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Mountain towns use a ‘quiver of solutions’ to address affordable housing, including converting old hotels

Trevor Bona
The town of Crested Butte, CO.

When the town of Crested Butte declared a housing emergency last summer, it opened the door to new and unique solutions. The first action item on the list was to purchase a local bed and breakfast that was then converted to housing for seasonal workers. Converting hotels to create housing isn’t new, but it’s a trend that’s growing in rural mountain communities. Stephanie Maltarich reports for KBUT in Crested Butte.

On June 7, the Town of Crested Butte declared a local disaster emergency in response to the affordable housing crisis. It was the first of its kind among mountain communities in the West, where housing shortages continue to put stress on local workforces. Declaring a housing emergency allowed for a creative housing solution.

"The Ruby is a former Bed and Breakfast, it's a six unit Bed and Breakfast, with actually really nice rooms: queen size beds with their own private bathrooms, but they have a shared kitchen," says Troy Russ, Crested Butte's Community Development Director. "That shared kitchen convinced us that this would be perfect for a seasonal housing program.”

Russ says the town looked into purchasing The Ruby prior to declaring an emergency order, but they quickly realized local zoning regulations would make it a challenge.

"Right now, this is in the tourist zone district, the congregate housing wasn’t allowed at the time. So, we wanted to get this thing going," says Russ. "So the emergency order allowed us to work with the housing authority to start occupying it. The town will now clean up the zoning and go formally through our board of zoning and architecture approval this spring to get it formally occupied.”

Willa Williford is a workforce and affordable housing consultant based in Crested Butte. She’s worked in rural and resort communities across the mountain west for about six years. Over the past year, Williford has seen a surge in hotel conversions.

“One of the things I love about these motel conversions is that you can effectuate them quickly," she says. "They’re environmentally conscious, you’re just repurposing an asset that already exists, and with how expensive labor and construction materials are, and everything it takes to get something new built, this is a really elegant solution.”  

While Williford commends the idea, she also sees zoning as the one of the biggest roadblocks.

“These motels exist in zones that work commercial or intended for tourism and so when they are switching to long term rentals, the underlying zone may not allow that, so we just need to be thoughtful about how we can be more flexible about zoning," she says. "Do we really need everything to be zoned to prohibit residential use?”

Hotel conversions can also be costly if buildings need extensive renovations. In these cases, Williford says it's hard to keep rental prices affordable. Cities and counties aren’t the only entities purchasing hotels to convert into housing.

In Bozeman, Montana, Brian Guyer is the Housing Director for the Human Resource Development Council, a nonprofit that provides a variety of assistance programs to people living in Southwest Montana. Guyer says the housing outlook is dire to say the least, and HRDC realized they needed to do something different in response to the post pandemic housing issues.

“In one of the ways that we did respond-- we bought a hotel," says Guyer.

To comply with city codes, HRDC did not put the hotel to its intended use right away, but it still benefited those in need of housing last year.

"So in the short term, it operated as a hotel with little to no fees," Guyer says. "For the first year it was very useful for housing our over 65 and medically vulnerable population.”

Crested Butte is one of the many mountain communities thinking outside the box when it comes to housing. The town of Eagle converted a hotel to micro apartments in 2018. In June, Summit County signed a one year lease with a Frisco hotel that will house workers this winter. And, Steamboat Springs City Council and Planning Commission just approved two separate hotel projects that will serve as temporary workforce housing.

Troy Russ admits the dormitory-style living is not for everyone. Residents of The Ruby are required to agree to basic rules, such as no overnight guests and no drugs, no super-bowl-like parties in the living room, and some people see these rules as inconvenient. It’s also a drop in the bucket -- providing six bedrooms compared to the hundreds that are needed. Yet, Russ sees The Ruby as one solution to the housing crisis that, more than ever, requires a quiver of solutions.

“We just recognize that building your way out of it is not the only way to address it," says Russ. "Fortunately this bed and breakfast came online, we had the resources to buy it, and maybe it will provide housing without adding impact on our community.” 

Seasonal restaurant workers started moving into The Ruby on August first, and as of mid-October, the seven rooms were fully occupied for the winter season.

This story is part of a series on affordable housing between the solutions journalism Network and Rocky Mountain Community Radio Stations.

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