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Simple Homes' on-site install team installs a panelized wall section at a project in Park County Colorado. Photo courtesy of Simple Homes
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Can a New Program Help Solve the Mountain Town Housing Crisis?

A pilot project from the Telluride Foundation aims to close the widening gap between who lives and who works in Western Slope communities by cutting the cost of building new homes, starting with donated land.

Call the marshal’s office in Ridgway, and it could be 25 minutes before an officer reaches the scene. That’s how long it takes some deputies to drive from their homes in surrounding towns. Home prices in Ridgway have edged out some of its workforce, part of a trend repeating across Colorado’s mountain towns.

“In every community, there’s a bit of hysteria around workforce housing,” says Paul Major, outgoing CEO of the Telluride Foundation and an ongoing contractor for its housing projects. “We’ve identified the problem, but there’s very few solutions that are coming forward that can be scaled.”

Now, the Foundation is piloting a model that strives to be one of those rare, scalable solutions. The work hinges on driving down prices on every step of creating new homes, from land acquisition to construction to attorney’s fees. The projects are launching in four western Colorado communities. If it works, Major says, towns statewide could learn from their strategies.

The Foundation starts with securing land often by donation, say from a school superintendent whose teachers need local housing, explains David Bruce, a Yale School of Architecture graduate hired to spend two years on the project. They’re seeking infill parcels close to town with ready utility hook-ups. Homes will be pre-fabricated at the Simple Homes factory in Denver, which uses digital-era efficiencies, like laser-cutting lumber and using detailed 3D models, to reduce waste and cut construction costs. The pieces—walls complete with doors and windows, floors, and chunks of roofs—are then trucked flat to home sites.

prefabricated wall
Prefabricated wall sections, which include windows pre-installed, are loaded on trailers that are custom-built for Simple Homes in the company’s Globeville factory. Photo courtesy of Simple Homes

“There’s a lot we can do to reduce construction costs, but reducing construction costs is not going to get us all the way there,” says Jeff Hopfenbeck, CEO of Simple Homes. “Without attacking every single piece, you might be able to pull one deal together, but it’s not a scalable or a repeatable system, which is the goal here—that this becomes a playbook that different communities across the state can use.”

The results could see the Western Slope communities of Ouray, Norwood, Nucla, and Ridgway positioned to offer about 20 new homes each (likely closer to 10 in Ridgway’s case) perhaps as early as mid-2022. These homes would be income-restricted, deed-restricted to residents who work nearby nine months a year, and priced based on 60 to 120 percent of area median income. The most expensive, at just over $300,000, still aims to be affordable for a school teacher, deputy sheriff, or other local workers who have watched housing costs out-strip their pay.

“These are all people who have good salaries and good careers and are the lifeblood of the community, and so it’s just sort of—duh, we’ve got to fix that problem,” Major says.

The model calls for higher density housing than some towns are accustomed to—or even zoned for—and adds demands to utilities that can be costly or time-consuming to upgrade. Some town residents are irked at the idea of giving land away. The project has become touchy enough around Nucla that the town’s mayor, Richard Craig, said: “I should probably just say ‘no comment.’ ”

“You’re always going to get pushback,” Major says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re housing Mother Teresa.”

Denver construction
A home under construction in Denver’s West Colfax neighborhood. This single-family home was assembled on-site in four hours by a team of four carpenters. Photo courtesy of Simple Homes

Ridgway has already seen one false start. Initial talks with the school district to donate land, currently being used as a ballfield near an elementary school, fell apart over the idea of losing greenspace for students. “Their model is absolutely fantastic, but it revolves around free or very low-cost land, and so ultimately nothing went through in relation to that specific parcel,” says Preston Neill, Ridgway’s town manager.

The Foundation is planning to work instead on a one-acre parcel near the town’s core. Talks with the town council and planning commission will launch later in August, opening the project to public feedback. These communities, Neill says, often feel divided: some want to see the town grow, while others hope it stays the same.

“I expect, based on the density they’re proposing, that there’s going to be some naysayers, some NIMBY-ers, and that’s normal,” Neill says. “I hope it’s well-received by the community, and that people are open minded and flexible and that we’re able to bring this to fruition … because it’s definitely needed.”

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