The Western Housing Crisis and WUI Development

A small community of campers outside on Cortez, Colorado in October, 2021. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)




Populations in many western states are increasing dramatically, putting pressure on communities to develop housing. What kind and where? And will it be in the WUI? What I like about this issue is that there are no predetermined good guys and bad guys and not much in the way of partisan vitriol (if any). Shout out to the Colorado Sun for their coverage.

Here’s an example from Billings, MT.

Here’s one from  Silverton, CO in the Colorado Sun:

Local officials are developing an attainable housing project, but for now workers have been pushed toward RVs, cars and other more desperate living situations, as a housing crunch that began years ago snowballed when urban dwellers moved to more remote locations during the pandemic.

DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of the Silverton Chamber of Commerce, is candid about how some residents are living.

“It’s glorified homelessness, let’s be honest,” she said.

Clark Anderson, executive director of Community Builders, a nonprofit helping Silverton develop a master plan, said the town and other parts of Colorado have a workforce housing market competing directly with that for high-end luxury homes. Prices overall have shot up in part due to short-term rentals, like through VRBO. Developers tend to cater to the affluent because they have investors or are trying to make a profit, he said.

“You don’t find that many developers that are going to say, ‘You know, I know that houses are selling for $1 million here but I want to really focus on building $400,000 homes,’” Anderson said.

The trend has been building for years, as communities across the West have failed to keep pace with housing demand, after overbuilding in the past.

Harper, whose family owns the Grand Imperial Hotel and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, understands why there’s so much demand for housing.

“We live and work in a postcard and we’re blessed — those select few of us that get to live here,” he said.

This Colorado Sun piece focuses on some policy solutions to the short-term rental market in mountain towns in Colorado.

And another Colorado Sun piece that focuses on Durango, Colorado.

Another 50 miles to the west, Reece Blincoe holed up in an RV with his 60-pound bernedoodle, Bernie, for three weeks because he couldn’t find housing before he started work as superintendent of schools in Dolores. He shuttled back and forth to a storage trailer where he kept clothes that wouldn’t fit in the RV.

“When your superintendent comes to town and has to live in an RV for three weeks, that kind of shows you what we’re dealing with here,” said Blincoe, who eventually found housing with the help of a school board member.

Lack of housing has reached a crisis point in parts of southwest Colorado, where a shortage of places to buy or rent affordably is keeping critical businesses and organizations from hiring and retaining workers. Some residents have resorted to living in cars or on campgrounds, and local officials fear middle-income earners will be priced out of the housing market.

Now the idea that people move from somewhere else, and boost prices so that residents can no longer afford to rent, and are priced out of buying, is nothing new to many places in the West. In fact, here’s a 2018 story about Californians moving to the NW and arousing local ire.  Remember,  in 1971, Governor Tom McCall invited tourists to visit Oregon, but then added “but for heaven’s sake don’t stay. ” And here we are, fifty years later.

Now, however, there seems to be a tension between “people shouldn’t be moving there because it’s a fire-prone landscape” and the fact that people are moving to the west because.. it’s a nice place to live, and amenity migrants particularly like being near federal lands (who wouldn’t?). The solution proposed by some is to densify western cities.

Building more dense housing units in the core of Billings, for example, could provide numerous opportunities for the community, she said, bringing more people into the heart of downtown, revitalizing the area and driving economic growth while appealing to younger workers seeking a more livable and walkable community. One focus for BSED is looking into the expansion of mixed-use properties with small businesses or retail at street level and apartments above.

“I wouldn’t say there’s any area that wouldn’t be ideal for developments,” Lehm said. “I would think we’re going to see more housing choices for downtown.”

Lehm also pointed to more innovative ways of addressing housing shortages than single-family home expansion in the suburbs. Land trusts, housing co-ops and redevelopment of downtown could all be parts of the solution. Several of those methods are being explored through small-scale programs in other Montana cities. Both Kalispell and Red Lodge have begun land trust programs to develop affordable housing.

It seems to me that there are several things about single-family homes that have made them attractive to people, ownership (not dealing with landlord-related issues; not worrying about rent going up and having to move, and so on) and space (for children, dogs, gardens, etc.). Home ownership, as Jennifer Hernandez pointed out in her piece Green Jim Crow about California, has also been the major source of wealth accumulation for people at the lower end of the economic ladder.

“about 54 percent of all renters in California, housing costs exceed 30 percent of household income, the traditional definition of housing affordability.[9]Nearly 70 percent of all state households with unaffordable housing costs consist of people of color.

Racial inequality is exponentially magnified by housing. Housing equity makes up nearly 60 percent of the total net worth of minority homeowners compared with 43 percent of White homeowner wealth.[10]Black, Latino, and other historically disadvantaged groups rely on mortgage payments to build wealth through homeownership while also paying for necessary housing; there is little to no excess cash available to buy stocks, bonds, and other assets.

So I think that having affordable single family homes is important in terms of social justice, even if the development of such housing occurs on formerly wild or agricultural land.  I don’t think people think about “WUI development” necessarily in terms of affordable home ownership, but in many places it is.

4 thoughts on “The Western Housing Crisis and WUI Development”

  1. Local governments and developers are already fighting over water rights so as supplies dry up urban sprawl probably will, too.

    Learn to harvest precipitation, people.

    Winter is coming.

    • That could be Larry but some of the area’s this article talks about are NOT urban sprawl. More likely to be outside of a water supply district; perhaps reliant on private wells.
      I wonder how soon the water supply “signal” will be a factor in new construction in these areas?

      Water is another issue where state and local building codes NEED to be UPDATED to encourage more efficient use of water

  2. Thanks for posting this Sharon; looks very interesting on my first skim.
    You end by mentioning affordable home ownership; good point.

    BUT let’s remember that we need to be thinking about DEFENSIBLE HOMES otherwise we’re setting folks up for a tragedy! They may lose their home, money and their life — IF — local officials don’t take fire into account in zoning, planning and building codes!

  3. A reasonable question is whether the real price of living in fire-prone areas (protection, insurance, distortion of public land priorities) should be added to the cost of home ownership there, making them less affordable. Or by not doing so, and paying for it communally, should we subsidize living in fire-prone areas.

    Affordable housing in high-demand amenity real estate markets seems to be an intractable problem, but I’m not sure that relegating the workforce to the least safe places to live is a better option for social justice than high-density urban communities (where planners provide for common open space).


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