Housing availability and affordability was pinched by the pandemic.
While tenants struggled to pay their rent, landlords faltered on mortgage payments, thus creating a void in the housing market. Deep pockets filled the gap and, in this scenic valley, home prices skyrocketed as those with the capital to do so bought up property like hotcakes — driving up the monetary value of shelter and making it practically infeasible for many middle-class families to buy or rent.
Housing policy occurs at each jurisdictional level: from municipalities all the way to Capitol Hill, each with its unique zoning policies.
When it comes to fighting for renters’ rights, “State policy dictates the law governing evictions but local judges in individual counties have the authority to interpret those laws, within certain guidelines,” said Jennifer Wherry, Alpine Legal Services executive director. “Of course, right now, national policy also has implications.”
The national moratorium on evictions is set to expire at the end of June and lawyers in Wherry’s position are worried that eviction cases may come flooding in.
To address that expiration date, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ratified by the U.S. Senate on March 6, 2021) includes a Homeowner Assistance Fund, allocating over $9.96 billion “for states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, tribes or tribal entities and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to provide relief for our country’s most vulnerable homeowners.”
The state of Colorado was awarded up to $175 million of the total. On May 7, the Biden-Harris administration allotted an additional $21.6 billion for the entire country, of which Colorado is eligible to receive up to $247.79 million, as part of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP).
“ERAP can help renters as far back as April 2020,” reads the Colorado Department of Local Affairs website. “Help can include past-due, current, and two additional months of expected rent costs. After the initial assistance, you can apply for additional assistance if funds are still available.”
Legal residency status is not a condition for eligibility and anyone can apply as long as they meet “income and other economic eligibility requirements.”
Reportedly, the rollout of these funds has been slow.
“We are trying to take part in conversations about collaboration between landlords, tenants and the state to try and expedite that funding and get it to the greatest number of people as quickly as possible,” Wherry explained.
She would encourage landlords and tenants not to delay and to seek out assistance before it’s an emergency situation.
“When you get to where an eviction has been filed against you, options are so limited at that point,” said Wherry. “The greatest number of options are available to a tenant as soon as they become financially stressed and foresee the next month’s rent is going to be tough to pay.”
Increased demand for housing exacerbates the issue.
“A landlord can get a lot more in rent because the demand is so high, prices are going up,” Wherry continued. “And now they’ve got people standing in line to take over.”
Landlords may decide not to renew a lease for a long-term tenant and instead accommodate a new one at a higher rate.
A local case study
Historically, the status quo in the Roaring Fork Valley has entailed working-class folks commuting from the Colorado River Valley, as far as Grand Junction, to Aspen. It’s become increasingly irregular for blue-collar employees to live in, or even near, the community where they work.
Carbondale Town Trustee Heather Henry echoed Wherry’s concern, stating, “There’s just not enough inventory.”
While Carbondale is seeing new housing developments with inclusionary units, like Red Hill Lofts, the demand still far outweighs the supply.
According to its website, “RHL is a newly-built apartment building housing a total of 30 studio (starting at $706), one-bedroom (starting at $751) and two-bedroom (starting at $892) affordable units.”
These units are all rentals and available to persons earning 50% or less of the area’s average median income (AMI). Additional rent assistance applies to 12 of the units for people earning 30 percent or less AMI.
The Greater Roaring Fork Regional Housing Study, completed in 2019, indicates that in 2017, persons earning 60% of AMI in the region — from Eagle to Parachute and up to Aspen — would need 2,118 housing units to close the gap for that income category. The study further predicted that that number would increase to 2,383 by the year 2027.
Data has not since been collected, so it’s unclear how significantly the pandemic may have altered that projection. Currently, the town’s zoning obliges developers to make 20% of any housing development of five or more units inclusionary. The first of these units must be affordable to purchasers earning 100% AMI; the second, 80%; the third, 120%, the fourth, 150%. A fifth unit would reinitiate that pattern, priced at 100% of the median income, the sixth would be 80% again, and so on.
On May 11, the Carbondale Board of Town Trustees approved a motion to contract Cushing Terrell, an architecture, design and engineering firm, to aid in a planned update of the 2013 Comprehensive Plan. Town Manager Jay Harrington anticipates housing to be one of the major topics in that update. The Cushing Terrell team first met with the planning and zoning commission on Thursday evening.
While policy is an effective piece of the puzzle, experts agree that it’s not the end-all solution.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for landlords and tenants to work together right now to access resources that can get them both caught up,” Wherry said. “Housing insecurity is so costly for our entire community in the ways it impacts jobs, education, health and safety. Preventing those costs in a regional, collaborative manner is a good use of our time and energy right now.”