing crisis. This wasn’t a meeting to make final decisions on solutions but to brainstorm possible ways to immediately address the issue.

One possible solution discussed was allowing for more camping in the town. That includes relaxing current bans and finding other spaces that could provide more permanent places to camp.

Another major idea is the possibility for harsher penalties for short-term rental owners who violate their license, as well as limiting the number of licenses one company or owner could have. 

“The bulk of the comments that I have received are from people who own condos in town who aren't here all the time, they're part-time locals, and they want to be able to short-term rent them when they're not here, which makes a lot of sense,” said Mayor Pro Tem Todd Brown. “But not when they've got four or five units, and that's where it starts to get really problematic.” 

A report from the Telluride Town Clerk’s office to the town council in 2019  shows the number of STRs increasing from 382 in 2010 to 643 in 2019. This year, the Town Clerk’s office reports more than 700 licenses. 

The problem with STRs is something a few women of Telluride have taken on themselves. They created an initiative that would put a cap on the number of STR licenses within town limits at 400. They are proposing an annual lottery system as a way to distribute the licenses with some exceptions, including if someone’s primary residence is in Telluride. Because of that, the creators of the initiative believe the real number of STRS will be something close to 550 or 600. 

For Emily Scott Robinson and Lollie Lavercombe, this measure targeting STRs is an action that must be taken to save the town. 

“Building takes time and money and people who want to back it. We can’t just build our way out of this and that takes time,” said Lavercombe. “Ultimately an unregulated Short-Term Rental market is impacting our community.”

Lavercombe has experienced the affordable housing crisis and its implications first hand. She works in a restaurant in town and said they’re incredibly short-staffed. 

“We have 122 shifts available throughout the entire summer,” explained Lavercombe. “We are relying on such a small network of locals to uphold a demand that has far exceeded its capacity to support the quality of service “

Lavercombe and Scott Robinson say the impact is reaching other critical services too, like schools, health care and the fire department. They remember at least one story recently of a nurse who was offered a job at the medical center but had to turn it down because she couldn’t find housing.  

“We’ve passed the breaking point,” Scott Robinson said with conviction. “What we think will happen if there’s no control over this is that Telluride will feel more and more like a ghost town because businesses will have to close their doors because they can’t staff.”

They both understand there is some worry in the real estate community, but they believe this is a compromise and isn’t completely shutting down the STR market. 

“We cannot ask the fox to guard the hen house. We cannot necessarily ask people with direct profit from an unfettered short-term rental market to regulate themselves because the truth is they have not,” said Scott Robinson.

Their initiative has garnered enough signatures for it to begin the process of being included in the November ballot. The next step is a public comment hearing on August 24. 

Scott Robinson and Lavercombe are confident it will move forward and hope people realize some immediate action needs to be taken to address the problem. 

“Yes, this is happening and we are going to do something that protects community and investment profits,” said Lavercombe. “We have to move with actionable solutions, and a lot of other communities are stepping up and we are too.”

As far as more long-term solutions, the town of Telluride does have an advantage over other mountain towns since it has been a ski town for years. 

“Like all ski towns, housing was always hard to find,” said Lance McDonald, the program director for the town. “Even back in the late 80s. I remember looking at an old housing study that indicated the average rent for a one bedroom unit in Telluride in the early 90s was approximately $1,000 a month, which at that time was unaffordable to a lot of folks.”

McDonald is the program director for the town and has been involved with the town’s planning since the late 80s, when he moved to Telluride. He reflects back on the housing situation over the years compared to now.

“The housing in Telluride is as tight as it [has] been. Certainly we’ve seen past periods where housing has become acute but this situation we’re in now is definitely at the high end of that scale,” said McDonald.

He explains the town has invested $65 million in construction of new housing since 2000 and plans to keep going on that track. In July, Telluride Town Council adopted a plan which guides future development on town property. It identified housing sites for approximately 450 to 600 housing units that could be pursued during the next 10 to 20 years. 

Currently, the town has two, soon to be three, housing projects in the design phase. Officials have not decided yet if those will be deed-restricted or not.

There are also other issues at play and will present problems in the future, like the cost of land and building in the area. Similar to other mountain towns Rocky Mountain PBS has covered recently, the motivation for a developer to build affordable housing in Telluride is low. The cost is too high and the reward isn’t worth it for many private companies.

So Levek, like others, believe the federal and state governments need to provide more support. But in the end, she thinks the only way out of this crisis is if everyone starts paying attention and acting.

“I think there’s a role for philanthropy, there’s a role for private developers as well as the government,” Levek said. “I think we need to figure out how we can all work together on it.”


Update December 1, 2021

A citizen's petition to regulate short-term rentals in the town of Frisco has failed because it didn't get enough verified signatures. 

Hayes Walsh, a resident of Frisco for five years, started the petition this summer. The goal was to set up, "a framework of rules and guidelines around operating a short-term rental out of a single family home," Walsh described. The petition required anyone who wanted to run a short-term rental out of a single-family home to live in the home for at least six months out of the year. 

In October, Walsh submitted nearly 440 signatures for his petition. In Frisco, it needed 393 verified signatures, but 126 were disqualified. The Summit Daily reports 94 were not Frisco registered voters, 33 were incorrect physical addresses, and there was one duplicated signature.

Walsh told Rocky Mountain PBS in October after he turned in the petition that it was hard to get the right signatures. 

"It was never a challenge to get signatures. The challenge was finding people that were registered voters here," said Walsh.

Part of the problem Rocky Mountain PBS witnessed was a lot of people in Frisco actually live in the nearby towns of Dillon and Silverthorne. Other problems Walsh said was just getting in touch with registered voters.

"So I'm knocking on doors of registered voters. So just out mountain biking or rock climbing or sailing and like doing stuff," explained Walsh. 

He knew in October it was a possibility that his petition wouldn't make it in front of council, but he was glad to start the conversation about possible solutions to severe housing problem. Still in an email to Rocky Mountain PBS Walsh called the process, "intentionally cumbersome for the purpose of being prohibitive." 

Looking toward the future, Walsh said he would like to run for Frisco town council in April but that requires gathering signatures during a two-week period in January. He said he is currently out of the country and isn't sure he'll be back in time for that two-week window. 

Original story below from August 2021

Right off of I-70, close to Copper Mountain and along the shore of Dillon Reservoir, Frisco is the latest Colorado town in jeopardy of having too few places for its workforce to live. 

“The housing situation in Frisco and in Summit County and other mountain towns and other mayors I’ve talked to is dire,” said Frisco Mayor Hunter Mortensen. 

Like other mountain towns, Mortensen said this has been a problem for years, but a shortage of affordable housing has recently become a full-blown crisis.

“In the last year and a half with COVID, it has accelerated at a pace that we can’t keep up with or really fathom where we’re going to be in the next three months and it’s that quickly changing,” explained Mortensen. 

Now Frisco’s restaurants, small businesses, police force, and hospital are seeing major worker shortages, partly because of this issue. 

When the pandemic shut down businesses and forced many people to work remotely, Colorado saw an uptick in transplants buying or renting homes in mountain towns like Frisco. These circumstances allowed wealthier people or companies to buy up older homes in Frisco and redevelop them to then sell back to other well-off people who can now work anywhere in the country. 

Right now, the median home price in Frisco is just under $775,000. Zillow reports that is an increase of almost 25% percent over the past year.

“So we’re losing what was always workforce housing at a drastic rate,” said Mortensen. “And what it is getting replaced with is kind of on the continuum of anywhere from the remote worker to the short-term rental person and everything in between.”

Like other towns, STRs are causing some problems, too. Mountain town leaders have consistently told Rocky Mountain PBS that too many affordable homes are being used as vacation spots for rotating visitors. 

Hayes Walsh, a Frisco resident of five years, has an idea to help tackle that problem: ban STRs on single family homes, unless the homeowner lives there for at least six months out of the year. Walsh has started a petition to put his idea in motion. 

“I’m just trying to keep the neighborhood vibes going that make it a nice place to live,” explained Walsh. He said he’s not a crusade against all short-term rentals but believes this is a good middle ground. 

“We just want to create some balance in our community so it’s livable,” said Walsh.

So far he has about 200 signatures from registered voters in Frisco. He has to get 400 to officially present to the town council.

Walsh says most everyone he’s talked to about this agrees with him and doesn’t think it’s too big of a request or risk to the town’s economy.  

“I don’t think the money is going anywhere, I don't think the people are going to stop coming,” said Walsh, confidently. “I get that this place is trending toward a full-blown resort town but that doesn’t mean we have to do nothing. People who have lived here forever wouldn’t mind if that transition was a little slower.”

Walsh told Rocky Mountain PBS he has about another seven weeks or so to get the signatures needed. For now, Mayor Mortensen isn’t taking a direct stance on the proposal but did say a citizen-organized petition “really speaks to the extent of the problem.”

Mortensen said the town is also working on other solutions including a project with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). It involves using an old piece of land CDOT used for mobile homes for its employees, but the agency isn’t utilizing it as much anymore. So, the town of Frisco and CDOT are teaming up to build a bigger housing complex on that site. 

“That’s the kind of idea and thinking we need to have... as in, 'Who owns parcels of land and what their needs are and how can we utilize those partnerships to make new projects happen?'” explained Mortensen. “And that one is really exciting for us and CDOT.”

In several mountain towns, business owners have resorted to buying properties themselves to house employees. But Mortensen believes that isn’t even really an option in Frisco because of how pricey homes have become. 

In the town of about 3,000, some restaurants are closing one day a week and some long-standing places have gone out of business this summer. Mortensen said he realized how serious of a problem this had become during a meeting with other Summit County leaders and business owners early this summer

“I said ‘you know this kind of feels like we’re in a state of emergency,’” said Mortensen. “Like this is the same conversation this group had in tone and in actions that needed to happen when we were ramping up with some of our COVID response or we were doing a forest fire response.”

While Frisco didn’t go as far as Crested Butte to declare an emergency, the town’s leaders are looking at accomplishing the same sort of changes like readjusting building and zoning codes to allow for more affordable housing. 

“We’re keeping everything on the table because we have to,” said Mortensen. 

Ultimately, Frisco is doing what it can to survive this shortage, and as the mayor says he hopes other people around the country and the state start paying more attention to the issue.

“It will be an issue that will affect everyone, whether they come up to go skiing and they can’t get their kids a hot chocolate, or it takes an hour-and-a-half to get a pizza at one of our local pizza places, or they just don’t have a place to go because businesses don’t have employees to open that day,” said Mortensen. “And I think that’s when I think people start realizing it’s a bigger problem and it really does affect everyone.”

This is not the end of the story. Countless people in towns across Colorado are struggling to be able to live in the town they work in. We will continue to update this story as we learn more. We would like to hear your story, too. Reach out to us to have your voice heard.

Amanda Horvath is a multimedia producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at

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