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Middle class homebuyers squeezed out of La Plata County market

‘If we don’t have housing available ... we’re not going to be the community that we want’
A three-bedroom, two-bathroom home with 1,347 square feet was listed at $549,000 on June 4 and went under contract on June 9 on Delwood Avenue in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

You know your town has a housing shortage when rocket scientists can’t find a place to live.

Agile Space Industries CEO Jeff Max said one recently hired senior executive has been living in a travel trailer for the past 1½ months because he cannot find a house for his large family. He has a wife and five children.

“We’re bringing in younger guys – I’d say our median age is 28 – guys with degrees from MIT, from Purdue. We hired a guy from SpaceX. They love it here, the mountains, the outdoor opportunities, but lately finding housing is proving to be a challenge,” Max said.

The shortage of workforce housing is a problem on everyone’s radar.

Editor’s note:

This is the first of a two-part series about the tight housing market in Durango and La Plata County. Tomorrow, we follow four first-time homebuyers as they try to enter the housing market.

An effort is underway to revitalize the Regional Housing Alliance, a quasi-governmental entity meant to address housing issues that went dormant in 2017.

Officials from La Plata County, the city of Durango and the towns of Ignacio and Bayfield will hold a retreat on Aug. 28-29 to re-form RHA’s board and to refine its mission to meet the housing crunch that’s been present in La Plata County for years.

The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the tight housing market.

Urban flight is driving a huge migration across the country away from big cities to desirable rural locales.

The trend has heated Durango’s real estate market.

The first-quarter 2021 median price for a home in Durango hit $583,687, up more than 21% from the median price of $482,000 in 2020.

In La Plata County, the 2021 median first-quarter price was $499,000, up 13.4% from $440,000 in the same quarter in 2020.

Plans are underway to deal with the problem.

La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton said the county has $10.9 million available for use from the American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden’s 2021 COVID-19-recovery legislation.

A good portion of that will be directed at easing the housing crunch.

Neil Anderson, owner of R&R Construction and his son, Sylas Williams, frame a house on Thursday in Durango. Political leaders across La Plata County are searching for ways to boost the number of workforce homes, homes priced so they are attainable to the middle class, that are available on the market. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“The county has identified workforce housing as where we want to put our focus and energy,” Porter-Norton said. “And we’re not going to turn down an opportunity to help with affordable housing projects. Workforce housing, we know, is a dire need. There isn’t a meeting I go to where this is not brought up as our top need.”

Durango Mayor Kim Baxter said the city has received $4.7 million from the American Rescue Plan of which $2.9 million remains unallocated.

Baxter said she would be happy if City Council dedicated all of the remaining $2.9 million from the federal COVID-19-relief money to increase the stock of available workforce housing – housing that could be afforded by nurses, teachers, police officers, electricians and plumbers.

“I personally would advocate for all of it to go toward workforce housing,” Baxter said. “I can see that being a great jump-start program.”

One of the things needed to build more workforce housing is money upfront to pay for sidewalks, sewage, curbs, and gutters and streets. The money might also buy land for projects.

Whatever governmental money that could be applied to projects will help lower costs, helping keep home prices within grasp of a middle-class family.

“If we’re willing to put forward money upfront, then we’re probably going to get more state and federal dollars because we’re showing our willingness to put our dollars in play,” Baxter said.

Michael French, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance, said the housing crunch suppresses economic growth.

“It’s really difficult to recruit or move somebody to Durango for an available job,” he said.

Vacant positions are not only in the restaurant and hospitality industries, which French said is widely noted.

“It’s in health care, it’s in finance, it’s in construction,” he said. “You name it. In virtually every sector, we’re seeing jobs where we’re not able to hire, and housing is probably the top factor.”

Anyone making between 80% to 140% of the Area Median Income in La Plata County is facing a struggle to find housing that fits their budget, French said.

The average median income for a household in La Plata County is $68,685 for 2019, according to the last numbers available from the U.S. Census Bureau.

La Plata County has always been a desirable locale for retirees’ relocations and for second homes, and both those trends have been reinforced by people speeding their decisions to move because of the pandemic, French said.

Several housing studies are underway. In fact, the Economic Development Alliance is working with the city to get state money for a new one, but French said those studies won’t do much to ease the current squeeze.

“We’re not going to be able to resolve this with just subsidizing a couple of projects,” he said. “We’re gonna have to figure out a sustainable solution that creates a funding source that we can continue to build, and then reserve products for workforce housing, people who earn between 80% to 140% of AMI,” French said.

Housing Solutions for the Southwest and the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments are teaming up on a Regional Housing Study that will be available in late summer.

Elizabeth Salkind, executive director of Housing Solutions for the Southwest, said the study should provide current data to help policymakers make wise decisions in the next year on an array of housing-related issues – including dealing with the shortage in workforce housing.

“It’s not like some brilliant realization we have a housing shortage, but the study will be a little deeper dive into the specifics,” Salkind said.

In addition, the study will provide recent data about the housing market that will be valuable in securing federal and state money to address housing issues.

“To be able to access documented current information will be good because the federal government has prioritized housing funding, generally speaking, so the time for the study is right.”

Rick Lorenz, a real estate agent with Team Lorenz and the Wells Group, noted only seven homes are on the market priced between $300,000 and $399,000 compared with 42 homes that are under contract.

For homes between $400,000 and $499,000, 10 homes are on the market and 43 are under contract.

“The numbers don’t really change when you move up in price range,” Lorenz said. “This means we have less than a half-month’s supply available in the market. These numbers are stunning. I haven’t seen anything like it, and I’ve been doing this for 44 years.”

According to a title company, Lorenz said 45% of home sales in La Plata County this year have been cash sales, which means buyers who needed mortgages are frequently outbid by well-heeled buyers.

“You’re competing with people who can offer cash, you know – pictures of dead presidents on green paper,” Lorenz said. “If you’re a seller, you don’t need to get the house appraised, which offer are you going to take? It makes it tough for the normal buyer.”

Lisa Bloomquist Palmer, executive director of the HomesFund Serving Southwest Colorado, can offer up to $75,000 to a household making 80% of the county’s average median income.

But Bloomquist Palmer said financial assistance doesn’t count for much if people can’t find housing.

“We're just in this conundrum because there’s just no supply of housing. And it’s really becoming very scary,” she said. “In a few words, there’s no supply, and people in our workforce who can qualify for a first mortgage, who have money for a downpayment – good borrowers who want to stay in our community and raise their kids – are not being able to find housing here.”

Baxter said the region not only has a shortage of housing, but a shortage of time to deal with the problem before it fundamentally alters the community’s dynamics.

“If we don’t have housing available for firefighters, police, teachers and nurses, we’re not going to be the community that we want to be,” she said. “We need to act now. We can’t wait six months, we can’t wait a year or two years. We really need to start addressing this now.”

parmijo@durangoherald.com

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