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Know the West

In Colorado, a ‘rental crisis’ forces workers into the woods

Tent cities, waste and overcrowding have created something foul in Crested Butte.


This story was produced in partnership with KVNF Radio in Paonia, Colorado.

Each year, thousands of tourists flock to Crested Butte, a mountain resort town located along Colorado’s Western Slope. This July saw more people recreating in and around town than ever. But Crested Butte is small. So small there aren’t enough houses for the town’s low-wage workers to rent. And short-term vacation rentals are gobbling up whatever housing is available, forcing workers out. 

Melanie Rees used to have neighbors. Now, signs advertising vacation rentals mar the homes in Crested Butte’s Meridian Lake subdivision. More and more, housing units are commercial lodging, not homes, she says. 

“In all of these towns we have what is commonly being called now a rental crisis,” she says. “The number of jobs available is pages long in our newspaper and we may have three or four for rent.”

Crested Butte isn’t the only Western town facing a housing crunch. Rees works as a contract housing consultant for the Colorado Association of Ski Towns. She has seen similar situations across the Rockies. When the recession ended, second home owners returned with en masse. They bought up property to rent out on sites like VRBO and AirBnB. This left the booming local workforce short on places to live.

A sign warns visitors of research sites at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado
Gloria Dickie
This summer, many workers took shelter in the town’s surrounding campgrounds. Oh Be Joyful and Musicians’ Camp were some of the hardest hit in the Slate River Drainage. Tent cities popped up. Rees says this kind of condensed camping has negative impacts not only on employees’ performance, but also on the environment. “We don’t have the systems in place for the outhouses and places for people to get clean so that will affect our water quality,” she says.

That means other organizations have been forced to step up to address the problem. 

Out at Musicians Camp, Zach Vaughter with the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition checks on the group’s portable toilet. Generally, he says, the water quality in the Upper Slate is good. But recent water data has shown hits for e. coli and fecal coliform. That led the coalition to raise funds for a single port-a-potty. So far, they’ve collected more than 880 gallons of human waste—about 1,200 individual uses. 

“As soon as that road melts out in the spring, there are people back here camping that are seasonal workers,” Vaughter says.

For the time being, Vaughter says camping workers is more of a social issue than an environmental one. But the camping workers aren’t only crowding out tourists: They’re crowding out nearby towns, including a federal research facility.  

Eight miles north of Crested Butte lies the town of Gothic. In the late 1800s, the town boomed with silver. Now, it’s home to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Every summer, more than 150 national scientists descend on the town to study things like how marmots react to climate change. But this year, destructive visitors overran the area, says the field station’s director, Ian Billick. “We have locations directly adjacent to us here at the research facility where people have cut vegetation down, there’s human feces,” he explains. “We’ve had scientists remove research plots because of the amount of human waste.”

Even on an early fall morning, there’s a steady stream of leaf peeping traffic from Gothic down to Crested Butte. And town employees are busy installing “No trespassing” signs along the roadway.  

With the winter ski season fast approaching, residents aren’t sure what to expect. After all it’s too cold to camp. And the city’s affordable housing projects won’t be done until next year. Rees expects businesses will shorten their hours of operation, unable to find staff. And whatever employees they do have will be overworked. Maybe next year, she says, will be better. 

This story was produced in collaboration with KVNF. Gloria Dickie is an editorial intern at High Country News.