Local Affordable Housing Movement Takes Bold Step- Rick Langenberg

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Woodland Park has a serious workforce housing crisis, but the county’s sole habitat for humanity group isn’t giving up the fight and has hit the ground running with a bold undertaking.

Last week, Habitat for Humanity of Teller County officially kicked off an unprecedented project, aimed at renovating an old, decaying vacant motel into nine “attractive condos” for local working families. The $1 million-plus multi-unit condo project involves a partnership among many community groups, contractors and volunteers, and could serve as a catalyst to jump-start the huge demands for affordable housing in Woodland Park. A recent study estimated that Woodland Park needs 4,086 more affordable housing units over the next 10 years to play catch-up and to meet future demands.

The initial target project deals with rehabbing the old 24-room Lofthouse Motel, located at 222. E. Henrietta, near the Woodland Park Public Library. “Our goal is to begin to reduce the shortfall of available rental and sale housing in our community to meet the needs of our workforce,” said Jamie Caperton, executive director of Habitat of Humanity of Teller County, during a press conference last week and a kick-off ceremony. The national Habitat group, started by former President Jimmy Carter, strives to provide people of all incomes “with a decent place to live.”

The new project gained momentum from a $90,000 grant from Home Depot as the local Habitat group is embarking on an ambitious pursuit through the national “Home Builder’s Blitz” program. In addition, Habitat has received major donations and in-kind help from Whirlpool, Century Link and other companies. In addition, Habitat has received good support from its regular partners, including Park State Bank & Trust and State Farm.

“This is a phenomenal project,” said Caperton. “It is a partnership. We see this as bringing our community together.”

Ground-breaking on the condo renovations is slated for May 11, with Habitat leaders wanting to fast-track the home construction within a three month period. On May 11, the Habitat group hopes to assemble more than 200 volunteers and workers at the property.

A meeting of interested contractors and builders for this project is scheduled for May 5 at the Foxworth-Galbraith store in Woodland Park, starting at 5 p.m. The Teller Habitat group wants to achieve a 100 percent donation level for the project from fund-raising so they can cover the up-front construction costs and plan for future pursuits. “When houses are sold, the proceeds from the sales will reseed the construction fund for future builds,” stated Caperton.

She described the Lofthouse condo units as ideal for a starter home for a local teacher, police officer or public service worker in a great setting, close to the downtown core. “This has the best views of Woodland Park,” related Caperton.

Local families must qualify for the Lofthouse condo purchases by completing 300 to 400 hours of sweat equity and by completing the Homebuyer Education Course. They also must meet the financial qualifications, meaning that their family’s total annual compensation can’t exceed 30 to 40 percent of the area’s median income criteria, which classifies them as being in the low to median income bracket. “Homes are not given away,” stressed Caperton.

The entry level price of a small condo at the new Lofthouse project for a qualified family is estimated as low as $115,000. Most of the units consist of two and three-bedroom condos, with one unit being designated as specifically handicap-oriented.

Each condo would come equipped with a full set of appliances, a centralized facility for laundry and WIFI and CAT5 outlets for phone service. It also will have some of the old conveniences of the old motel, which will retain its highly visible clock tower.

If the project works, they hope the same techniques can be used to do other affordable housing developments throughout Woodland Park and Teller County. Caperton sees the Lofthouse renovation as setting a new unique trend to accelerate the community’s big need for workforce housing.

Solving a Local Housing Crisis
At last week’s ceremony, the local Habitat director cited a community desire to do about 175 affordable housing units locally on an annual basis. That’s a pretty hefty goal.

The Habitat group already has constructed 31 homes in Teller County. With this new project, their track record will increase to 40, with a large percentage of them occurring in the last year.

In fact, the Habitat group is one of the main highlights in the push for affordable housing in Teller County. This is a frequent battle cry by some local elected leaders, such as Woodland Park Councilman John Schafer, but it is a campaign that has featured little political support locally.

Recently, Woodland Park voters delivered a setback to the push for affordable housing by squashing a bid to change the current anti-incentives law to permit projects that could offer a public benefit. This proposed charter amendment, according to proponents, may have paved the way for more housing pursuits by allowing certain incentives to developers of these types of projects. But the voters of Woodland Park didn’t see it that way and killed this ballot proposal by a huge margin.

To make matters worse, Schafer released a new housing assessment study for Teller County that outlined grim statistics. With Teller’s increasing senior population and the growth of the area, he sees Teller County, and especially Woodland Park, approaching a crisis stage. This study indicated that Teller County needs 5,638 more affordable housing units over the next decade to play catch-up and to meet current and projected needs, with the biggest demands in Woodland Park.

Besides the work of the Habitat for Humanity group, the only other affordable housing project in Woodland Park involves a 24-unit apartment complex near the corner of Hwy. 67 and Valley View Drive. That project is being undertaken by the non-profit America West Solutions. Schafer is a key leader of this group.

The regulatory climate, though, in Woodland Park is changing due to the current and future housing crunch. For years, city leaders and officials talked about affordable housing needs, but never really cleared the pathways for such projects.

That scenario appears to be changing.

Last week, the Woodland Park Planning Commission signaled the thumbs-up for the Lofthouse Motel renovation project by okaying the appropriate permits to allow the project to move forward. This proposal will be heard by the city council this Thursday.

City officials favor the project because it provides a way to bring life to a building that has sat idle and deteriorated for more than 10 years. Also, local Habitat staff members say they have received no opposition to the project. According to Caperton, the group looked at close to 10 sites before deciding on the old Lofthouse Motel.

If everything moves forward, the Lofthouse Motel multi-unit condo rehab effort could hit pay dirt from June 6-10 for “Blitz Week.” That’s is part of a national event, hosted by the Habitat’s “Builder’s Blitz” program.

When ground-breaking starts on the Lofthouse renovation, Caperton predicts non-stop activity at the motel site. “It is a very exciting project. We have had very good support,” she added. For more information about the project, call 719-687-4447.