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Rent rising faster than wages puts strain on Durango housing market

Rental costs went up four times as much as income during nine-year period
Todd Jolley and his partner, Hayley Heffernan, prepare lunch in their Durango apartment Nov. 12 as their dog, Jack, looks for crumbs. Jolley and Heffernan have a good deal on rent, which allows them to live and work in Durango. But they still don’t make enough to enter the real estate market for themselves. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

With rental prices rising faster than wages, and an influx of people with higher incomes moving away from big cities, both professional and manual laborers are struggling to find affordable places to live in La Plata County.

Durango High School history teacher Todd Jolley said he may have to move because of the high cost of housing in the area.

“I love the community, and I love my principal and the school, but the math is against me,” he said. “I don’t know what to do, I can’t keep renting.”

To pick up some extra cash, he said he works as a coach for tennis and debate.

“When I think long term, obviously my partner and I would like to buy a house, but she and I were talking about it, and we cannot do it,” Jolley said. “It’s sad to accept that it’s literally not affordable for me to live here.”

An influx of people who have decided to move out of larger cities as a result of the pandemic, paired with rents rising four times faster than incomes over a 10-year period, has left the rental market difficult to navigate in La Plata County.

Jolley’s rent is about $1,200 a month for a two-bedroom house in Durango.

Todd Jolley and his partner, Hayley Heffernan, rent an upstairs apartment in Durango. They pay $1,200, which is $200 to $500 less than the landlord could be charging. Yet, it is still difficult to save enough to buy a house in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“My landlord could charge at least $200 to $500 more for my place because it’s a two-bedroom. Fortunately, he’s nice and is charging us below market rate,” he said. “I just got lucky.”

Jolley said his landlord told him that more than 400 applications were submitted for the home that he’s renting.

Even with a good deal on housing, he says it is tough to save any money to buy a home after making his car payment and paying his student loans each month.

Todd Jolley and his partner, Hayley Heffernan, stand in the doorway of their upstairs apartment with their dog, Jack. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Connor James, a plumbing apprentice, was able to find affordable living in downtown Durango at $375 a month. However, he said his new apartment is more of a boiler room than a traditional apartment.

“It’s totally a boiler room. There are two hot water heaters and a boiler,” he said.

James said his living conditions aren’t ideal, but more than anything he wants to live in an area where he can go snowboarding whenever he wants, and the cheap rental affords him that lifestyle.

“I have to duck under pipes everyday, but this is the perfect place for someone who wants to snowboard and stack cash,” he said.

Recent University of Colorado graduate Donielle Carr moved from Boulder to Durango in December 2020 to finish her final year of grad school online.

Todd Jolley and his partner, Hayley Heffernan, rent a two-bedroom apartment in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Carr said when the pandemic hit she attempted to move back home, but had trouble finding a place to live.

A friend of Carr’s told her about an affordable rent space at The Confluence at Three Springs in Durango. When Carr moved in, rent was $1,160 a month for her one-bedroom apartment, but it has recently gone up to $1,800 a month.

“When I looked at this place, the rent was only $1,160 a month, and I jumped at that opportunity because Boulder was very expensive,” she said.

When Carr graduated in August, she knew the coming months might be financially difficult as she looked for work. She applied and was approved for rent assistance.

Part of applying for rent assistance involved Carr having the Confluence sign off on her paperwork. Even though the complex agreed to sign her application, and knowing rent assistance was on its way, Carr said the Confluence continued to hound her for rent.

“They started charging me hundreds of dollars in late fees, even though they knew I had rent assistance coming,” she said. “That was awful, and felt like harassment.”

Todd Jolley and his partner, Hayley Heffernan, outside their upstairs apartment with their dog, Jack. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Car said she’s working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to resolve her late fees, as well as maintenance issues that have not been fixed.

Stacie Montoya, co-owner of Animas Property Management, said the rental market is challenging right now.

“I used to rent a two-bedroom condo for around $1,100 a month,” she said. “Now, it’s more like $1,700 a month.”

Montoya said the rental market has been so competitive that often people will offer her more than a property is listed for.

“They want to get a unit, so they offer more, and I’ve never had that happen before,” she said.

More often than not, Montoya said prospective renters who offer her more than the listed price are people moving away from larger cities because of the pandemic.

“They’re moving here, and maybe they want to purchase a house or a piece of land and have a house built, but the builders are backed up for two or three years,” she said. “So they need to rent something in the meantime, and they’re willing to rent just about anything.”

Montoya said with the influx of people moving to La Plata County, a lot of Realtors are contacting her with referrals for people who can’t find a home to buy and need a place to live until a home becomes available.

“A get a lot of referrals from Realtors, and they’ve already vetted these people, so by the time it gets to me I know pretty much what they can afford,” she said.

According to Montoya, about 70% of people coming to her to rent an apartment are not currently living in Durango.

“Most of my tenants I’ve had for years, and they’re great tenants,” she said. “I’ve acquired a lot of new properties, because people are buying properties as investments.”

A housing study was recently conducted through the Southwest Council of Governments and Housing Solutions for Southwest Colorado. The study looks at housing trends between 2010 and 2019.

“We took as much current data as you can get, but we know that there were changes in 2020 and 2021 and some of the study takes that into account,” said Elizabeth Salkind, executive director of Housing Solutions for Southwest Colorado. “What’s important are the trends, and I think we all know that housing and rental pricing is rising faster than wages and income are rising.”

The study shows that renters saw their incomes rise by 5% between 2010 and 2019. However, during that same time, rents increased by 22%.

“COVID, I would say, accelerated the problem for a variety of reasons,” she said. “One being that we live in a beautiful place, and people became more mobile and were able to choose where they lived. That has put an additional strain on the supply chain.”

Salkind said people moving during the pandemic generally had higher incomes and were able to impact the supply of housing.

A survey conducted for the housing study showed 83% of the 105 respondents felt limited rental housing was the biggest community concern about housing.

The study shows the number of renters who are cost-burdened rose by 20% between 2010 and 2019. Renters are cost burdened when more than 30% of their income goes toward rent.

“A lot of very low-income renters have been priced out and moved, so the average median income has risen,” Salkind said.

An estimated 600 rental units as of 2019 had converted from non-seasonal rental units to vacation rentals in La Plata County, the study showed.

“Second home ownership is definitely a factor, but it’s not as big in La Plata County as other counties,” she said.

Todd Jolley and his partner, Hayley Heffernan, prepare lunch in their Durango apartment. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Salkind said the study shows La Plata County must work on building affordable housing and increasing housing supply through policy changes.

Water resources and water infrastructure are a significant roadblock to developing more housing, she said.

“A lot of the county doesn’t have central water resources,” she said. “Probably the one thing we could do that would increase affordable housing more than anything else is to figure out a way to supply more of the county with central water service.”

Durango Mayor Kim Baxter said the biggest challenge for Durango regarding rentals is that there isn’t enough inventory, and because of that lack of inventory, people who own rental properties can raise rates dramatically.

“It pushes the people out who are in them, and then where do they go?” she said.

Durango City Council has taken an interest in finding a way to incentivize workforce housing.

Workforce housing focuses on middle-income households that have been in the workforce for a while, and would normally be looking into home ownership and moving out of affordable housing. Which, in turn, opens up more units in the rental market.

“It’s all about finding a way to provide the incentives to create the housing our community needs, and not do it in a way that costs the taxpayers money,” Baxter said.

In its meetings about workforce housing, council has discussed using the city’s $4.7 million American Rescue Plan Act to help fund incentive programs.

njohnson@durangoherald.com

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