Gunnison Was An Affordable Alternative To Crested Butte. Then Came The Second Homes, Vacation Rentals And Remote Workers

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Adam Maestle poses for a portrait in the car he’s been living out for almost a year near the Tomichi Wildlife Refuge on July 6, 2021. Adam is one of the many Gunnison area locals having a very hard time finding housing and using their vehicles to tide them over.

When Adam Maestle’s last landlord put the place up for sale, the nine-year resident of the Gunnison Valley thought he’d camp out for a little while before finding his next home.

But one week turned into two, and then three, with no luck. And one day, as he was fixing a flat tire, it hit him. 

“I realized there is literally nothing,” Maestle said. “This light bulb went off in my brain. ‘Well, if I'm going to put a bunch of miles on my car and camp, then I may as well hit the road for a while and not do it here.’"

That was last summer. Maestle spent time with friends out east through the fall and winter, looking for housing back in Gunnison along the way.

“Every single day, I looked at papers. I called realtors. I was on Facebook,” said Maestle, who’s made a living working in restaurants and on construction sites. “There's still nothing.”

Maestle came back to the Gunnison Valley this spring and has been sleeping in his vehicle ever since. 

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Ben Wright, a local handyman, holds up a sign as peak season vacationers pass by in order to raise awareness about the housing situation at the 4-Way Stop in Crested Butte, Colorado on July 1, 2021.

Gunnison wasn’t always this way. 

Thirty minutes north of Gunnison, in Crested Butte, affordable housing has been difficult to find for years.

While some Crested Buttians prefer to see their “Last Great Ski Town” as a funky alternative to Vail and Aspen, that view is getting harder to believe as the median home price reached $1 million in 2020 — a 38 percent increase in just a year. 

“We used to joke that the billionaires pushed the millionaires out of Aspen and they came over the Crested Butte,” said Kelly McKinnis, the owner and broker of Gunnison Real Estate and Rentals. “Now, even some of those millionaires are not able to stay in Crested Butte because of the housing prices.” 

And Crested Butte’s red hot housing market has ignited Gunnison’s, too, threatening its status as an affordable home for up-valley service workers.

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Kelly McKinnis, owner and broker of Gunnison County Real Estate, in her office.

The average price for a two-bedroom rental in and near Gunnison has jumped more than $400 since 2016, according to a recent report commissioned by the Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority, now nearly matching Crested Butte prices. Gunnison home prices have risen 57 percent in that time too.

Those higher home prices are leading some landlords to sell rental properties to new homeowners who are unlikely to lease them out long-term, McKinnis said, contributing to the housing shortage. Vacation rentals in up-valley homes are also putting pressure on availability across the region. The recent housing report said the valley needs about 1,000 new homes by 2026.

“I haven’t seen it this bad in years and years — probably never,” McKinnis said.

Gunnison has made it easier to build accessory dwelling units — small homes in backyards — and is supporting a new development of 44 affordable homes and 21 market-rate homes, said Mayor Jim Gelwicks. 

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Jim Gelwicks, the mayor of Gunnison, in the municipal building in Gunnison on June 17, 2021.

The city also has enough land on its eastern borders for about 1,700 new homes — a 35 percent increase over the city’s current stock — but it will take years to line up builders and investors, he said.

“Infrastructure is costly,” he said. “It's not something where you can put it all in and put it on the first guy who builds a house out there and say, ‘Hey, you now own a 400-square-foot house that only cost you $40 million.”

Gelwicks, who moved to the area in 1981, said like many other mountain valleys in Colorado, Gunnison is experiencing a culture change. The area’s history of mining, ranching and agriculture isn’t as evident as it once was. And that’s not necessarily bad, he said. It’s just different. 

“It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a cattle drive through the city limits of Gunnison,” he said. “... but you see now spandex and bicycles. We have world-class bike races that happen in this community.” 

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A runner has a good view of town of Gunnison from the Ridgeline trail behind Western University.

The pandemic intensified what was already a tight housing market up and down the Gunnison Valley. 

One big reason, McKinnis said, is Gunnison’s popularity with remote workers and wealthy second homeowners who are able to afford higher real estate prices.

One of those new residents is Doug Campbell, the CEO of Louisville-based Solid Power. He bought a second home in Gunnison earlier this year — even though he could have afforded Crested Butte. 

“That just doesn't appeal to me,” he said. “The community of Gunnison is what's always appealed to me.”

Campbell said he loves to ski and mountain bike and chose Gunnison because he didn’t want to live in a resort town. He hopes to live in his new home six months out of the year and, eventually, retire to Gunnison. He’s also continued leasing out his adjoining apartment to a long-term tenant and said he has no interest in renting it to tourists as a vacation rental.

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A woman bikes past a Tesla charging station in front of the Gunnison municipal building on June 17, 2021.

“But you know, at the end of the day, one individual, one homeowner — there's only so much you can do,” Campbell said. “I'm already renting out a portion of my space. So I'm doing my part.”

Not all of Gunnison's new residents are affluent. 

Michael Salat and his wife left northern Wisconsin to follow their son to the Gunnison Valley last year. They stretched to buy a townhome in Gunnison — and are glad they landed there. They've worked seasonal jobs doing trail building, home cleaning, ski instruction and more.

"I'm not wealthy. I'm piecing it together too. I know what the struggle is," Salat said, adding that they're "trying to contribute to the community.”

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A large “W” stands on a hill behind Western University. The school is growing quickly, requiring increased housing for its students.

But Gunnison’s new exclusivity is leaving some pondering their future. 

Madison Fink and her husband James are trying to move to Gunnison so James can finish a graduate degree in recreation and outdoor education at Western Colorado University. They’ve been looking for a new home remotely from California since last year with no luck. 

“We both have a lot riding on this, and are hoping, and going to any length that we can to make it work out,” Fink said. “It's definitely, definitely something that we're trying to make happen with all our hearts.”

Adam Maestle said he’ll leave the Gunnison Valley at the end of the summer if he can’t find a new place. He originally gave himself a deadline of the end of June, then spent an entire morning backtracking. “I’m not ready to go anywhere yet,” he said.

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An RV drives past Tributary Coffee Roasters on Main Street in Gunnison, Colorado on July 6, 2021.

But the months-long struggle is taking a toll. Maestle said the Gunnison Valley is where he’d planned to settle down, build a house, and raise a family. And now that’s uncertain.

“I'm afraid to commit to anything anywhere, because it'll be the wrong decision,” he said. “No matter what I do. I feel like if I stay, it'll be the wrong decision. If I go, it'll be the wrong decision. And now I just feel like I'm lost.”

He isn’t ready to give up on the Gunnison Valley yet. He and some friends want to buy an empty piece of land out of town and put a bunch of RVs on it. There might be some legal issues to work out with that. But, Maestle said, if he’s going to sleep in a vehicle, it’d be nice to do it on his own land.