Wanted: One or more developers to buy, renovate and repurpose Durango motels now on the market into affordable housing units in the next 18 months-two years. Must be patient and flexible, and have a contractor with conversion experience and a qualified operator on board.
Motel conversion may be the quickest, most affordable way to add housing units to ease Durango’s housing deficit. It’s been done here successfully in the past. City officials are keen on the idea. Housing experts think it could work.
Nationwide, the booming short-term rental business, including companies such as Airbnb, has drastically changed the hospitality business and had a huge impact on motels specifically. Motels are taking another hit from decreased travel due to COVID-19.
Across the country, motels are being purchased and renovated into housing, often into apartments for seniors, veterans and others with low incomes. (Google “motel conversion” and you’ll get 761,000 results.) In some cases, former motels are providing permanent supportive housing for people who are experiencing homelessness.
In Denver last month, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless held a grand opening for its Fusion Studios, a 139-room former Quality Inn in the Park Hill neighborhood.
In Santa Fe, N.M., the city’s Office of Affordable Housing purchased a 122-room suite-style hotel it plans to turn into housing for low-income working families, and veterans and other people who are chronically homeless.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s aggressive Project Homekey is providing seven counties and cities with a combined $76.5 million for 10 projects to convert motels and unused apartments into nearly 580 units for the homeless.
Right here in Durango, several older motel properties previously have been successfully revamped into housing. Ted Hermesman of Triple H Leasing converted his Knight’s Inn motel, across from Durango High School, into the Midtown Apartments. Brian Rael of MBR Development turned the old Travelodge on North Main into Aspen Village, which opened in September. A few other conversions also have added to the housing inventory.
But now may be the ideal time for such projects and some funding for them may be forthcoming from the Biden Administration. Combined with possible tax credits and the savvy of housing experts, Durango’s housing inventory – currently at an all-time low – could be eased.
City Planning Director Scott Shine, who has overseen previous conversion projects, says conversions have the potential to be a faster way to get some affordable housing up compared to building anew. Recently, he has received some inquiries from owners, developers and outside groups considering such projects. Nonprofit organizations can also take on conversion projects.
Motel conversions aren’t always easy, presenting challenges that simply don’t exist when starting from the ground up. Getting old motel units in compliance with current building and fire codes is expensive and not negotiable. Installing plumbing to add fire sprinklers, for example, is a head-scratcher – and costly – in a finished structure.
But it can be done, and profitably, by commercial developers.
Once upon a time, our community had a regional housing authority. It’s time to resurrect that idea and attract a housing expert with experience in these arenas to guide it. We need someone who can aggressively encourage housing development and help interface with the city permitting processes.
And we need to find tax incentives and possibly grants to help motivate developers to partner with the city and local nonprofits to make something happen.
We all know the solutions aren’t going to be easy. But it’s time to stop talking about the problem and work harder to create the solutions. Some five Durango motels are on the market right now. The conversion of one or more of them could be a step in the right direction.