COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — The fire Monday morning that burned multiple campers, RVs, cars, and a boat at an illegal campground in Stratmoor Hills shines a bright light on the consequences of the rising cost of living in the Pikes Peak Region.
Residents at the campsite who did not wish to be interviewed, told News 5 that they are not homeless. They own their campers and RVs, have signed leases, and pay rent to park them on the property.
The 1.37-acre parcel lacks a physical street address and borders the Stratmoor Manor subdivision and Clover Ditch. Property records list the owner as SAVERS TRUST with a mailing address in Durango.
A spokesperson for El Paso County said a man named Joseph Brinkerhoff has represented the trust in the ongoing land use and code enforcement case against the property.
Brinkerhoff told county officials that he permitted another person to lease the property. The campers who spoke anonymously with News 5 confirmed that they pay their rent to Greg Lee.
Beth Roalstad, Executive Director for Homeward Pikes Peak, said the number of people "car camping" or living in RVs and trailers is growing. She believes the growth correlates to the rising cost of housing.
“As everyone knows who’s a renter in this community, costs have gone up about 25 percent in the last three years,” she said. “And for those on a fixed income, this extremely stresses a budget.”
Legitimate campgrounds and RV parks often restrict the age of the vehicles that use their facilities, typically around 10 years. The vehicles at the Stratmoor Hills location are much older.
Roalstad said there can be multiple reasons that a person living in a camper or RV chooses to park it in a given location.
"Some of them may be barely movable. They can fix them and get them to a destination, but maybe that unit breaks down again and they can't move from place to place," she said.
She explained people living on very low incomes may resist seeking help from service providers because of the sense of freedom and ownership that comes from having a camper.
“If you have a place that you can sleep in, people are going to want to use that rather than going to an emergency shelter or giving up that autonomy of individual choice and going somewhere else.”
Illegal campsites don't provide an answer to the rising cost of living. The SAVERS TRUST parcel has no electricity or sanitary services. The residents use generators to provide power to the campers and propane for cooking and heating.
Stratmoor Hills Fire Chief Shawn Bittle told News 5 firefighters used a defensive attack to put out the fire due to various hazards on the property. He estimated there were around 50 explosions during the emergency response.
“Had this been a Red Flag day, we certainly would've lost residential structures, you know covered on basically on all sides of the homeless camp," Bittle said.
El Paso County's land use code aims to reduce such safety risks.
"One bad use can affect a whole neighborhood," explained Mindy Madden, the Strategic Services Manager with El Paso County Planning and Community Development.
She explained that county commissioners have to consider the health and safety risks of zoning decisions for both the people occupying a property as well as those living on surrounding properties.
"My advice is to contact El Paso County Zoning before any use is established before time and money is put into developing a project so you can find out what the requirements are and make sure that you're able to meet those requirements," she said.
Roalsted with Homeward Pikes Peak wishes more people n the community would advocate for an increase in affordable housing construction.
"I know it's a frequent call that housing advocates like me make but we do need to figure out a way to increase the number of housing supply for those on very limited incomes and fixed incomes," she said.
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