A tight market for affordable housing has been a persistent headache in Durango, but a marketplace solution – the conversion of hotels to apartments – might prove a practical way to alleviate the crunch.
Mount Wilson Properties, which also owns the Westwood Apartments, purchased the Iron Horse Inn on May 31 and has converted all 145 units into long-term rentals. It’s now called Red Cliff Apartments.
“It’s not Taj Mahal. They’re smaller units, but you have a little kitchenette, a bathroom, a downstairs area, and then you have a bedroom loft,” said Garth Schultheis, co-owner of Mount Wilson Properties and general manager and head of operations at Red Cliff Apartments.
Rent for the 135 one-bedroom, one-bath units is $895 per month. The 10 two-bedroom units, some of which have two baths, rent for $995 per month. Rent includes electricity, gas, water, sewer, garbage and recycling. In addition, Red Cliff conducts a background check of all applicants, requires $1,790 for first month’s rent and a security deposit and charges a $25 application fee.
While Schultheis said the old Iron Horse Inn had a well-deserved reputation for crime, he looked beyond the property’s immediate problems when deciding to purchase it. What he saw were building blocks in place for a healthy community right on the property, which includes 7½ acres of open space, a playground, a renovated swimming pool, an outdoor kitchen and gathering area, a basketball court and laundry facilities.
“We’re trying hard to create a safe place where you know your neighbors and you have the aspects of community,” he said.
Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said providing more affordable rental units is important in attracting the workers necessary to support a growing economy.
“Workforce housing is critical to the needs of our marketplace. Looking at the rental rates, this might help bring down the overall rent costs. Bringing more rental units to the market will hopefully bring down costs; think supply and demand. This location is good due to it has a trolley stop,” Llewellyn said.
The property’s 7½ acres of open space provides an area for people to walk their dogs and, along with a playground, the open space is popular with children. The old breakfast area has been renovated into a commons area where Schultheis envisions holding GED classes, first-time homebuyer classes and other educational programs that would benefit residents.
Schultheis recalls taking real estate broker classes that noted the essential elements for a strong community – open space, play areas for children, space for schools and places of worship.
“That’s always been in the back of my mind for the ingredients you need for community, a good community. So when I saw this place, I was like: This place kind of has all those ingredients.”
One of Red Cliff’s tenants who was involved in creating the community garden at Manna soup kitchen is looking into the possibility of creating another community garden on the 7½ acres of open space, which includes irrigation rights.
Red Cliff is in the process of working with Recalibrate Church, which holds services in rented space at Fort Lewis College, to get city approvals to convert a large warehouse on the property into a new home for the church.
“What I want to offer people is an opportunity. Because there’s a lot of people out there with ideas. And it’s like if that’s good for the community and it betters the property, hey, let’s do it. It just betters everybody’s life,” Schultheis said of plans for community gardens and the church on the property.
Vacancies are already tight.
Schultheis said Red Cliff is down to six open units, which will be made available for tenants upon completion of remodels.
Schultheis said $160,000 has been spent on maintenance of 60 units that needed such things as new paint, new carpeting or flooring and new cabinets.
Major remodeling was avoided, but the work comes on top of some $1 million spent on renovations since 2011 by previous owners of the old inn, which was built in the 1970s.
Other upgrades to the grounds include a resurfacing of the parking lot and improvements to the buildings’ exteriors.
Cleaning up the crime problemA problem of drug dealing at the Iron Horse was been handled with several evictions, and Schultheis said part of the management focus of Red Cliff will be staying on top of unlawful behavior before it gets a chance to take a foothold.
Dealing with the drug issue was not particularly difficult, Schultheis said.
“Those were the guys we evict. Those are the people. If you’re dealing drugs, you’ve got to go. And then there were some other things going on here, some criminal activity. And, you know, they always want to get a foothold in, but we just stay vigilant with that,” he said.
The background check has more to do with checking into recent criminal behavior than weeding out people with poor credit reports, he said.
“It’s kind of like if they have a job and they can afford to stay here but they have $30,000 in medical bills, but they have a good track record with rents, credit score doesn’t matter so much,” he said.
Schultheis notes the great mountain views and the sight of the iconic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge train passing by are drawing points.
A couple years down the road when the train comes by, Schultheis said, he hopes the conductor announces: “Hey, you know that place right up there? That’s the old Iron Horse. That’s where they started helping with the homeless problem in Durango and getting people transitioning away from homelessness. And it was the model.”