The light at the end of the tunnel

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series. The first part ran March 17 in the Courier.

ALAMOSA – Homelessness is a hot topic everywhere, from the state legislature to council chambers across the state, and Alamosa is no exception. But solutions to homelessness cannot be discussed without first addressing what is causing people to end up without a place to live. As Heather Brooks, Alamosa’s City Manager, explained to business leaders at this week’s Alamosa County Chamber of Commerce lunch meeting, a myriad of factors are at the root of the problem, ranging from domestic violence to low wages.

But there is an underlying problem driving homelessness that makes it a much larger issue than those living without shelter in plain sight would suggest. According to Brooks, an uncounted number of people are “couch surfing,” “bunking up in hotel rooms,” living with relatives or, in the case of children, in the foster care system. Although their numbers cannot be nailed down to specifics, a waiting list that currently exceeds two years for people needing public housing provides just a glimpse of what is going on across the San Luis Valley.

The simple truth is the most obvious: many people are homeless because there is no place for them to live. Alamosa has a housing crisis for those who are already living here.

Brooks laid out information that explains the situation in more detail, citing a 2021 Housing Assessment and Housing Plan that identified the lack of housing as a crisis with the city in need of 515 housing units. That assessment was done two years ago.

Housing is directly tied to economics, and the economic reality for people living in Alamosa is not working in residents’ favor. Specifically, the median income in Alamosa is $38,000 — meaning half the people who reside in the city earn less than that. In comparison, the median income in Colorado is $82,611 — a difference of $44,611.

With a median income of $38,000, the target rent is $700, but the actual average rent in Alamosa is $879, based on figures from 2021. The target price, based on that median income, to buy a house is $160,000-$275,000 but the actual median sales price in 2021 was $328,950.

Brooks further explained that affordable housing is determined by what percentage of a person’s income is devoted to housing with 30% as the dividing line between what is affordable and what is a cost burden to the renter or homeowner.

Of all the people living in Alamosa in 2021, 50% were “cost burdened,” meaning more than 30% of their income was solely devoted to a place to live.

Common sense would dictate that creating more homes priced to sell between $160,000 and $275,000 and priced to rent below $700 per month should be the priority in Alamosa, however, the cost to construct new housing in Alamosa is higher than these target prices.

A look at average wages in Alamosa — even for people employed in high demand, professional positions — further illustrates the challenges.

The light at the end of the tunnel

Thanks to the effort of Brooks, Director of Development Services Rachel Baird, city council, Community Resources and Housing Development Corporation (CRHDC), SLV Housing Coalition and SLV Health, steps are being taken that will result in actionable projects soon.

According to Brooks, CRHDC has a 400-plus unit development in design that will be a mix of rentals, ownership, multi-family housing and single-family residences.

SLV Housing Coalition took a step forward in purchasing both Boyd School for the development of future affordable housing for lower- and moderate-income individuals and families plus Century Mobile Home Park, where they are improving the park grounds and upgrading houses for rental.

SLV Health has worked to help make connections for workforce housing in the $200,000 plus or minus range and smaller, private developments are also in the investigative stage.

The city is also taking steps to support historic residential areas already occupied, including the relocation of the “soup kitchen” — currently operating in a shelter in the middle of a residential neighborhood on the south side — to a site that is just a three-minute walk from St. Benedict’s homeless encampment. That 4,000 square foot facility will allow greater oversight of St. Benedict’s, have facilities for showers and will be convertible for bed space at night if the need arises for an emergency shelter, removing the current reliance on local churches and other facilities to provide that service.

This building will be owned by the city, created with grant funding, and leased to La Puente.

The city is also taking a step forward in providing housing for individuals who are transitioning from homelessness to obtaining employment and, eventually, housing where they can live independently. This project, which will be under SLV Housing Coalition site management, is described as “targeted housing” to be built along Airport Road, not far from St. Benedict’s but also easily accessible to SLV Behavioral Health where wraparound services, such as case management, will assist people in dealing with ongoing issues that interfere with their health, wellness and ability to live as productive, independent members of the community.

At one point in her presentation, Brooks admitted that “talking about homelessness makes me nervous.” Each of the decisions that make up the city’s strategy have been made by city council but Brooks, as the architect of the strategy and spokesperson to the public, has become the face and voice of what the city is doing, opening her up to being singled out for frequent public criticism.

She admits it is a difficult role, at times.

However, this ambitious plan has garnered Alamosa a reputation as a benchmark city across the state. During city council Wednesday night, Mayor Ty Coleman made a point of saying, “Every week, I get at least one phone call from an official asking to hear about what we’re doing about homelessness. People are talking about Alamosa because of these projects and the excellent work Ms. Brooks is doing.”