City planners estimate 900 new units will be needed in the next 8 years to meet the current level of growth.
With about 3 percent unemployment in La Plata County, it raises the question: If more people move from outside the area to work here, where will they live?
“We’re running out of people who need a job in this county,” said Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.
Reaching full employment makes it hard for the local economy to grow, which creates a pressing need for more housing for employees in service industries and many other areas, he said.
Just to meet the current level of growth, city planners estimate that 900 new units will be needed in the next eight years.
“For the lower, more affordable price point, I think a key element of that is condominium and multifamily housing,” said Karen Iverson, executive director of the Regional Housing Alliance of La Plata County.
More apartments, condominiums and townhomes in Three Springs, near the city center and elsewhere could help bring down rent and meet housing needs, said city developers and officials. The median rent in Durango in early 2014 was about $900.
Some needed housing already is in the planning stages or under construction. A new 101-unit apartment building is slated for Three Springs, and a new low-rent apartment complex with 50 units is under construction on 32nd Street and East Animas Village Drive.
City officials would like to encourage development near the city center because it helps create a more sustainable community. It also keeps the cost of living lower by eliminating a lengthy commute, Iverson said.
Recent changes to the land-use code were meant to make north Main Avenue, College Drive and Eighth Street more friendly to developers to build mixed-use buildings where people could work and live, said Nicol Killian, planning manager for the city.
In these areas, developers no longer need approval from the planning commission and city council to build, for example, a storefront with apartments above it.
“Our new code opened up some doors that weren’t there before,” she said.
However, despite high demand, developers face a variety of challenges, including geography, parking requirements, the price of land and liability.
The parking requirements in Durango also can be prohibitive for developers because of the cost of asphalt and the space required.
“It takes a lot of value of the property to achieve current parking quotas,” said Dean Brookie, a city councilor and architect.
More mixed-use development downtown, however, also could help ease parking requirements by creating parking businesses and residents could share, he said.
“That’s the key: Do more with less land,” Brookie said.
Doing more with less land also helps developers to be able to invest in expensive in-town parcels.
In addition, growing demand for multifamily housing is starting to tip the scales for financial return and encourage developers to buy parcels that never made financial sense to develop in the past, said Steve Eccher, a Durango architect.
But there still is a need for more property to be designated for multifamily by city zoning to encourage development, said Emil Wanatka, president of Timberline Group. His company is building the 101-unit apartment building in Three Springs.
He sees Three Springs as the current hub of significant growth by default. There is no other large-scale property where much of the necessary infrastructure already is in place for builders, he said.
Building south of town also could be an option for more growth in the future, but there is very little infrastructure in place to support it, he said.
In Durango and across Colorado, another factor at play is a state law that seriously has deterred condo construction, one of the options for more affordable housing, Iverson said. Under the law, only two unit owners are needed to file suit against a builder. It also has made it very difficult to get financing for condo projects, she said.
She hopes the state legislature will address the condominium defects law soon.
In response to the local need, city planners are going to start studying the housing needs in the new year and identify the type of housing most in demand and where it could be built. They also are going to be looking for ways to revise the land-use code to encourage development, said Phillip Supino, one of several city planners.
They are going to be working with Iverson and with the housing alliance, who has done similar studies before.
“I am really excited the city is going to be looking at this comprehensively,” she said.