Loving his lawn and garden while bracing for the bill

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For financially challenged homeowners on the west side, April is the kindest month. Winter is for gas bills, summer is for water bills. April, May, September and October give brief respite from the unrelenting demands of Colorado Springs Utilities.

Last winter was expensive. Ours is a drafty 1898 Victorian house, which seems to shrug off any attempt at energy efficiency. The heating bills are astronomical.

They could be reduced by as much as 60 percent by making the changes suggested by a recent energy audit. Those changes include new storm doors, new double-pane windows, new appliances, new hot water heaters, a new roof with better insulation, and insulating the entire house.

Let’s see: the house has more than 40 windows, with wavy glass and wooden mullions, no two alike, in odd sizes and shapes. If we tossed these beautiful artifacts, and replaced them with efficient, depressingly pedestrian windows, it’d cost more than my annual salary. And new insulation? A new roof? No way.

Theoretically, we could refinance the old dump, and be Leed-certified in a couple of months. Practically, it makes no sense. We might save $350 per month for five months, but our mortgage payments would increase even more. And it’s doubtful whether the improvements would materially increase the value of the house.

But forget about gas bills. Watering season is here, and with it the expense of irrigating lawns and gardens, and of maintaining the health of the century-old trees that grace the property.

It’d be easy to cut the water bill – stop watering. Let the lawn and gardens die, and hope that nature provides enough moisture to keep the trees alive.

That’s not an option. I’d rather be completely broke than lose our share of the city’s verdant oasis. Paying the gas bill keeps us from freezing, but paying the water bill keeps us happy and sane. We can afford it now, but what about in a few years when the Southern Delivery System’s cost may double water rates?

Many neighborhood residents have given up on landscaping. As water bills rise, the folks who live in the cottages and bungalows that housed the city’s working class a century ago face difficult decisions.

We who live on the west side are caught in a perfect economic storm. It’s the oldest neighborhood in Colorado Springs, one with lovely Victorian houses shaded by magnificent trees. But the houses are small and close together, and hence unattractive to young families. Recent school closures have ended the century-old west side tradition of neighborhood elementary schools.

Close-in residential areas in most American cities have suffered the same fate, though in Denver and Albuquerque, once-distressed neighborhoods have been dramatically revived, driven by an influx of young professionals, artists and suburban refugees. And just a few miles away, Manitou Springs has been transformed by the same forces.

That still might happen on the west side, but the brutal economics of water and energy make it increasingly unlikely. If homeowners can neither renovate nor irrigate, the area may slowly molder away.  We may be on the wrong side of a de facto municipal triage, a neighborhood sacrificed to support future suburbs.

Like many westsiders, we’re stuck with a beautiful, run-down house that we can’t afford to fix and can’t easily sell.

Ten years ago, I assumed that gentrification was right around the corner. Within a few years, wealthy young ‘uns would be clamoring to buy our signature estate, and live in glorious Victorian splendor.

It was not to be. Like the S&P 500, our house has lost value during the last 10 years, and may continue to do so. But maybe that’s OK.

Walking the dog at 10 p.m. recently, it was comforting to hear the hiss of sprinklers and the sound of skateboards rattling down the now-darkened streets. Things are still OK on the west side, but I’m not sure our neighborhood will survive the demands of SDS.

Oh, well, I hear that run-down Victorians are even cheaper elsewhere.

How about Detroit in the spring?

John Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 719-227-5861. Watch John at 7:20 a.m. every Tuesday and Friday on Channel 3, Fox Morning News.

2 Responses to Loving his lawn and garden while bracing for the bill

  1. So you really bought your house as an ‘investment’ and not to live in. Hmm.

    Now before you knock the westside as if it is going broke, I remind you I bought my house at 6 N 24th Street for $30,000 in 1977 and now the Assessor wants to be paid for $207,000! Sure with the general recession its probably only worth $150,000. But thats fine. And its paid off.

    Now as for your rant about water bills, drive by my house and look at the nice green grass to the LEFT of the house. A small patch is real and requires watering. But the REST of the yard is artificial turf which cost us ONE TIME just $1,500. Looks great, and you will have to look hard to see the difference.

    And all winter people stop by to look at its pretty appearance.

    So there are more ways than one for Westsiders to skin the economic cat!

    Dave Hughes
    June 10, 2010 at 3:46 pm

  2. The more I re-read your scribble, the less I like its predictions. The charm of the westside is that it did NOT gentrify – attracting a bunch up upscalies, pushing prices up and pushing older folks out.

    And while attracting ‘young’ people with kids, ok. But I am not so sure that means that there will NOT be new blood on the westside. There simply are many people who do NOT like the suburbs. And after all there are ONLY 7,000 westside residential addresses – out of the others who house 500,000 people in the metro area.

    Dave Hughes
    June 10, 2010 at 6:48 pm