As Steamboat Springs City Council weighs Iron Horse sale, tight-knit community of tenants hopes to stay
August 27, 2015
Steamboat Springs — For the second time in three years, residents at the city-owned Iron Horse Inn are worried they could soon lose their homes.
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Kirsten La Sovage, a school bus driver for the Steamboat Springs School District, fears she and other residents may not find other workforce housing they can afford here if the Iron Horse is sold and repurposed.
“It’s really stressful,” La Sovage said Tuesday as she and several other residents socialized on the front lawn in front of the property on U.S. Highway 40. “I know the neighbors here are very stressed. It’s quite stressful looking at what other housing is available.”
In this tight-knit apartment community, residents are still eating dinner with their neighbors, having movie nights on the front lawn and unwinding together after long days at work.
But the uncertainty about one of Steamboat’s most affordable housing complexes has neighbors talking.
In 2012, Iron Horse residents faced the prospect of their home being razed to make way for a new police station.
Now, the Steamboat Springs City Council is weighing a possible sale of the property that has long been a financial liability.
The city currently breaks even operating the Iron Horse, but it still must pay an additional $470,000 to $480,000 per year until 2032 to pay off the loan for the property.
The council will meet behind closed doors Tuesday to consider two sale proposals that have not yet been made public.
At least one of the eight sale proposals the city received came from an individual who wanted to provide affordable housing at the property.
For La Sovage and many of the other 50 residents who call the Iron Horse home, the property is a rare piece of real estate that allows them to live and work in a resort community without breaking their bank accounts.
Without this place, several residents have said they may have to move to places as far away as Hayden and Craig and commute.
Or they might leave the Yampa Valley altogether.
“This seems to be a necessity for the people who live here,” said Chris Seefelt, an alarm technician for Western Security Systems who has lived at the Iron Horse for a year. “If this is gone, it puts everyone here in a bad position.”
Hard to beat
For a single bedroom unit in Steamboat Springs, renters are hard pressed to do better than the Iron Horse Inn right now.
Rent and utilities currently cost $700 for most units at the Inn, well below the asking price of most other one-bedroom apartments in the city.
It’s also centrally located between downtown and the mountain.
If the Iron Horse wasn’t there, renters of the 26 apartment units would likely face grim prospects for a similar living situation.
On Thursday, there were only two ads for one-bedroom rentals in the Steamboat Today classifieds.
They carried rents of $900 and $1,050 per month.
Iron Horse manager Jason Belyea said he gets calls daily from prospective renters, and he often has to tell them the Iron Horse is full.
“People are desperate to get in,” he told tenants at a small informal meeting Tuesday.
Belyea had received three to four phone calls from prospective renters Tuesday.
Resident Blake Lambert, a baker at The Bakery, said she called every day for a week before she got lucky and got a room.
“It was the only one-bedroom place I could find for under a grand,” Lambert said.
When tenants do get a room, many end up staying for years.
They consider themselves lucky to have found the spot.
When Iron Horse resident Bill Blackwell isn’t driving a bus for the city of Steamboat, he can usually be found having fun with his 3-year-old daughter Bella and his fellow Iron Horse residents.
He likes to say his efficiency unit at the Iron Horse resembles a toy box, and the walls are lined with bikes, a paddle board and many pictures of fun times.
“It’s simple living here,” he said as his daughter takes a bike out to the front lawn for a spin. “It’s home for us.”
Blackwell has a view of Howelsen Hill out his window.
Like other residents at the Iron Horse, Blackwell is concerned about the possibility of the Iron Horse becoming something other than workforce housing.
He sees the place as more than a building. It’s a place that keeps dozens of local workers in the community.
“We need these people to be here, and they need housing,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell, with his daughter in tow, has now spoken twice to the City Council about his desire to see the Iron Horse continue as a home for local workers.
“At the end of the day, who is going to have the bigger black eye, the council that purchased this thing, or the council that gave it away?” Blackwell asked the council at a recent meeting. “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging.”
Blackwell and neighbor Jeff O’Neill met with the Iron Horse manager Tuesday to discuss the future of the property.
O’Neill is concerned the city may try to sell this asset at a fraction of the cost it purchased it for.
“The citizens are screaming we have a problem” with housing, O’Neill said as he pointed to a recent business climate survey that showed 61 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the affordability of local housing.
He said the city should wait for more workforce housing to be built before it even considers selling the Iron Horse.
He also thinks the city has an opportunity to continue making revenue at the property by reopening the adjacent hotel building that sat empty for a few years until the Sheraton Steamboat Resort leased it out during the winter to house its workers.
Belyea, who stressed to tenants he is remaining neutral and objective about the future of the Iron Horse, provided O’Neil with some background about the property.
He said the city faced some strong opposition from other private hotels and the community when the city operated the now closed Iron Horse Hotel.
Other hotels saw the city as a competitor in the hotel business.
Belyea also said the council will have to answer whether maintaing the Iron Horse as workforce housing is the best use of taxpayers dollars.
“Should taxpayers be responsible for ensuring others have a place to live?” Belyea asked the tenants he was meeting with.
It’s a question he said the City Council will have to consider.
A close community
The Iron Horse currently houses a community of bus drivers, housekeepers, personal trainers, DJs, hospital employees and landscapers.
The city’s brand new airport manager is living here temporarily while he searches for a house of his own.
The Iron Horse also has housed a former city manager and many other workers in the local service industry.
“Without this place, I could barely afford to live here,” personal trainer Marshall Lagoe said as he ate his dinner Wednesday outside with a group of his neighbors. “It’s fantastic. I have great neighbors.”
The story is the same for several other residents interviewed this week.
The Iron Horse community values its proximity to the downtown area, the Yampa River and the bus line that zips them to the base of Steamboat Ski Area.
But the property has long drawn scrutiny and criticism from some in the community.
Should the city be in the landlord business and use taxpayer dollars to provide this workforce housing?
Is there a higher, better purpose for this riverfront property that could be fulfilled by the private sector?
In what could be its last big decision before a new council majority is seated, current council members will decide what will become of this property, and this community of hard workers who call it home.
“I try not to worry about what could happen,” Blackwell said in his apartment as his daughter continued to play. “What is going to happen is going to happen. Right now, I’m just pushing for a better tomorrow.”