Life as a homeless camper “wasn’t easy” for Bella Brown. Once, while living outdoors near Durango, her tent collapsed in the snow. She propped it up with her walking sticks.
Brown has been homeless twice during the past five years before moving into the Uptown Apartments on north Main Avenue. Her apartment was converted into a long-term rental just as Brown was facing homelessness again.
“This place is a blessing,” she said.
Brown’s apartment is one of 26 units converted into long-term housing in the past year in the Uptown Apartments, formerly part of Spanish Trails Inn & Suites. The conversion of motels to long-term rentals along north Main Avenue is a trend that could provide more affordable housing without requiring deep investments in land and infrastructure.
The former Travelodge at north Main Avenue and 30th Street is being converted into an apartment complex. Other motels are providing housing without becoming full-fledged apartment complexes.
City officials have been wrestling for years with how to encourage the development of more affordable housing. Last year, Durango City Council identified north Main Avenue as an area where it would like to see walkable neighborhoods with a higher density of businesses and housing.
Brown said she sought the help of nonprofits to find affordable housing and avoid camping during a wet winter that left other homeless campers buried in snow.
Having a home has given her a sense of safety and allowed her to think more clearly, she said.
“All you need is the one little place to call your own,” she said.
North Main Avenue is a prime area for more housing because it is close to public transit, which could allow residents to live without cars, said Scott Shine, planning manager for the city of Durango.
The former Travelodge is the first motel on north Main Avenue to formally transition into long-term housing. The project will help city officials learn what key safety features should be required for future similar conversions, Shine said.
“It’s exciting to see this one happening,” he said.
The Uptown complex did not have to be remodeled with upgrades, such as fire-suppression sprinklers because it was originally built as apartments.
MBR Development owner Brian Rael bought Travelodge several years ago, intending to convert it to apartments, he said.
A few weeks ago, Rael changed the name of the property to Aspen Village Apartments. Already, he has a waiting list of prospective residents and expects the first units to open this fall.
The city has been supportive of the project, Rael said.
“They’re definitely very cooperative with what we are doing and feel it is a huge need for our particular area of Main Avenue,” he said.
When the conversion is complete, Aspen Village Apartments will have 30 studios and 16 one-bedroom apartments, he said. Rent will start at $850 per month, he said. In the interim, the complex will continue to operate as a motel, he said.
Remodeling Travelodge into housing makes business sense because so many new hotels are under construction in Durango, Rael said. New projects include two hotels on East Second Avenue, a hotel on Camino del Rio and two hotels on Escalante Drive.
The Uptown Apartments, previously rented for $250 a week, were also purchased with long-term housing in mind.
Bill Hermesman said he bought the units to help a socioeconomic class that he never rented to before. A longtime landlord, Hermesman owns 100 rental units in Durango.
He expected the transition from weekly rentals to long-term housing to take about two months. Instead, it took a year and a $150,000 to $200,000 investment, he said. Upgrades included fresh paint and new appliances and carpet.
“It was in horrible, horrible, horrible shape – worse than I thought,” he said.
He expects the payback on his investment to take “years and years,” he said.
If the city wants to encourage more transitions of motels into long-term housing, it should offer more financial incentives, Hermesman said.
Currently, businesses, including motels on north Main Avenue, can apply for up to $5,000 in matching grant funds from the city to improve their signs, facades, landscaping, windows and other aspects of the property visible to the public.
For Brown, who has lived in similar apartment complexes before, Hermesman’s investments are proof of a landlord who cares.
Hermesman is also willing to accept federally funded housing vouchers for low-income residents, which allowed Brown to live in her apartment on a monthly income of $900, which she receives from Social Security disability.
“This guy, he’s the bomb,” Brown said of her landlord.