Plight of ‘boondockers’ embodies Grand County affordable housing crisis

One of Sun Outdoors' Airstream trailers sits at their Rocky Mountain location in Granby.
Tracy Ross/Sky-Hi News

On a Bureau of Land Management Road northeast of Hot Sulphur Springs, Bob Sinclair and his wife parked their camper trailer near Kinney Creek. For a few years, the couple has camped throughout most of the summer, returning to their house to shower and get more supplies before heading to a new spot.

The owners of the house the Sinclairs rented sold it, and the couple has been living out of their fifth wheel trailer for a little over a year, Sinclair said. The couple lived on BLM land from June to October 2021, when they started renting an RV site at Sun Outdoors Rocky Mountains in Granby. The resort, which features RV sites, lodging and tent sites, opened in 2019 as River Run RV Park and rebranded in 2021

Sun Outdoors increases their rates during their busy season, which a representative said was from mid-May to mid-October. When the rates increased this summer, the Sinclairs went back to residing on public lands — a practice known as “boondocking.”

Aaron Keil parked his camper trailer at Sun Outdoors with his daughter for about a month before he also left because of rate increases. The Navy and Army veteran, avionics electrician and junior engineer helps rebuild homes in Grand County after they burned down in the East Troublesome Fire

Keil came to the county three years ago and would rent housing for part of the year. In the winters, his parents would leave their Grand Lake home of 25 years and stay in Arizona to avoid the cold weather. Keil and his daughter would live in that house while they were gone. This summer, though, Keil could not find any rentals he could afford.

“It was probably two to three months before my parents even got up here. So we’re talking like March or so, I start looking for a place and it’s just impossible,” Keil said. “You start finding out that you either have to know somebody that knows somebody that will rent the downstairs to you, but there’s just nowhere to go.”

In April, Keil decided to have his trailer shipped to Grand County from Arizona and made reservations to stay at Sun Outdoors. He said he expected to pay $1,100 per month for the RV site, which comes with electricity, water and sewer hook-ups, Wi-Fi and more. Once he arrived, he discovered $1,100 was the rate he was expected to pay every two weeks.

“We do this for another two or three weeks because I can’t afford this,” Keil said. “When you get stuck in the peak months at (Sun Outdoors), you’re paying $2,500 (per month), almost $100 a day. And so I had to make the decision.”

Keil decided to start boondocking after hearing about it from other people who were staying in RVs at Sun Outdoors. The Sinclairs and others told him that campers could park on public lands as long as they moved every 14 days. While it was not his ideal living situation, he decided to leave the vacation resort.

The Bureau of Land Management policy

Without a truck to tow his trailer with, Keil has stuck with the Sinclairs since they started boondocking. The group bought a generator so they could have electricity while in the woods, but they did not have amenities like the Wi-Fi and water and sewage hook-ups they had at Sun Outdoors. 

They planned to move campsites every 14 days to follow BLM policy, but they say officials started to enforce a part of the policy they had not enforced in the past — campers needed to move at least 30 miles from their last campsite every time they relocated.

“A ranger was like, ‘I know what your trailers look like, if you’re within 30 miles, I can impound your trailer or ticket you guys,’ and I’m just like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Keil said. “You guys know the difficulties that some of us are dealing with, and they don’t care. Nobody cares.”

Jamie Westenfelder, a BLM law enforcement officer, said the bureau has had this policy for over 12 years. While an uptick in violations of the rule has led to more law enforcement efforts, the bureau has always enforced it, Westenfelder said.

Ryan Kay, the bureau’s acting Kremmling field manager, said the bureau has the policy to keep public lands healthy and make sure visitors can recreate safely.

“Definitely not all of the situations have this, but we do have quite a few situations where occupancy or long-term residency in public lands is also associated with other illegal activities — trash dumping, digging, cutting of vegetation,” Kay said.

Sun Communities and affordable housing

Keil said he thought Granby’s Board of Trustees intended Sun Outdoors to have affordable housing for locals when it was approved as River Run. Granby Mayor Josh Hardy, who joined the board after it approved the resort, said he did not know of any agreement like that, but another property owned by Sun Communities received approval around the same time and looked to provide “attainable housing.”

“I don’t want to say affordable housing because that’s something that the board struggled with,” Hardy said. “Based upon their pricing and everything, it wasn’t necessarily affordable by definition. So I think the board decided to change it to attainable.”

That development, Smith Creek Crossing, received approval in September 2018, and Sky-Hi News coverage identified it as an “affordable housing development” at the time.

Affordable housing in Grand County

While some boondockers may live out of RVs and campers by choice, Keil found himself living on public lands out of necessity. His situation exemplifies the affordable housing crisis in Grand County. estimates the fair market rental rate in Grand County to be $1,279 per month for a two-bedroom apartment. The website says that is higher than 76% of Colorado.

While the Grand County Housing Authority estimated in 2018 that the county needed 275 additional housing units by 2023, the Fraser River Valley Housing Partnership states on its website that there is a housing gap of 645 to 730 units in the valley. The partnership between Fraser, Granby, Winter Park and the county started this year, and it appointed its at-large directors July 18.

At Sun Outdoors’ conference center Thursday, the partnership hosted an event to share the working draft of their new housing needs assessment, which covers the three towns in the partnership and unincorporated areas between them.

The partnership released results July 14 from their recent community survey. After learning about how the partnership would operate and use tax money, 64% of area voters showed support for a 0.2%, or 2 mill, property tax to raise $1.2 million per year for the partnership.

Grand County Commissioner Randy George, who replaced former commissioner Kris Manguso when she became community development director in June, said that the county currently offers down payment and rental assistance, senior housing and homebuyer education classes through its housing authority.

The commissioners recognize affordable housing as a major issue in the county, George said. They discuss aspects of the crisis regularly, including the impact of short term rentals on affordable housing. 

The county has worked with Coyote Creek and The Ranches at Devil’s Thumb on an agreement to assess a 0.5% affordable housing fee on sales to homeowners for the Grand County Housing Authority, George said. He called the program a long-term plan because the fee will not “bring in a lot of money.”

“If more and more and more private developers will buy into that, then that will put the county and the housing authority in a position to be able to do more to encourage the construction of affordable housing,” George said.

George spoke highly of affordable and workforce housing projects being built by the town of Winter Park, resort at Winter Park and the town of Granby. He also mentioned the Fraser River Valley Housing Partnership.

“That’s a new entity that may be in a position to develop some housing in the future,” George said. “It’s just getting started.”

Projects under consideration

Granby’s affordable housing project on U.S. Highway 40, which started as the Rodeo Apartments project, will sit on 30 acres of town-owned land on the highway south of Silver Sage Road. Hardy said the board is working with outside parties to research deed restrictions, which will set regulations to make sure the housing in the project stays affordable.

“There’s some different deed restrictions that can be put in place,” Hardy said before providing an example. “There are some restrictions up in Winter Park that are limited on how much resale. It might be like 5% of purchase value. It can only go up 5% of its value for the sale.”

Grand Lake Mayor Steve Kudron said the town’s board of trustees discusses affordable housing at all of their meetings, although local landlord Elmer Lanzi questioned Kudron when they ran into each other Monday morning.

“We spent a little bit of time talking about the town getting into the affordable housing rental business,” Kudron said. “He says, ‘I can just speak from a landlord (perspective), is that really something you want to do?’”

The town has indicated its willingness to get into affordable housing through projects like Space to Create, which will build workforce housing and workspace for creative industries and artisans. Kudron said the project will create 20 working and living spaces, and he hopes it will break ground soon.

Grand Lake also has two pieces of land, the Matthews and Mary Drive lands, that trustees have considered using for affordable housing. The town is renting a house on the Matthews land to two marina workers through September, but Kudron said it could be used for more permanent affordable housing in the future, potentially with a program Lanzi mentioned to him.

“You can build duplexes,” Kudron said. “There are financing programs available (where) one side is owner residing, and then the other side can be rented. It kills two birds with one stone by providing permanent residency and ownership, but also being able to provide rental units.”

Kudron said the town bought land on Mary Drive across from the Conoco three years ago with money designated for affordable housing. The property has 14 water taps, making it easier to build housing quickly. Trustees have considered using manufactured houses, like the ones the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre is using for their staff housing, on the land to get something built in one to two years.

Projects that involve building housing, even ones that could use manufactured housing on land with preexisting water infrastructure, take months if not years to complete. George said he does not know of any solutions to provide affordable housing any faster.

“There is not enough supply compared to the amount of demand,” George said. “People figured out from the COVID situation that we don’t have to work in the city, we can work remotely, so that increased the demand in places where people wanted to live.”

The boondockers

Having to move 30 miles from campsite to campsite — about the distance from Berthoud Pass to Grand Lake — makes boondocking more difficult and inconvenient. The Sinclairs have moved their camper trailer back to Sun Outdoors, where they will stay indefinitely.

“That’s a hardship,” Sinclair said. “That’s $2,500 a month for July and August, then it comes down to like two grand and fifteen. Wintertime is affordable.”

The Sinclairs can afford Sun Outdoors because Bob works as a mobile mechanic, fixing construction and logging equipment as well as fifth-wheel trailers and motorhomes. He and his wife have lived in Grand County since 2002, and he owned a landscaping company and an auto repair shop before starting his current job.

Keil cannot afford Sun Outdoors, though, so he and his daughter are going to live at a friend’s vacation home temporarily.

“​​I don’t know how long that’s gonna last,” Keil said. “I don’t know where I’m gonna go next. … It’s just, it’s chaotic. It’s not the kind of life I’d rather be living, especially being a veteran and trying to help this community.”

In Arizona, Keil owns a house he had been renting. When his tenant moved to Texas, he decided to sell the house, which is currently on the market. Money from that sale could provide him some relief, but he said he does not know what to do in the meantime.

“If you’re trying to kick all the good people out of here, it’s working,” Keil said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the nature of a real estate transaction and respect an individual’s privacy concerns.

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