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Crested Butte's housing affordability crisis is turning into an employment crisis

Crested Butte
Posted at 4:55 PM, Sep 20, 2021

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — In just about every window of every shop along Elk Avenue in Crested Butte, there’s a Help Wanted sign. All across the town, businesses are struggling to find enough employees to keep their doors open. These signs tell the story of a town that’s struggling.

Some have had to change their hours of operation or close down several days each week entirely, simply because they cannot find the people to work.

“There’s tons of jobs, no people,” said Crested Butte Mayor Jim Schmidt.

It’s not the pay or pandemic unemployment benefits that businesses blame for the worker shortage — it's the lack of affordable housing.

Like many mountain communities, the average price of homes has been skyrocketing for years. The average home price in the town is now nearly $900,000.

“Housing here is going for ridiculous prices. It’s still cheap compared to Aspen, but very ridiculous for us,” Schmidt said.

Things have become so bad that the area decided to stop marketing to tourists to come visit for the summer. For a town that’s economy runs on tourism, this was a big decision.

“We sell tourism. We sell hospitality. It’s a concern that we can’t feed everybody that comes here. They have to wait,” Schmidt said.

It’s not just retail and restaurants that are struggling. For months, the town’s parks and recreation department wasn’t able to fill five positions because there’s no affordable place for the would-be employees to live.

Some workers are even camping in tents or vans in the U.S. Forest areas nearby just to have some place to live.

“There’s a lot of people who are living out of the woods,” Schmidt said.

However, the Forest Service recently changed some of its rules to limit long-term camping in certain areas due to things like trash in the area.

While the housing affordability issue isn’t new for mountain communities like Crested Butte, it is growing. The COVID pandemic and new prevalence of remote work has created a new migration of people looking to live away from big cities.

The newfound popularity of short-term rental options, like Airbnb and Vrbo, has also presented its own set of challenges for these towns.

The town council has taken a number of steps to try to help. It has already been limiting the number of short-term rental licenses given out each year to 30%. It has about 305 deed-restricted homes to keep the price of some housing from appreciating too quickly.

Then in June, the town council took an unprecedented step and declared a local disaster emergency over the affordable housing issue.

“I don’t think we wanted to send a message. I think we wanted to get things done. We wanted to get things done rapidly,” Schmidt said.

The declaration allows the town to work around some building and municipal codes. In some cases, it makes constructing a new home or a mother-in-law suite a little easier. In others, it makes it so that units don’t have to have two parking spaces per residence.

The declaration also eased some of the restrictions on camping in town over the summer.

“We said that people, if they have a friend who has a camper, they can put the camper in the backyard for the summer if they’re working here. Not if they’re just visiting. We really want to take care of people who are working here,” Schmidt said.

The town was also able to use the declaration to buy a hotel to help house some employees.

The old Ruby Inn bed and breakfast was a staple of Crested Butte. It has six rooms, two common areas, and a shared kitchen that will serve as dormitory-style living for some town employees.

Schmidt is also hoping that the declaration will help free up some state and federal resources to help.

Meanwhile, the town council has decided to move forward with a one-year moratorium on new licenses for short-term rentals in town.

It is also considering asking voters to raise the sales and use tax as well as the vacation rental tax to pay for affordable housing programs and impose a tax on homes that are not the property owners’ primary residence for at least six months of the year.

While the town council continues to look for ways to help, local businesses are also stepping in.

Over at Secret Stash Pizza on Elk Avenue, the days are very busy. With other restaurants adjusting their hours or closing down for a few days each week, owner Kyleena Falzone said her business is up 38% this year.

The added business is a challenge, though, because the Secret Stash is down 20 employees. Some of her workers live in vans and camp out. She occasionally lets them use her home to do laundry.

Falzone has started taking housing matters for her employees into her own hands.

“We built three, two-bedroom triplexes and it was almost a $900,000 investment. It’s deed-restricted, so this isn’t a for-profit venture. This is like we care about employees, and we are walking the walk and we are talking the talk,” she said.

Falzone’s investors advised her against the purchase, but she said she felt compelled to get involved because her restaurant cannot survive without its workers.

“We have to take care of the dishwashers and the bartenders and the busboys and the retail clerks,” Falzone said.

She even tried to buy the 14-room hostel in town to create some dormitory-style living for employees.

The only way she sees the town being able to accommodate all of the need for affordable housing is high-density development, though she knows there has been pushback against the idea for years.

“There’s this conflict of, I’ll just say it, the rich against the poor. It’s everywhere and we need to take care of the people that are taking care of the people that live here,” Falzone said.

She said she doesn’t necessarily agree with putting limits on short-term rentals. Falzone owns two Airbnb’s in town and said she rents them out in the winter and rents them out to employees in the off-season.

She said the short-term rental time allows her to be able to charge those employees less per month when they stay there.

In the end, she said she doesn’t believe there is a short-term solution to the long-term affordable housing problems.

All across mountain communities, affordable housing is becoming more of a crisis by the year. The issue is now rippling into a serious employment shortage.

For now, restaurants and businesses are asking visitors to have patience when they visit and understand they might not be able to get the same level of service as they experienced in previous years.