The complex was originally a motel, built in the 1940s on the site of a former gold and silver mill in the canyon linking Boulder and Nederland; in 1975, El Vado was converted into nine apartments. A vintage neon vacancy sign still hangs on the ivy-covered main building, which is split into three units; three smaller duplexes are situated down a dirt road, abutting the roaring creek.
El Vado shows its age: The wiring is old, the walls are uninsulated and coated with lead-based paint, and the plumbing needs to be upgraded. And while the county's building code requires ceilings to be at least 7'6" high, the ones in the tiny apartments are between 6'8" and 7'2" high. The one- and two-bedroom units range in size from 450 square feet to 750 square feet and in price from $475 to $750 a month, utilities included. In Boulder County, that's affordable -- particularly when you throw in the outdoor amenities.
Delphiniums and wild raspberries grow in abundance along the creek bed. The rushing water drowns out noises from the busy highway. It's a peaceful place to live, and convenient even for those who don't own cars -- buses stop along Canyon Drive for the four-mile trip into Boulder.
When the El Vado apartments went up for sale in 1992, Jim and Tara Parks jumped at the chance to buy the complex. Jim, now a real-estate broker, had moved to Boulder back in 1978 to study environmental design at the University of Colorado; Tara, who grew up in Colorado, is an architect. For two decades, the couple had watched as housing prices surged in Boulder County. Buying El Vado would allow them not only to live in the mountains, but to provide affordable housing so that others could, too.
The thirteen people currently living at El Vado include a floor installer, a waiter at the nearby Red Lion Inn, a builder who makes straw-bale homes and a graduate student. Doreen Fitzgerald moved in four years ago, when she was working two jobs and deeply in debt. "Since then, I've been able to eliminate one job, reduce all of my debt and pay off my car early," she says. "That wouldn't have happened anywhere else. El Vado has been a godsend, and the Parkses do everything in their power for us. Each summer, they throw a party for the tenants, and they give us gifts at Christmas."
Although the Parkses get no government subsidy for keeping the units affordable, they use HUD's definition of affordability to determine their rental rates, which they set 50 percent below the area median income. But while they keep rents low, they also want to improve their tenants' living conditions.
Boulder County won't let them.
In the 1970s, the mountains in unincorporated Boulder County were rezoned as a forestry district in which multi-family dwellings are not allowed. Structures that existed before the '70s, such as El Vado, were grandfathered in and deemed "non-conforming uses." Under the county's current land-use code, anyone wanting to modify a non-conforming structure -- whether in the mountains or on the plains -- must undergo a special-use review. As part of the review, the property must meet a "use of community significance" standard, in which its owner proves that the proposed modifications benefit the community.
In November 1996, the Parkses applied for a special-use review of El Vado. They didn't want to construct more buildings or even increase the square footage of the units on their property. They simply wanted to add insulation, raise the roof lines to meet code and offset the floor area lost to insulation by adding lofts above the living space. They presented their plan to the county's planning commission the following February; from there it would go to the three Boulder County commissioners.
Ardith Sehulster, chairwoman of the Boulder County Housing Authority, gave the plan her stamp of approval. In a March 26, 1997, letter to the commissioners, she wrote: "The Housing Authority is supportive of the El Vado renovation for the following reasons: to preserve affordable housing stock in the unincorporated county; to correct safety and health problems; and lastly, the social benefit of having diverse income groups living together."
Sehulster went on to remind the commissioners that the county's comprehensive plan, developed in 1978 to accommodate growth while maintaining the area's essentially rural nature, states that "a diversity of housing types and densities should be encouraged in order to assure decent housing for all persons. Rehabilitation of existing residential facilities should be promoted where feasible."
The Parkses presented their final proposal on April 1. On April 15, the county commissioners denied their request.