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Community Economy Environment Report vol1:2

A House of Straw

Affordable housing nonprofit Community Rebuilds has built 28 straw bale homes with low-income families since 2010, but when they took their model to a wealthy mountain town, they ran into housing issues of their own.

[blockquote3]Affordable housing nonprofit Community Rebuilds has built 28 straw bale homes with low-income families since 2010, but when they took their model to a wealthy mountain town, they ran into housing issues of their own.[/blockquote3]

 

In Colorado’s Gunnison Valley, home values are correlated with the elevation; as you move north both rise together. Over the valley’s 30-mile length from the college town of Gunnison to the 700-person ski resort village of Mount Crested Butte, median home prices more than triple.

 

According to a 2016 survey, 70% of businesses in the Gunnison Valley said that the lack of affordable housing was one of their most critical problems, leaving nearly 360 local jobs unfilled that summer and even creating an e. coli crisis in local rivers when employees crowded into tent cities on public land.

 

But, during the second half of 2016, at the high point of the valley where most dwellings are second homes with an average price of $1.6 million, a team of student workers learned how to use straw bale insulation and clay plasters to build a duplex that was both ecologically friendly and affordable. Every morning, the students would rise at 6am and commute from a rented house in Gunnison, through cow pastures, outlying subdivisions and the historically funky town of Crested Butte up to the ski slopes of Crested Butte Mountain Resort, working to ensure that two families would be able to live where they worked.

 

This project, unique among its surroundings, was a test piece led by the nonprofit Community Rebuilds to see if they could bring a model they have honed in the desert around Moab, Utah, to the extreme weather and price conditions of a ski resort town. The organization got its start in 2010 when Emily Niehaus noticed a prevalence of drafty trailers scattered throughout the mountain biking mecca and, around the same time, met a builder using “dirt cheap,” natural materials to create cheap, energy efficient homes. “If we combined an affordable housing job site with a student education program,” Niehaus realized, “we could get free labor and also solve for another need we have which is training young emerging professionals to build straw bale.”

 

By 2016, Community Rebuilds had completed 22 straw and clay homes, optimized for passive and active solar, in Moab for under $100,000 a piece and had started an offshoot program on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. For each of their builds, the organization requires homeowners to contribute an average of 20 hours of labor per week and also helps them to secure low-interest USDA Rural Development loans – targeted at individuals and families making less than 80% of their area’s median income – to cover material costs. Community Rebuilds brings in natural building experts who lead the homeowners and a team of student laborers through a modern day barn raising.

 

“It was meant to be a fun, small project,” says Niehaus of the group’s early days. “I was not intending to solve for what has now emerged as a major affordable housing crisis.”

 

But when a Community Rebuilds board member in the Gunnison Valley suggested the organization take on a project in Mount Crested Butte, Niehaus agreed it was time to take test their triple-bottom-line model – eco-friendly, educational, affordable – in a ski town.

 

“People were saying that’s sort of random replication,” Niehaus laughs, referring to the differences between Mount Crested Butte and Hopi. “But we wanted to show that straw bale, this housing typology, is absolutely replicable in every community.”

 

The team quickly ran into unique challenges in the resort town, though. First, Community Rebuilds struggled to find housing for their students until they settled on a rental 45 minutes (on a clear day) away in Gunnison. Mitch McComb, a natural builder from Utah, had to turn down a paid position as head carpenter because, he says, “I was going to have to live in the back of my truck to do the build. I turned the job down because I didn’t think I’d be able to afford living and working there.”

 

Then the team ran up against the Mount Crested Butte’s Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs), which forced the crew to shift from their standard, rustic, single-story design to a three-floor structure gleaming with galvanized steel. And to top it off, subcontractor fees, material costs and impact fees for connecting to electricity, sewage and water pushed costs higher than any project in Community Rebuilds history.

 

“The cost of construction was twice as much [in Mount Crested Butte] as it is in Moab largely because we had to conform to the CC&Rs,” says Niehaus.

 

To keep the project affordable, Crested Butte Mountain Resort donated a lot in the Prospect Homestead subdivision – a neighborhood with deed restrictions that favor sales to members of the local workforce who meet strict income and asset caps – to the Town of Mount Crested Butte, which in turn sold the land for $0 to two pre-approved workers in town. Then, with 13 unpaid construction interns, Community Rebuilds was able to keep the cost of each unit below $205,000.

 

“You have to get creative in mountain towns,” says Carlos Velado, Mount Crested Butte’s community development director. “Land costs and the costs of construction are so high that, when accompanied by the income limits and maximum purchase prices that are dictated by the deed restrictions, it becomes difficult to develop affordable units without taking a loss.”

 

Finding developers to take on affordable housing projects has been difficult. Ten years after Prospect Homestead was deed restricted, only 15 of 37 units have been completed. The Gunnison Valley will have to add 420 units by 2020 to fully meet the needs assessed in 2016 and to account for projected growth.

 

“In order to build Affordable Housing projects, there is a need to explore alternative methods in order to build units in a way that doesn’t end up costing the developer financially,” says Velado. “In the case of Community Rebuilds, the Town and CBMR were able to provide the land at no cost to Community Rebuilds and Community Rebuilds had a system with economical labor costs and they have a good working relationship with the USDA. I think in the end these factors played a significant role in the project being successful.”

 

Moving forward, Mount Crested Butte is exploring other partnerships with Crested Butte Mountain Resort and with private developers to complete Prospect Homestead, considering plans to waive some fees and provide free land for the project. Additionally, the Gunnison Valley region recently established a housing authority to standardize deed restrictions from Mount Crested Butte to Gunnison to simplify the system for developers, employers, renters, and homeowners.

 

And, in the town of Crested Butte, voters passed a 5% tax in November on short-term vacation rentals to subsidize affordable housing programs, adding to the mitigation, in fees or units built, they assess on all new commercial and residential construction. As a result, they are able to harness the region’s economic growth to provide for the shrinking affordable home market.

 

“The community here prides itself on having an eccentric flair,” says Andrew Arell who bought one unit in the Community Rebuilds duplex. “If we don’t maintain a strong, permanent community–a true community–things that make this place iconic will diminish.”

 

As the Director of Events at Crested Butte Nordic, Arell organizes world-famous competitions like the Grand Traverse ski race from Aspen to Crested Butte. For his work, which bolsters the area economy and draws significant volunteer support, he earns of $40,000 per year. Before buying into the new straw bale home, Arell moved his two sons all over the valley. “I lived in Gunnison, I lived in Crested Butte South, on the mountain, in the town of Crested Butte,” he recalls. “For a period, we were living in a studio efficiency apartment, you know, sleeping on pull-out couches. It was not fun.”

 

Jess Manderfield, a former student intern at Community Rebuilds, says she first applied to the education program because she wanted to develop hands-on building skills. As she worked alongside Community Rebuilds homeowners, though, she soon saw the need for affordable housing. She returned to work as a paid apprentice for the Mount Crested Butte project in large part to help out local workers. “I think the workers make the culture,” she says. “You have your locals and the ski bums who don’t want to move away, the people who love mountain life, they created the vibe Crested Butte is known for, and that’s what brings tourists as well.”

 

But with the duplex complete, Community Rebuilds has no further plans to come back to work on homes in resort communities like Mount Crested Butte. “We really have more fun building in rural towns where we’re not restricted by CC&Rs,” Niehaus says, “where we can replicate our [$100,000] Moab model: a really simple, beautiful, one-story structure that’s truly affordable with adobe floors, earthen plasters, passive solar.”

 

Instead, Niehaus and her team hope to create more offshoot programs like the one they started on Hopi in 2015. So far, four homeowners there have participated, and the Community Rebuilds team has trained members of a Native American-run organization, Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ Institute, to continue constructing eco-friendly houses with tribal members. Niehaus plans to lead her team to expand soon into Bluff and Boulder, Utah, two small towns that are dependent on tourism but are less expensive and less restrictive than Mount Crested Butte.

 

Meanwhile, the Gunnison Valley is adapting some elements of Community Rebuilds’ experiment. Last year, high school students at the Crested Butte Community School assisted with the construction of a small rental unit for town employees, and in 2018, and the students will be helping with an even more ambitious project: a new duplex in Crested Butte South.

By Zak Podmore

Zak Podmore is a Utah-based journalist and filmmaker. He is an editor-at-large at Canoe & Kayak magazine, and his work has also appeared in High Country News and the Huffington Post.