By Jessica Wierzbinski
It can’t really be that hard to find a place to house your family, right? Not even in a little mountain town that has in recent years become a veritable Mecca for mountain biking, river sporting, alternatively medicating, retiring and any number of other activities folks come here for. Even amid this influx, one can always cover the basics like housing, right?
I can say from personal experience what the recently published housing needs assessment reports in numbers: families have it hard here, and many are being forced to move away.
Beginning in January, 2015, I spent well over a year proactively scouring the housing market in Salida – both the rental and the sale markets – for a way to house myself and my sons. Having lived in our beloved S-Town for over five years, we’d already thrown down roots. Good, deep roots. We didn’t want to leave. But who knew simply staying put would prove so tooth-and-nail difficult?
It took only a couple of months to learn that renting was not an option for us. It’s taboo to admit it, but by and large, landlords discriminate against families. It’s not legal, but it happens. “You have how many sons? … Oh, no. My place is not for you.” I repeated this conversation several times before realizing I simply couldn’t rent a house in this town for less than about $1,500 per month.
Granted, I have four sons, but I’m sure I would have found a place more easily if I’d had four “well behaved dogs.” I know three other families who have only two children and found it impossible to rent a home in Salida, being forced either to find a modular to buy, or to move away from Salida.
So I set my sights on purchasing a home. This was a more desirable prospect anyway. I would own a piece of this idyllic, and apparently booming, little, mountain town. Okay, plan B. Go …
You’ve heard people say that seeking out a home to buy is a full-time job; I assure you, that is no exaggeration. I had several realtors on the watch for me. I had “listing carts” set up with a few different real estate companies that would automatically notify me when a new house in my price range came on the market. I had a similar set-up with Zillow (which turned out to be a terribly inefficient and often inaccurate web-based service). I also had a religiously kept breakfast date with The Mountain Mail’s classifieds section. And I biked daily through the downtown and Salida southeast areas, knowing that’s where any houses I would be able to afford were likely to show up.
I was on top of this. But unlike many others, I was fortunate enough to have, shall we say, creative housing options to get me through this long interim of searching for a more permanent solution. Many other families have not had that luxury and have simply had to up and move.
I realized just how on top of the market I was one morning, several months into my house hunt, when I found myself standing in a local realtor’s office, and he and all his office mates were bombarding me with this new listing on H and that one on Tenth and on and on, and it occurred to me that none of these well-meant suggestions was news to me. “Oh that one,” I heard myself say, “that’s John Doe’s house and it’s out of my price range. And that other one I looked at and I can’t get financing on it because of x, y or z. And this one is just plain overpriced and he doesn’t really want to sell it.” I knew my game.
The really telling part of the story, however, is that in the end, it didn’t come down to what I knew or how badly I needed a place or how much time and diligence I invested in the house hunt. In the end, my finally being able to purchase a home in Salida came down to a favor from an acquaintance.
I found a 120-year-old tiny house, more or less, and I loved it instantly. I put a full-price offer on it the day it was listed. (This was my fifth offer on a house.) By afternoon, my realtor advised me that there were several offers on this little place, and that I would do well to “up” mine. So I did. I offered more than the asking price. As it turned out, there were higher offers than mine, but the others were from investors or second-homers, so the seller, realizing she knew me as a fellow local mom, accepted my lower offer and absorbed the loss.
In my estimation, Salida’s housing crisis isn’t going to be solved without a whole lot more of those “looking out for our own” kind of decisions. Not hand-outs, but leg-ups maybe. There’s a lot of lip service paid in public meetings to “affordable housing,” but what can we as a city do to make that concept a local reality? Or what builder or investor or land owner is going to say, “Ya know, I’ve made enough money in this town. I’m perfectly comfortable. I’m going to give back by creating some actually affordable housing”?
It’s so counter-intuitive, it doesn’t seem likely. But if there’s anywhere that sort of thing can happen, it’s Salida.
Jessica Wierzbinski plays with words and ideas and images and mid-sized children as often as she can from her consignment shop, ReNew, in the heart of the town that owns her heart.