Housing crisis hits Carbondale leader
Read Katrina Byars’ letter to the editor further explaining her situation, her status as a town trustee, and calling attention to the larger housing issue.
Carbondale Trustee Katrina Byars has advocated for affordable housing through much of her two-year tenure on the Board of Trustees. But she didn’t know the crisis she was fighting would put her own family out of a home.
Now she might have to choose between her service to the community and giving her family shelter.
Byars, a single mother raising two teenage kids, has lived in the valley all her life. Six years ago she and her children moved into a three-bedroom rental house that offered stability, a footing that led her to run for the town’s Board of Trustees in the first place.
The front yard had a large shade tree, and in back were a chicken coop and room for a garden. She put her green thumb to work turning it into a small oasis, and before long she was growing most of her own vegetables for the summer and collecting eggs every morning.
“The yard was in its own way a subsidy, a space that supported our existence. We needed what we had there. And it was hard to let that go,” she said.
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At $1,575 per month, the rent was still cumbersome, sometimes eating up all of a month’s income. But it allowed her family the space they needed.
Her daughter adopted a little mixed-breed dog from Colorado Puppy Rescue and named him Johnny (short for John Lennon). They eventually added two cats to the family.
Over the years she worked numerous jobs, which included getting a successful catering company off the ground.
In 2014 she finished her undergraduate work at Colorado Mountain College with a degree in sustainability. That year Carbondale voters also elected her to the Town Board.
But, like many people wrapping up a bachelor’s degree, she overestimated the opportunities waiting in the job market.
Byars said that in the last six months she applied for about 30 jobs. In many cases she’s been passed over for applicants with business degrees, and her standards for what she’s willing to do have gradually come down.
After both of Byars’ children spent most of their teenage years in that house, with rental rates climbing almost daily, the owner decided to sell it rather than keep it as a rental. He’d built the house as part of his retirement, and Byars called it a wise decision.
She didn’t have any animosity toward the owner. “But our simple life was suddenly dispersed,” she said.
With two teenagers in tow, she was soon scrambling for a backup plan — anywhere.
Byars and her teenage kids have been homeless now for a month. Her son is now 18 and set to graduate next month. Her daughter is a 14-year-old high school freshman.
The good grace of a strong community network has kept them from sleeping without a roof. But for much longer, roughing it to hold out for the right housing fit may not be an option.
They had to give Johnny the mutt away. And though some friends have taken the cats in, one of them escapes periodically to venture back to their old house.
The hunt for a new place, the uncertainty of every day, has been exhausting, she said. “Moving my things from place to place has made me tired and defeated.”
And, having raised her two kids as a single mother, having never been apart from them for a significant time, they’ve split up to stay with friends and neighbors.
She said her daughter is staying with a family friend, and her son, trying to take care of himself, has been couch surfing with some of his friends.
“I’ve been a single mom their whole lives. I’ve never been away from them,” Byars said, fighting back tears.
“My son blames me. In his eyes I failed.”
But she savors the nights she can bribe them with a dinner out at the Pour House.
“Not having reliable shelter interferes with so many things — preparing meals, studying for school,” she said.
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Alongside her children, Byars is also studying, working on a master’s in Vermont Law School’s environmental law and policy program.
“Where am I going to stay tonight” comes before “how am I going to complete my assignment,” she said.
A couple nights she’s gone not knowing if she had a place to stay that night until late in the evening.
Recently, they might have found a breakthrough. After weeks of house hunting, Byars found an efficiency apartment that’s scaled far back from the house they were in.
The $700-per-month place is tiny but perfect; it allows pets, she said. There’s just one problem.
The street it’s on is also Carbondale’s town limit, and the apartment is on the wrong side. She submitted an application for the apartment, and if she’s approved and takes it, she will be disqualified from serving on the Board of trustees.
It’s possible that the apartment is affordable precisely because it’s outside of town limits, said Byars. One street over and it might not be affordable anymore.
The affordable housing issue is complicated, but part of the problem is that you cannot build an inexpensive house in Carbondale, she said.
“One builder told me that to build the same house inside the town limits as outside increases the cost of construction by $50,000.”
In the mean time she’s still looking for a place inside town limits, wanting to continue her service on the board.
And while searching for a home for her family and interviewing for dozens of jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree, Byars has been showing up to trustee meetings to continue pushing the town toward solutions.
“I feel my situation is a very public example of a housing crisis that is happening to all of us,” she said.
Byars said when she applies for a rental, her competition includes teachers, police officers and the town’s critical employees, who are in much the same circumstance.
“The pattern we’re seeing has already been played out in other places; the people who can’t access loan money are not included in the community’s future,” she said.
But leaving the Board of Trustees wouldn’t necessarily be the end of her political activity.
Carbondale has plenty of other opportunities to instigate change, and after she’s done with her master’s, Byars plans to run for higher office — though she wouldn’t pin her ambition to a specific office.
She would only say that if she can stay on the Board of Trustees, her term would end in 2018 — when there will also be elections for Carbondale mayor, Garfield County commissioner and Colorado governor.
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Students in the woods/construction classes at Basalt High School are getting hands-on experience by building a tiny home.