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Mountain News: Lack of affordable housing in the Rockies



WHITEFISH, Mont. — Up and down the Rockies, there is talk about the lack of affordable housing in mountain towns.

In Whitefish, The Pilot reports any number of hard-luck stories as service workers scramble to come up with down-payment and rent. The median price for a home last year was $245,000, compared to $167,000 just 24 kilometres down the road in Kalispell and $153,000 in Columbia Falls.

About 30 per cent of Whitefish's workforce is in the hotel and food service industry, earning $17,000 to $22,000 annually, according to a housing authority study. Whitefish, say real-estate agents, has too little housing with monthly rental or mortgage costs of $800 to $1,300.

The city government has offered density bonuses to developers in an effort to encourage the construction of more affordable housing. But so far, no developer has taken advantage of the offer.

In Telluride and Mountain Village, the joined-at-the-gondola sibling municipalities, there has been much talk during this election season of affordable housing. Mountain Village, the newer and less space-constrained town, actually has enough affordable housing for 80 per cent of its workforce. Telluride is at about 40 per cent.

But then Telluride is 90 per cent built out, while Mountain Village is only 50 per cent built out, explains Dan Jansen, the mayor of Mountain Village.

In Jackson Hole, the absence of affordable housing has been the leading topic since early summer. The problem isn't new, but long-term observers tell the Jackson Hole News&Guide it's as bad, or worse, than they can remember — and this, without the construction industry fully revived.

Candidates for town and county officials have talked about diverting funds such as the lodging tax to help build more affordable housing. Christine Walker, former director of the Teton County Housing Authority, says that businesses that pay low wages are essentially being subsidized.

Hotels, restaurants, and retail establishments place the greatest burden on taxpayers, many studies have shown, because of their low wages.

When all that remains of a Bonanza is a name

BONANZA, Colo. — When does a town cease to be a town? That's been the question this year for Bonanza, a place that for most of its existence has failed to live up to its name.

It's located in south-central Colorado, along 21 kilometres of gravel road from the nearest highway, post office, or business.

The town was launched as a formal municipality in 1881. This was during Colorado's mining boom. Bonanza had seven dance halls, four smelters, two hotels, and one newspaper along with 1,000 residents.

Mining petered out and a fire in 1937 destroyed much of what remained. In the early 1970s, a commune was formed near Bonanza, but it was abandoned.

As the 21st century arrived, only a handful of people remained.

"It's more like a town inhabited by hermits, which would seem oxymoronic, yet rumour has it — and personal experience has borne this out — that these people do not socialize with one another," wrote non-resident property owner Antonya Nelson in a 2010 essay in the New York Times. She disguised the town with the name "Eureka."

"Feuding might be too strong a word for what they do, but there are only 12 of them (officially), and you never see two together. Ever. For all I know, it's one guy with a lot of costumes."

Bonanza now has just one resident, as reporters have discovered on journeys this year to Bonanza. The others died or left.

Since Bonanza is in Saguache County, the commissioners last year petitioned to have the town disincorporated. In January, the Colorado secretary of state began proceedings to determine whether Bonanza met legal requirements.

It's not clear any of that has happened in Bonanza in the last five years. In fact, the former mayor didn't even live in the town. The last town election was in the 1990s.

Ben Gibbons, the county attorney, said he expects a ruling in early November.

Nearby residents have opposed the disincorporation, but Gibbons says the county commissioners are unclear in their reasoning.

The opinion that probably should matter most is that of Bonanza's only full-time resident, Mark Perkovich. He moved from Denver to Bonanza 20 years ago. "I wanted to be at the end of a dirt road in the middle of nowhere," he told The Denver Post in March.

Perkovich sees no real change if Bonanza loses its status as a town. Saguache County already maintains the roads, and there is no water or sewer service, no post office, or police force. All it has is a name, and that really won't go away.