Affordable housing measures are on local ballots all across Colorado this election

Short Term Rentals Housing Crisis
Thomas Peipert/AP Photo
Houses dot the landscape at Colorado’s Steamboat Ski Resort, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, in Steamboat Springs, Colo. The city council passed a rule in June that could prove to be a model for other vacation towns: A ban on new short-term rentals in most of the city and a ballot measure to tax bookings at 9% to fund affordable housing.

There are not many homes for sale in Grand Junction. Home prices have gone up more than a third over the last decade, and more than half of renters pay at least 30 percent of their income for housing – the threshold that’s normally considered reasonable to leave enough money for other expenses.

These dynamics, which are documented in a 2021 assessment of the housing situation in the Grand Valley, are behind three ballot measures Grand Junction residents are voting on right now.

The measures aim to create dedicated tax money to address the lack of housing and create options that people who live and work locally can afford. They also would attract more federal and state money to the cause.

Grand Junction is one of at least 10 Colorado cities asking voters for money to put towards housing. The Colorado Municipal League noted housing-related measures as its top trend on local ballots this fall.

These hyper-local questions to voters come the same year that Coloradans statewide will decide whether to dedicate a portion of income tax revenue to help renters, would-be homebuyers and people experiencing homelessness.

“This is the sign of the times that we're in,” said Kevin Bommer, head of the Colorado Municipal League.

A lack of housing that local people can afford is a national problem, and one that increasingly worries Americans.

“We're missing out on a lot of beautiful artistic diversity that we used to have downtown here,” said Arlo Miller, who lives in Grand Junction, works in manufacturing and is advocating for the three local ballot measures. “There are people with good jobs that we need in our communities who can't afford to live here.”

Miller said two places downtown where he used to live as a renter are no longer available to families; they have been converted to short-term rentals for sites like AirBnb.

“The whole country is behind the ball on affordable housing, and it's just finally starting to be really noticeable, even in towns the size of Grand Junction,” he said.

A 1-percent lodging tax hike on things like hotel stays is projected to raise just over a million dollars in Grand Junction. An 8-percent tax on short-term rental stays would bring in about $325,000, annually. And a third measure would increase the length of leases for developments on city property, which would theoretically make them more attractive for housing developers and position the city to bring in state or federal matching funds.

Short-term rental taxes, lodging tax measures and other housing-related ballot questions

Steamboat Springs, Carbondale, Dillon and Aspen also have short-term rental taxes on the ballot. Durango, Snowmass Village, Georgetown and Estes Park have lodging tax measures. Other housing-related questions are on the ballot in Denver.

In each of these places, voters will have to decide whether they think the specific proposed fixes are the right ones.

Jonathan Purdy is troubled by the housing situation in Grand Junction, but he believes the city can find the money elsewhere in the existing budget. Purdy leads the Horizon Drive Business Improvement District, which represents nearly three-quarters of hotels in Grand Junction — the businesses that would most feel the impact of the tax increase.

As an example of where the money could come from, Purdy points to a city budget line for $450,000 to replace two welcome signs. He would rather see the replacement of the signs put off for a couple of years, when he expects tourism will have fully bounced back from the pandemic.

“Until we do hit that recovery, I’m not sure it’s time to hit us with another taxation,” Purdy said. 

He also noted that lodging tax revenue is traditionally used to promote tourism and generate economic activity.

Yet that could exacerbate the problem. Based on the locations where voters see housing measures on local ballots this year, affordability appears to be worse in areas with high tourism across Colorado. Rick Keuroglian has noticed that in Georgetown, which is midway between metro Denver and the ski resorts along I-70. Keuroglian is the town administrator.

“We're surrounded by 15 different ski resorts,” he said. “We're competing with people across multiple states who want second homes and want to come in. That wealthy person from California who wants a second home is targeting this whole region. And so anything that pops up that's affordable is immediately bought up.” 

The result, said Keuroglian, is that people who work in the town can’t afford to live there, and businesses can’t find workers.

“Coming into Georgetown, it's really obvious,” he continued. “You'll see Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and even some days on Fridays, our restaurants shut down because they don't have the workforce to be able to serve tables and prepare food… And it's becoming a constant, chronic problem, not just in Georgetown, but even in Idaho Springs and our other places in the county.”

Cities could respond with a range of strategies

Bommer expects to see cities push for more density, especially around public transit, and to do whatever they can to increase the number of owner-occupied homes, making sure people actually live in the houses they buy. Cities could encourage more accessory dwelling units, and use city money to lease land for building new housing. The bottom line, Bommer said, is each city has a plan.

“No municipality is just shooting blindly here. There is a community master plan. There is a vision for what their community should look like in 20 years. It's a highly involved process. So all of these things are aimed at trying to stay within that vision,” Bommer said.

On Nov. 8, voters will decide whether the proposed fixes on their ballots are the right paths toward solutions. While the funding mechanisms and policy proposals are up for debate, it’s clear Coloradans need to address the problem before it’s too late.

Maria Luiza Perez-Chavez is a community organizer at the Western Colorado Alliance based in Grand Junction, which has a housing committee and is advocating for the city’s three measures. She described people she has talked to who have given up their housing searches.

“It's really hard for them to shift their mindset to being able to afford a home or being able to find one,” Perez-Chavez said. “They're like, ‘Yeah, it's pointless to try to work on it,’ because they don't see that hope.” 

She has also heard from teachers and other professionals who quickly realized they can’t afford to live in Grand Junction.

“So many people that we've knocked on these doors are saying, ‘I just got here, but like, the rent is too big’ or, ‘Yeah, I'm thinking about moving because I can afford to live somewhere cheaper than here.’”