Summit County and local towns are considering an emergency declaration to help address the local affordable housing shortage and emphasize the increasingly dire circumstances of the issue to state and federal partners.
Commissioner Tamara Pogue said the county is already drafting language for a declaration and is hoping to make the move in conjunction with local towns.
“I’ve been working on housing in Summit County for 15 years, and this is far and away the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Pogue, the former executive director of the Family & Intercultural Resource Center. “I think it actually is connected to things that happened in our community during the pandemic. We know that a lot of folks moved into our community full time. … I think that has significantly impacted our housing stock, and has contributed to the tightness in the market and the availability of workforce housing that we currently don’t have.
“So I think we have to call it what it is. … This isn’t a new problem for us. But it is significantly worse than it’s ever been. Prices are higher, availability is lower, and there are more people living here.”
According to the most recent Summit County Housing Needs Update published in March 2020, there is a countywide gross gap of more than 1,200 housing units, a number that’s expected to more than double by 2023. Officials said the issue has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which spurred an exodus of seasonal workers who were later priced out by a record-breaking year in the real estate market as more remote workers and second-home owners took up residence.
Frisco Mayor Hunter Mortensen said despite Frisco’s best efforts in recent years to combat the lack of affordable housing for members of the town’s workforce, the problem has persisted to the point where it’s become a “real and dangerous threat to our way of life in Frisco.”
Mortensen said he doesn’t blame the newcomers — Frisco is a great place to live — but the housing shortage has created an overly competitive landscape were the town and local businesses are pitted against each other for employees. Given the government’s reliance on local businesses to succeed, the situation is far from ideal.
“We can’t get any bigger,” Mortensen said. “We’ve built to our outer limits. Our ability to get more units is extremely limited by that, and that’s part of what’s facilitating this push for a declaration and looking at this as an emergency. I think seeing that then creates the issue of how do we get from 60% second-home owners and bring that number down, get some more rental units … get more real estate that forever was where people lived and now are getting squeezed out by the folks who are coming in and can work a really high paying job remotely.
“That then affects all of our local businesses, because we are losing that workforce. Right now, it’s set us up in a position where all of the towns are competing with all of our businesses for workers. And that’s a terrible setup to be in as a community because the town doesn’t exist without successful businesses.”
Breckenridge is also supportive of an emergency declaration or anything that will help with the current housing situation, according to Breckenridge Town Council member Dick Carleton.
“We’re going to assess the best way to do it, whether it’s individually or together (with other governments),” Carleton said. “But we’re certainly supportive. We’re working really hard with housing, and we want to do anything that may help with funding or to get some support from the state or the feds.”
Towns have developed programs over recent years to help keep the workforce in the county, such as the Housing Helps programs developed by Breckenridge and Frisco that pay new or existing property owners to place deed restrictions on their units. But the initiatives may have been too little too late.
“We lost the race, and the buying power of people coming to town became way more powerful than we could keep up with,” Mortensen said.
While areas like Frisco are out of land to develop, building more housing is still a key tactic for other towns like Silverthorne. Town Manager Ryan Hyland said the town is in conversations with contractors to bring more rental units to the Smith Ranch area and the Fourth Street North development that would target specific community members based on income.
As the county and other towns prepare for an emergency declaration, Silverthorne is expected to pursue other options, Hyland said. He noted that the Silverthorne Town Council could consider other avenues to further bring the issue to light, such as a proclamation that would stop short of declaring a formal emergency. But the town hasn’t downplayed the housing issues that have developed of late.
“(Silverthorne) used to be a bit more affordable than some of the other areas,” Hyland said. “It’s just caught up really quickly. Willowbrook is the type of neighborhood that historically we would look at as something a lot of locals were considering — maybe a first home is something that would be possible. And we’re seeing prices at $800,000 and up now. While it’s not maybe at the same level as it would be in Breckenridge, it’s still really out of touch. …
“There could be at least a couple hundred rental units that we could bring online … but the challenge is you’re a couple years away from getting folks into units. So while we’re excited about those opportunities, they’re not anything that’s immediate.”
It’s also unclear if Dillon will join in the declaration. Mayor Carolyn Skowyra said the Dillon Town Council hasn’t formally broached the topic, but council members do intend to have the conversation at some point. Skowyra spoke for herself, saying that she was disinclined to make any sort of declaration unless it would lead to an actionable response.
“It makes all the sense in the world if it helps us to an end product that helps the situation,” Skowyra said. “If we’re not going to be taking any measurable action, I’m not sure it’s a wise use of an emergency declaration. But we’re going to talk about it.”
Officials planning to move forward with an emergency declaration are hoping that it will bring more people to the table to find solutions, including short-term rental owners who might be swayed to try long-term renting once the impacts of the workforce shortage begin to manifest this summer or business owners who might work with developers to build more housing for their own employees.
Local leaders also hope the declaration would better highlight the need for state and federal support to address the issue. State Rep. Julie McCluskie, who serves Summit County and the rest of Colorado’s District 61, said housing solutions have become a top priority for legislators at the Capitol. McCluskie is a sponsor of House Bill 21-1271, a bill meant to remove barriers and provide incentives for the development of affordable housing by local governments.
If passed, the bill would allocate $13 million — potentially up to $48 million if an amendment to the bill is passed — to create grant programs for governments that adopt policies and regulations that promote affordable housing development.
But the bigger boon will come from $3.8 billion in federal stimulus money coming to Colorado as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. McCluskie said the state is planning to set aside between $400 million and $500 million to invest in housing initiatives throughout the state. There’s no set plan for how exactly that money will be spent — those details would likely be finalized in the next legislative session — but McCluskie said that amount of money represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the long-term housing conversation in Colorado.
“We have never had $400 (million) or $500 million to invest in something as critical as housing,” McCluskie said. “To have this opportunity to make real, lasting impact on the affordable housing supply and inventory I think is very powerful — a moment that deserves the time, the attention, the conversation and collaboration with all of the key partners and leaders across the state who are intimately aware of what the problems are.”