A moving truck sat in the parking lot of Edelweiss Condominiums on Wednesday, with the sound of vacuums and the smell of cleaning solution emanating from inside apartments.
The rent for many residents in the 19-unit complex increased from $800 to $1,200 this month, forcing some residents to move out.
Like many renters in Durango, the runaway real estate market has driven up rental prices or encouraged property owners to move back or to sell their properties. At Edelweiss, a 2-acre plot off Animas View Drive in north Durango, residents knew of tenants in at least four units who are moving out, with more people considering it. Others searched available rentals and decided to stay: Nothing was affordable.
“The longer I stayed here, the more I realized that it was inevitable that I was going to be priced out of Durango,” said Jared Webb, 35, who used to work as a librarian in a Durango school.
During the pandemic, he decided he wanted to go to graduate school this fall. Once he learned about the 50% increase in his rent, he realized he wouldn’t have been able to stay anyway.
“I was luckier on this as I was kind of on my way out anyway, but I have seen the dilemma this has caused for everybody else,” he said.
Edelweiss Condominiums, at 689 Animas View Drive, is on property owned by Vista La Plata LLC. It was formerly managed by Action Properties before Colorado Lifestyle Property Management bought the property in November 2020.
“Anything that happened prior to 2020, I had nothing to do with,” said Austin Smith, owner of the property management company.
The company manages hundreds of residential and commercial rental properties in the Durango area, Smith said. Residential rental units range from a low of $650 for motel-type units to over $3,500 for single family homes, he said.
As of Thursday, only two units had their rent increased, but others have received notifications that rents will increase in the future, Smith said.
Edelweiss residents – mechanics, veterans, chefs and nursing students – first heard of the rent increase June 3, said people living in nine of the 19 units. They were shocked and frustrated.
Some people had only 30 days before the rent would spike. (Smith said he gave 60 days notice. If they had less, it was because they weren’t checking emails or voicemails.)
Of the nine units, three were leaving and one was trying to find housing as of Wednesday.
“A 50% increase? I was like, there’s got to be a law about the amount they can increase your rent,” said Alex Hill, 31, who worked as a chef at May Palace in Durango before losing his job during the pandemic.
He and his girlfriend, Charnele Matthews, 28, moved out Wednesday. The rent seemed too high for the quality of the apartment – they spent six months without an oven and lost water service several times.
Both Durango residents of more than eight years, they plan to move to Mancos where they can pay $895 for more space, a yard, private parking and a storage shed.
“Financially, we’re all struggling through this pandemic, especially. Why now? ... That hurt,” said Matthews, who just graduated from a program in nursing.
“It sucked because we were planning to stay here,” Hill said. “Because of the circumstances, we felt like it was our time for something different.”
Residents in five units decided to stay. One person could afford the increase. A couple, whose unit had no window or yard access, learned their rent would increase by $100, not $400. Others stayed because they wouldn’t face the increase until later this year or in 2022.
A veteran searched fruitlessly for government assistance. The next best option was to try to buy a home with a $1,200 per month mortgage, but it’s a hard time to buy – the median price for a home in Durango shot up 21% in the last year.
“It’s hard to find anything. ... I feel like the sad thing is: This is going to be normal,” said one person who plans to leave. Like several residents, the person spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Several people had heard of confrontations between residents and the property management company. They worried they would face retribution – like losing their lease or being sued for slander – for speaking publicly.
“I’ve never said that,” Smith said. People can “absolutely” speak publicly and there is nothing in their lease to say they can’t, he said.
The Edelweiss residents said they didn’t get a clear reason for the price increase. Webb and others assumed it had to do with the housing market, ownership change or new river amenities at Oxbow Park and Preserve that increased the property’s value.
“These units have been rented at less than market value in the past,” Smith said in an email to The Durango Herald. “The rent is being increased to offset increased owner costs for utilities (water, sewer, gas, trash), insurance, taxes, repairs and maintenance.”
The value of the property increased from $2.5 million in 2019 to $3.1 million in 2021, according to the La Plata County Assessor’s Office. Zillow estimated the monthly rental price to be $1,675.
“I represent the owners. I’m not the owner,” he said. “Property managers do not set the rental price.”
The city of Durango does not have a housing assistance fund, but City Council is looking at adapting the Fair Share ordinance to require developers to address affordability in new rental housing units.
Other groups, like Housing Solutions of the Southwest, can offer assistance, and local officials are researching the issue, said Durango Mayor Kim Baxter.
“Council in general is not aware of that situation. No one’s brought it forward to us,” Baxter said about the Edelweiss Condominiums. “People who own property, they have the right to do what they want to do, but certainly, it’s making this housing market really difficult for residents.”
Brenda Shumway, 48, is staying: Her rent won’t increase until July 2022.
“I don’t know how we can (stay), but I looked into it and it said Durango rent went up for everything,” she said.
She doesn’t have health insurance, and she recently had to have medical care. To be added to her husband’s insurance would not leave them enough money to pay rent. They’d “be sleeping in Buckley Park,” she said.
“We have no interest in moving, nor do we have the resources to move. But I’m watching everyone around me pack up stuff, and it breaks my heart,” Shumway said. “This is a good neighborhood. Nobody has done anything wrong, and nobody deserves to get kicked out like this.”