Bridging the housing gap
Affordable housing forges ahead locally

Josh Trujillo takes a break from nailing trim on his new townhouse at the Habitat for Humanity project on Florida Road. Trujillo, his wife and two kids will move in as soon as the project is completed. Although the affordable housing situation in Durango may seem more dire than ever with prices soaring, experts say La Plata County is making more strides than ever to address the issue./Photo by Jared Boyd

by Will Sands

Durangoans have always known there’s no place like your own home. However, few members of the local working class can actually afford housing in La Plata County. The tide may be shifting, and affordable housing advocates are getting optimistic about the future and the chance that La Plata County’s work force can continue to live in La Plata County.

The local housing crunch is a question of simple economics. “The costs of housing, land and material have outpaced income,” noted Werner Heiber, executive director of Colorado Housing Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to providing affordable housing in La Plata, Archuleta, Dolores, San Juan and Montezuma counties.

Explaining a few of the dangers of not providing affordable housing and losing members of the work force, Heiber added, “If a family lives in Mancos, Aztec or Bayfield and works in Durango, there is always a conflict. They are always separated from their community. They are not spending money in their own community.

They are not as committed to their employers. And they are not able to spend as much time with their families.”

Plus, home ownership carries a sense of pride with it. “This is an ownership society,” Heiber said. “In this country, the rental is not seen as desirable. Home ownership is perceived as the road to financial independence.”

Colorado Housing Inc. has helped 186 local families and individuals into home ownership since its formation in 1995, making the most significant dent in the region’s housing problem. The nonprofit received distressing news last month, however. Thanks to cuts at the federal level, the group was not awarded its annual operating grant, a shift that will cost Heiber his job and put 18 area families aspiring to housing on hold until next year.

“Because of this, 18 families will have to start construction next year,” Heiber said. “My position, for financial reasons, has also been cut by the board.”

There are several silver linings, however. Heiber is staying on in an outreach and marketing capacity; Colorado Housing Inc. expects to be re-funded early in 2007; and the construction delay will allow the 18 local families to build during the summer rather than the winter.

“A grant is in the pipeline,” Heiber said. “We expect to get approved, and when the grant is approved, we can get started in the springtime.”

Heiber is also optimistic for another reason – consciousness about affordable housing has finally arrived in the region. That consciousness, combined with the recent formation of the La Plata County Regional Housing Authority, should greatly assist the effort.

“In hindsight, I think we could have reacted a little quicker to the housing crunch,” Heiber said. “However, there’s a good group of people now who are really trying to make a difference. A variety of approaches have to be followed, and we are absolutely coming up to speed.”

One member of this good group is the recently hired director of the La Plata County Regional Housing Authority, Jenn Lopez. Lopez also sees an affordable housing groundswell in La Plata County and shares optimism about the future.

“I see a lot of momentum and interest in the community,” she said. “There’s a lot of change happening, and there’s a lot of opportunity for cooperation out there.”

Lopez comes to La Plata County with a privileged perspective. She is a Fort Lewis College graduate but has spent the last six years working on large-scale affordable-housing efforts in Santa Fe.

“Durango’s right where it needs to be right now, both in terms of pulling its resources together and forging ahead,” she said. “No one entity can do this. It’s far too complicated. Everyone needs to get involved, and that’s beginning to happen.”

The county taking a regional approach to affordable housing is a huge plus, according to Lopez. “We have a really unique real estate situation and a unique community,” she said. “The fact that there’s a regional approach to the problem is positive and progressive. You want to have a diversity of housing types and you want to have them dispersed throughout the county.”

The first order of business when Lopez starts full time on Oct. 1 will be some serious strategic planning. Such a plan will update area housing needs, identify potential solutions to the current gap and establish a working group.

“You try to nail down the barriers to affordable housing and then those barriers become the focus of the process,” Lopez said. “We also need to look at what’s been tried before and has worked and what hasn’t worked.”

Connie Imig, director of Habitat for Humanity of La Plata County, is on the same page. The local nonprofit is currently working on a seven-unit townhome project on Florida Road, a milestone that marks the first in-town Habitat project in many years and the first time the group has undertaken more than two homes in a year. The project reflects growing momentum throughout the community for Imig.

“It’s an exciting time for affordable housing,” she said. “The formation of the Regional Housing Authority was huge, and having Jenn Lopez come on board is great. She has a wealth of information and can put together new ways of acquiring affordable land.”

Imig also suggested that Durango is right where it needs to be on the road to affordable housing. “We’re not any further behind than any other community similar to ours,” she said. “What we have to realize is that this should be everyone’s priority. The time has passed for not-in-my-backyard. We need every single person to take responsibility and together we can make this happen.”

And the ultimate goal is to remain an area and a community where the workers can continue to afford housing, according to Imig. “To have a healthy economy you must have housing for the service sector as well as the people they’re serving. If they can’t live in the area, your economy is not going to be as stable as it could be. It’s going to be very one-sided.”

Heiber agreed that the economics of housing are critical. He also added that as we rush toward higher and higher prices, the community’s character and “soul” are at stake.

“The cost of affordable housing is much higher than anybody imagines,” he said in closing. “But the benefits that can be reaped are also much higher than anybody imagines.”

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