The mile-and-a-half stretch of West Colorado Avenue that connects Colorado Springs with the resort town of Manitou Springs is known as No Man’s Land. The short strip is getting a major overhaul to fight its rundown reputation, but it’s still dotted with mid-century motels.
People have been living in Manitou’s motels for decades. So long in fact, there’s school bus stops along No Man’s Land to pick up kids. Those living arrangements are now in flux with Manitou’s city motel maximum stay ordinance. The rule has been on the books since 2015, and enforcement started in late 2016. Lodges can only rent 20 percent of their rooms long-term, the rest must be nightly.
Manitou Springs School District 14 would later say they lost 88 students due to enforcement of the ordinance.
Leslie Phipps says she’s been bouncing around Manitou as she looks for an affordable rental in the city. She had lived in a motel for over a year, and left thanks to the code’s enforcement. After living with her daughter for six months, she’s back in a local motel. This time she can only stay for 30 days.
“If they’d let me stay I would even start a garden out back,” Phipps says. “But there’s no stability in it. And if you start a garden, what if you get run off?”
Phipps thought she found stability. She’s been working her job as a line cook in Manitou for two years and her 16-year-old son is in the district high school. She’s on a waitlist for an apartment but fears she can’t save up for first month’s rent and a deposit — things you don’t need for a motel room.
“You don’t have any extra when you have to live like this,” Phipps says.
Wade Burkholder, Manitou’s city planning director, says the rule is to protect health, safety and welfare. Many of the motels aren’t suitable for long-term stays. Instead of kitchens, bathroom sinks are used for dishes and hot plates for stove tops. Even those rooms already converted to be more like apartments have to return to nightly rentals. Burkholder says they’re not zoned as residential.
The city also makes money from a lodging tax that can’t be collected on longer stays. But one motel manager says he’s still renting long-term, because he’d be out of business if he didn’t. Why? Tourists don’t want to stay at his rundown lodge.
Motel owners weren’t happy with the change, and Burkholder says there are now “three properties that are unfortunately sitting vacant because of this new rule.” At first, the city was forcing tenants out, he says, but they quickly realized people needed more time to transition.
“I think we learned that we have to be more proactive and not just go in there and heavy hand locked the doors on people,” Burkholder says.
Since Manitou doesn’t have a homeless shelter or available affordable housing, Burkholder believes motel dwellers likely had to leave the city for one with more resources: nearby Colorado Springs.
Aimee Cox is the CEO of the nonprofit Community Health Partnership, as well as a former Manitou council member and mayor pro tem. She’s lived in Manitou for more than 20 years, and says the city is too focused on motel rooms for tourists, rather than the housing challenge.
“But now that we’re seeing what the impact of it was, we have to pay attention to that something went wrong,” Cox says. “And whose responsibility is that?”
Manitou Springs School District 14 declined to comment for this story. In a letter to Cox, superintendent Ed Longfield says he spoke with the city about how this ordinance would impact at-risk families. Longfield writes that they’ve worked to keep the kids in school, including sending buses across Colorado Springs.
Cathy Alderman, of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, says the state has very few options for what she calls “bridge” housing — a place someone can stay as they wait for something more permanent.
“Motels are sometimes the only option for folks who need an emergency situation,” Alderman says. “And if that’s being restricted, I don’t know where these families are expected to go.”
The living conditions might not be ideal, but for her the alternative is worse.
“It doesn’t do the community any good to evict people from these situations if they don’t have any other place to go,” Alderman says. “They’re just going to end up back on the streets accessing emergency services.”
Back in Manitou, outside one of the No Man’s Land motels, one man says he’s usually on the streets. Another says he jumps around to different lodges to stay out of shelters. Leslie Phipps says motels aren’t a good place to raise her sons — her oldest is incarcerated — but it’s her “only option right now.”
When her 30 days are up, she says she’ll likely move to another motel. Phipps points to her car and says she and her son might also spend a few nights in there too.