Census records 41% of homes in county as ‘vacant’

Similar rate seen in other mountain counties

Despite a valleywide housing crisis that has hit both residents and local businesses, 41% of housing units in Gunnison County are considered vacant, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. A housing unit is labeled “vacant” if no one is living in it at the time of the census, or is occupied by a second homeowner. 

The high vacancy percentage is similar across other mountain resort and recreation-centered communities in Colorado. Gunnison was just ahead of Pitkin County, whose housing stock was reported at 39% vacant. Ouray sits at 31%, Summit at 58%, Eagle at 37%, San Miguel at 45% and Hinsdale, with the highest vacancy rate in the state of Colorado at 71%.

Although almost 5,000 housing units in Gunnison County are considered “vacant,” these homes aren’t necessarily empty. That number can be attributed to second homeowners and part-time residents, which can put a strain on housing availability for the valley’s local workforce. 

“These are communities where the total housing capacity doesn’t reflect the real number of residents who live and work there year round,” said Gunnison County Commissioner Liz Smith. “It certainly doesn’t reflect the urgent need for meaningful housing solutions. When members of our community can’t stay with friends or live out of motel rooms or their cars any longer, they leave.”

Smith said it’s important to keep in mind that the census vacancy rate does not show the number of units available for sale or rent. The Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority (GVHA) housing market update this summer revealed a worsening market for local renters and buyers. Rental vacancy fell below 1% in 2021, while rental prices continued to increase. 

The census data revealed that vacancy rates in counties like Montrose and Pueblo are significantly lower, falling between 7-8%. Their housing is used differently and for residents who live and work there, their “livelihood is a year-round experience,” Smith said. A much lower percentage of the housing stock is utilized by short term rentals or vacation homes.  

The 2010 census found that 43% of homes were vacant in Gunnison County. GVHA Director Jennifer Kermode said Gunnison County suffers from the “down valley effect.” 

“There’s never going to be enough housing up where the ski area is and where the majority of jobs are, so people have to move down valley to find places to live that they can afford,” Kermode said. “And as that continues to happen over time from 10 years ago, it’s just eating up the housing stock that we have down here.” 

Over the past decade, the population of Gunnison County has increased by almost 13%, according to the census. During the pandemic, throngs of newcomers migrated away from cities to the mountains, overwhelming the already limited housing stock. 

Crested Butte in particular “really started feeling the crunch in January through June of 2021,” said Crested Butte Community Development Director Troy Russ.  

“That’s when I think any surplus housing supply vanished,” Russ said. 

Since COVID kickstarted the phenomenon referred to as “the mountain migration,” Gunnison and Crested Butte are “much fuller” he said. He acknowledged record-breaking tourist lodging numbers throughout the county, but he said he believes a greater number of homes are now “occupied full time.”

“My instinct is the reason the grocery shelves are constantly empty is not the visitor,” Russ said. “I was in City Market this weekend on Sunday, coming home from Denver, and I couldn’t find dishwasher soap, and that’s not a tourist thing.”  

(Bella Biondini can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or bella@gunnisontimes.com.)


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