Small Town. Big Housing Crisis.

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It’s instructive to look at how small, rural communities have historically dealt with the need for growth. The prevailing model of development in North America today is to rely on debt-fueled development and subsidy, but in most of the world and for most of history, communities have not actually had that path available. So what do they do?

They use land obsessively economically. They fill in gaps in existing blocks, and subdivide and expand existing structures: strategies that urban planner Patrick Condon calls hiving and barnacling. They crowd together at first, and then expand as they can afford.

Towns like those profiled in this series should look at their land-use codes and ask a few questions, such as:

  • What are the barriers to an accessory dwelling unit? A duplex conversion? Tiny homes?

  • Is it possible to create residential space above commercial storefronts where there isn’t already such space?

  • Can we allow manufactured housing on existing lots (as an ADU) where it isn’t already?

  • We have people living in RVs and cars already. While no one thinks this is a desirable answer, what can we do to, say, make parking an RV in town more comfortable in the near term?

  • In short, how can we minimize the obstacles to ad-hoc adaptation that creates housing?

It looks like in Colorado, these conversations are happening, though the Sun is nonspecific in its references to “land-use codes.” From there, you’re not going to acquire a scale economy overnight in this stuff, but you’ve at least decriminalized some forms of adaptation led by locals in response to local need.

There are familiar factors involved here that are the same as anywhere, like high construction costs, and shortages of construction labor and materials. But there are also factors that are more specific (though not unique) to this region. One is a bifurcated market that puts permanent residents in competition for housing with a growing number of vacation home owners from big cities like Denver, who have Denver money and can pay far more than local service workers can afford.

This problem merits local, context-sensitive responses. Two big steps mentioned by the Sun are converting hotels to residences, and restricting short-term rentals (VRBO and AirBnB). Both make sense to me. Ultimately, I’m not confident that a town with a stunning natural draw (“We live in a postcard,” says one Durango resident quoted by Najmabadi) can deal with this from the demand side alone—it’s hard to make people not want to come to a spectacular place.

That’s where I don’t have satisfying answers. This is just a brutal set of circumstances, from which there’s no silver bullet for these towns to buy their way out of. What’s required is a messy process of many ad-hoc responses instead.

It’s important to appreciate that the same national factors that have inflated all the costs associated with housing, nationally, create pockets of acute desperation locally. These towns are an example. For many of us in the middle class in bigger cities, the contours of the issue are less stark. Yes, housing costs are too high, they’re straining millions of households’ budgets, and we must make unpleasant compromises in where or how we live to compensate. But for people in some of these mountain towns, even those compromises are unavailable. You’re living on the brink of having to simply leave the place you call home and never come back.

We need to address the big-picture, national factors pushing housing costs up and up. But we also need the messy, local, improvised responses—and not just in a Silverton or Mancos. Big cities should be doing the messy stuff, too. It’s just that big cities have more ability to use debt to delay the day of reckoning.

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