|Custer County has long depended on real estate transactions to power the local economy. But for those that want to live in the Valley without purchasing a home, trying to find a place to rent can be a maddening process.
The lack of what is called “affordable housing,” has major impacts on the community and its economy. The small rental market and even smaller number of rental investors limits the amount of working population the county can house. The connection between labor and available rentals is deeply connected.
The shortage of labor in Custer County is best reflected in the 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey that estimated the unemployment rate in Custer County is 2.9 percent or around 209 individuals unemployed. This number has likely decreased with the growing economy in Custer County in the past two years.
Employers are often at a loss for employees, especially those that are willing to stick around for a number of years. However, generally low pay for employees mixes with few rental properties available. And those rentals that are available are too expensive relative to the hourly wage.
In what can be described as a “chicken or the egg” problem, few working age individuals or families are willing to relocate from the Front Range to Custer County and the lack of good pay plus affordable housing is too much of a risk.
Some attempts to bring affordable housing to the Valley have been accomplished through government rent assistance programs such as Section 8 housing. Westcliffe and Silver Cliff each have complexes that are subsidized. But most prospective middle class employees would not qualify for such housing.
But there are a few people that have slowly been investing in rental properties that have added to the pool of available rentals in Custer County.
Esme and Tony Delange recently completed a renovation on one of two rental properties notoriously known as the “Hess Mess” in Silver Cliff. “None of the locals would even look at buying the apartments, they really were a mess, but because people thought it was a lost cause, the bank gave us a good price,” explained Esme.
This past spring, the couple finished renovations on the western most Hess apartment and the town of Silver Cliff held a grand opening in celebration of a new, beautiful building. “It was risky, but this is our retirement, and we had the experience required to get it done,” Tony said.
Perhaps the reason the Delanges took a risk no local wanted, or was able to take, has to do with the families’ recent history of immigrating to the United States from South Africa. “We moved to this country with two suitcases and four children.” Settling in Colorado Springs in 1999 Tony worked as a software engineer on a visa. “It took years and $42,000 to get the family US citizenship,” he said. “But it has been worth the risks.”
Starting in 2010, the family started to flip houses in Colorado Springs, taking advantage of the dip in real estate during the 2008 financial crises. “That first house, we put in well over 800 hours, working side by side with contractors to get the job done,” Tony said. “I would work for a few hours in the morning, go to my day job, and come back to the house and we would work together till 11 p.m.”
But now the couple wants to retire in a place less hectic than Colorado Springs. The renovation of the Hess Apartments was the first step in a fulfilling retirement in the mountains.
The couple has not stopped there and has embraced a new project. “We want to also sell homes that middle class families can afford.” The first of a series of builds is at the Shining Mountain Estates across from Valley Ace Hardware. “The most recent home is 1600 feet and is priced around the $300,000 range.” Esme concluded. “It is not a big giant ranch home on 35 acres. It is a five acre property with city utilities but county taxes and the best view in the Valley.”
Other investors in town have been tackling the same problem of affordable housing one creative step at a time. The question is, will it be enough to encourage working age adults to make Custer County a place to call home?
– Jordan Hedberg