Virus puts housing dreams on hold

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Habitat triplex project delayed due to lost jobs

  • Lisa and Cordell Balcombe stand with their son, Hunter, in the lot where their new home will be built. The Balcombes are one of three families selected for Habitat for Humanity of the San Juans’ first project in Ridgway, a triplex. The project has been delayed by the unemployment and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. Liz Teitz/Ouray County Plaindealer
    Lisa and Cordell Balcombe stand with their son, Hunter, in the lot where their new home will be built. The Balcombes are one of three families selected for Habitat for Humanity of the San Juans’ first project in Ridgway, a triplex. The project has been delayed by the unemployment and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. Liz Teitz/Ouray County Plaindealer
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When the coronavirus pandemic struck this spring, Lisa and Cordell Balcombe lost their jobs and they saw their dream of homeownership slip further away.
The Balcombes and their 8-year-old son, Hunter, were looking forward to this summer, when construction was expected to begin on the town’s first Habitat for Humanity project, a triplex in River Park. They were one of three families selected by the nonprofit in 2017 for the project, which will help them have a permanent home in the community they moved to four years ago. They’d have more space, and more stability, in “a place that I know we won’t have to move out of,” Lisa Balcombe said.
But for now, the lot around the corner from their rental sits empty, taken over by weeds, while construction continues next door. 
Groundbreaking for the home was set for May or June; now, there is a “soft goal” of September, said Erica Madison, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of the San Juans. “Many of our partner families found themselves unemployed,” she said.
“COVID hit many of us hard, and our partner families are not exempt from that.”
“A lot of people think that Habitat homes are free,” she said, which isn’t true. “The cost of a mortgage for a home is less than what the current market rate is in a community, but the homeowners are still required to pay mortgages, and to do that sustainably, they have to have secure and reliable employment.”
Engineering and architectural plans have been finalized and paid for, she said, “and we just need to ensure that our partner families are re-employed before we can break ground.”
Lisa, who works at the Hot Springs Pool and previously worked at Colorado Boy, and her husband, Cordell, who works at Brickhouse 737, were both unemployed for four months when the businesses shuttered.
They’re back at work now, and “we’re hoping that things don’t get shut down again.” Hunter is eager to start third grade and return to school next month, and Lisa is looking for another part-time job.
The family moved to Ridgway from Breckenridge, where they were “getting priced out” and wanted a better quality of life and a more family-oriented community, Lisa Balcombe said. Making a home in Ouray County has been challenging: They found jobs in the area before moving here, but didn’t realize how hard it would be to find a place to live, she said. 
Both have worked primarily at restaurants: She worked at Burro Cafe and the Adobe Inn, which both shut down. Before moving to Ridgway, she worked as a recruiter and in the insurance industry, “but there’s just not that type of job here.” 
“Luckily we did find housing, one of the last rentals in River Park,” Balcombe said, but buying a home has been out of the question. “We certainly can’t afford a house here; most of the homes are like half a million.” When they heard Habitat was looking for families for the Ridgway homes, they applied right away, she said. 
Habitat for Humanity applicants must have lived in the county for at least one year, and earn 30 to 60 percent of the county’s median household income, which is just over $62,000. Mortgages for houses built by the organization are capped at 30 percent of owners’ gross monthly income, and require a $500 down payment. Homeowners also have to put in up to 500 hours of “sweat equity” in helping build the house. 
They won’t be moving far once the home is built on North Laura Street, though they don’t expect to move in for about 18 months, Balcombe said. They’re excited to have more space, including a garage, and to have a sense of permanence “just knowing that it’s ours.”
Despite frequent conversations about Ridgway’s affordable housing shortage, “it’s not getting any better,” Balcombe said. The median home price in the county is more than $400,000.
“For people who work in the service industry, these places have such a hard time finding employees because there’s no housing,” she said. “Ridgway’s a funny little area. You have wealthy people here who like to go dine out and have fun and be very social, and you have to have employees to work there, and there’s nowhere for them to live.” 
“Those are among the most vulnerable folks in our communities, and such a vital and essential component of the tourism market,” Habitat’s Madison said. “It’s hard to wrap your head around how to keep those folks in your community, when there’s so much volatility on the horizon.”
The other two families selected for the triplex also work in service industry jobs, and struggled this spring with the same business shutdowns, she said.  
“With COVID and the market, we are concerned that the diversity of the community is going to continue to be at stake and force low-income families to move out of the community,” she said. “We’re feeling the urgency of needing to get this done, and we don’t want to lose any more time.”
Habitat is still fundraising another $15,000 for the triplex, a task also made harder by the pandemic. 
Madison praised Ridgway Town Council’s support of the project, waiving “over $16,000 worth of fees for that development.”
“Raising money in the era of COVID has proven to be a real challenge,” Madison said. “We’re hoping that by fall our donors and various other supporters in the community feel a greater sense of security.” 
The fear of a COVID resurgence is also a concern, but construction can get underway with safety protocols in place, she said. 
Habitat recently dedicated its 56th home built in the area, in Montrose, but the triplex project in Ridgway will be its first affordable housing project in Ouray County.

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a program boosting community news resources across the U.S. The Ouray County Plaindealer is still fundraising to support her work here in Ouray County, focused mainly on affordable housing and related socioeconomic issues as well as COVID-19. Please email erin@ouraynews.com to make a tax-deductible donation.