We’re not alone: What other communities facing a housing crisis are seeing and doing
August 20, 2017
The housing crisis facing Grand County is far from unique. Colorado has one of the fastest growing housing markets in the nation, and the recent influx has left cities and towns all over the state failing to meet the demand for affordable housing.
Resort towns on the western slope may have it worst of all.
Three popular resort destinations outside Grand County on the western slope continue to witness the effects of having few options for affordable housing. But through recognizing their issues, some have found possible solutions.
"We identified a long time ago that this is an issue for our resort town," said Kim Dykstra, director of communications for the town of Breckenridge. "It's a mixed bag, and there are many facets to this challenge. So that's why we've approached it with a multi-faceted plan."
Dykstra said Breckenridge has faced housing concerns similar to those in Grand County for years. This sentiment was reiterated by Gary Suiter, city manager of Steamboat Springs, and Jennifer Kermode, executive director of the Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority. Gunnison Valley houses Crested Butte, Mount Crested Butte and is the home to Western State University.
"In the summer of 2016, there were just over 390 jobs in the Gunnison Valley that went unfilled, primarily due to the lack of affordable housing," said Kermode. "We have business owners who have had to change their business model because they can't get employees.
"That's a significant financial impact on the businesses, but also on the employees who can't save money because the demand for rental units are so high and rents are so high."
Kermode noted that about 80 percent of employers in the area reported having some type of housing-related issues with their employees.
The housing situation stems from several different problems — there isn't enough housing, and the housing that is available is too expensive.
The economic growth in Grand County over recent years has left employers wanting for workers, but needs will go unmet as long as housing rates continue to outpace wage increases. And landlords choosing to use their property for short-term rentals through AirBnB or VRBO are exacerbating the issue.
"It's a huge issue here," said Suiter. "It's classic supply and demand, whereas the demand continues to increase and more workers come to town, rental rates are increasing faster than the wages are increasing."
Breckenridge has actively been working to fix its housing market since the late 1980s, when it introduced the first dedicated workforce unit.
Today, the town has approximately 1,000 deed-restricted units that are based on a household's gross income and meeting a set of standards such as full-time employment and income testing.
The idea is that workers will be able to move into affordable apartments, and save enough money to invest in a deed-restricted home someday.
Winter Park is taking a similar approach with the new Sitzmark apartments, set to open later this year, part of the town's concerted effort to provide more affordable housing following a needs assessment report in 2014.
A workforce housing impact report published by Breckenridge in January 2014 shows that its efforts have been impactful.
The rise in affordable housing increased local occupancy of homes from 25 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2010, and helped the town's essential workers purchase homes in town. The town also increased the number of year-round occupants, and decreased in-commuting by 100,000 vehicle miles each week.
Dykstra said that despite progress, too many workers having to commute from cheaper neighborhoods is still an issue.
"We've been able to cut down the amount of workers that can't afford to live in our community, and it has decreased the amount of inflow traffic," she said. "But people still come from Fairplay or Leadville, some of those areas that are more affordable. They don't live in your community, so when they leave their jobs the lights go out.
"If they stay here and live here then they will shop here, socialize and contribute to our community. And that's how you get a vibrant community."
Steamboat Springs also has to deal with in-traffic coming in from as far as Craig. Suiter said that the town offers a commuter bus that runs between Steamboat Springs and Craig for a small fee.
But commuters are just part of the issue there.
In 2014, an ordinance was lifted regarding inclusionary zoning on new developments.
"In other words, requiring a developer to include a certain percentage of affordable housing in a residential development," said Suiter. "That's not been put back on the books yet. The council has backed off on that, but it still remains one of their goals."
Suiter said the fear is that rising house prices will eventually remove the middle class from the city.
"Part of the fear is that our communities eventually become exclusive to the wealthy, and middle class folks can't afford to live here," he said. "And that takes away a lot of the community character and a lot of the people that serve the resort area as well."
Suiter also voiced concerns that short-term rentals are taking potentially affordable housing and long-term options out of the housing stock. He said most condos and homeowner associations permit nightly rentals, and more people are buying property for investment purposes, and using it for short-term rentals.
They currently tax these types of rentals. While the money is currently not set aside for anything specific, Suiter expressed an idea to earmark the money to use for an affordable housing fund. Though, he was hesitant to suggest any more direct solutions to incentivize long-term rentals.
"It's difficult to do because it could be viewed as market interference if the government tried to exert itself," he said. "It's tricky for government to reach its tentacles out into the free market in that way."
Kermode, of the Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority, thinks incentivizing long-term leases may be the way to go after all.
She said she would like to implement a master lease program between property owners and the housing authority, wherein households that are at risk of losing their home would receive the units. She cited a similar program she worked on in Summit County.
"It turned out to be a pretty successful program and I'd like to do something like that in the Gunnison Valley sometime in the near future," she said. "It's a way to use existing units and pull them out of that short term rental market."
Kermode had several other ideas to help with the cause.
The housing authority, as she explained, has been looking at ideas such as allowing properties to construct a trailer or small home as short-term affordable housing on existing lots, and enticing private developers by agreeing to build the infrastructure for new developments themselves. Kermode also said they may be putting a new measure on the ballot this year for an increased property tax to increase funding for affordable housing programs.
"That would raise dollars for us to leverage for federal and state grant and loan programs to build housing," she said.
Kermode also noted the importance of preserving the existing housing stock, while also making the existing stock more affordable to live in. She said that older and less energy-efficient homes may be cheaper, but more expensive in upkeep.
"We have people paying $400 a month in rent for a small apartment or home, but their electric bills could be at much as $800 a month in the Winter," Kermode said.
While ideas to fix the issue seem plentiful, and progress has actually been made in areas, the solution will have to come in the long-term.
"This isn't a problem that's going away for a while for the Colorado western slope communities," said Kermode. "The economy is relatively strong, and people have discovered that Colorado is an amazingly gorgeous place to recreate.
"I think we need to find as many tools in the toolbox as we can and start using them in a strategic way."