Towns in Colorado high country eye ways to ease lack of affordable housing

Colorado’s high country housing barrier for workers has led this past year to doubled wait times for buses, grocery stores closing early, pharmacies no longer open on weekends, and shortages of teachers, nurses, dispatchers and first responders.

And if you call Summit County government, unfilled positions limit what can be done.

Yet 34% to 71% of the sky-high housing across 15 counties in western Colorado sits vacant, census data show. Tens of thousands of empties — second homes, vacation rentals and investor-owned properties ranging from mansions to condos — are affordable for well-to-do visitors but not locals.

The pandemic has also led to scores of people moving to the mountains, causing competition for housing and rental prices to rise sharply.

To preserve some affordable housing, towns in the high country are increasingly considering measures to ease the burden.

For decades, housing challenges primarily afflicted low-wage tourism and recreation industry employees, compelling resorts to install subsidized apartments designed for single workers. But now, after 20 months of COVID-driven influx, officials find that even the highest-paying jobs such as those in the mining industry, which 150 years ago gave rise to mountain settlement, no longer are sufficient for workers to afford housing.

At the Climax Molybdenum Mine atop Fremont Pass, where 320 employees receive starting salaries ranging from $81,000 to $115,000, the lack of affordable housing hinders efforts to recruit and retain staff, corporation vice president Linda Hayes told The Denver Post. Climax has begun paying $2,500 sign-up bonuses and an annual $9,000 stipend for Colorado housing.

Labor shortages increasingly affect living conditions.

Summit County bus waits this fall became 60 minutes, up from 30, for lack of 19 drivers, county transit director Chris Lubbers said. This disproportionately hurts low-wage cleaning, hospitality and retail workers who rely most on buses, Lubbers said. The remaining 48 drivers commute over mountain tundra passes from Georgetown and Leadville to reach Summit County. As winter storms arrive, those drivers and police have been asked to watch carefully for residents freezing as they wait.

In Summit County government headquarters, officials said the current 80 openings in a pool of 500 positions is the most ever, constraining public services.

On the main street of Eagle, the often-crowded City Market grocery still is listed officially as open until 11 p.m., a nod to workers off late shifts who need to make food runs. But the grocery lacks 40 workers and has to close early at 9 p.m., managers and employees said, blaming COVID-related challenges and lack of affordable housing.

At preschools, beloved teachers who want to raise children of their own have to leave, shaking foundations for kids. The shut-down of a restaurant in Eagle that served as a social hub weakened connections among local adults.

“And we’re struggling to find police officers, 911 dispatchers. We offer well-paying jobs with great benefits and yet we cannot fill many of our positions, even director-level positions,” Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue said, pointing to housing prices that soared over $1 million and became impossible for “the core of our middle class” who earn $60,000 to $100,000.

“Our hospital struggles with shortages. Our school district is struggling. Pretty much every employer is struggling. Traditionally it has been our lower-wage jobs that were hard to fill, but now it is our middle-wage and higher-wage jobs,” Pogue said. “It is tangible. You wait longer for things.”

Meantime, county research has found Colorado mountain towns cementing their position among the world’s most-frequently searched and visited “getaways.”

Those towns are concentrated in an area the size of West Virginia. State and federal data show roughly 86,000 housing units across 15 counties are vacant. The 2020 census data shows vacancy rates in those counties as follows: Hinsdale 71%; Summit 58%; Mineral 65%; San Miguel 45%; Jackson 44%; Grand 57%; Eagle 37%; Costilla 34%; Routt 37%; San Juan 52%; Pitkin 39%; Gunnison 41%; Park 44%; Custer 46%; Archuleta 39%.

“We have vacant housing, but it is not available,” said Jon Stavney, director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, an association run by leaders of six counties and 30 towns.

The problem is prices, more than $600,000 for a three-bedroom condo and over $1 million for houses, combined with rents rising by 20% to 40% since 2019. And builders continue to install estate mansions listed at up to $50 million (Snowmass Falls Ranch in Pitkin County) and featured in high-profile forums such as the “Experience Luxury” supplement to the Wall Street Journal. It celebrates a pandemic surge of city dweller “families who uprooted their lives” for “the full mountain living experience” because people “have fallen in love with living among the mountains.”

Northwest Colorado Council of Governments researchers recently completed a study of the pandemic influx in Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Grand, Routt and San Miguel counties and concluded a continuing surge is accelerating the transformation into being a haven for visitors. Most visitors, part-time residents and newcomers have incomes over $150,000 a year with growing numbers earning more than $300,000, the study found. In contrast, 60% of locals earned less than $150,000, typically between $60,000 and $100,000. The COVID influx — people “flocking from cities to high quality of life places such as mountain communities” — intensified direct competition for all forms of housing.

And “housing prices are re-set” now, aligning with the rising valuations assigned by a broader global economy.

“People who’ve lived here a long time are just getting out-competed in the rental market, which is a new thing, and definitely in the market to own homes,” said Stavney, who previously worked in the construction industry and served as a county commissioner and mayor.

“It changes the character of things. There are a lot of little breaks in the community web. You can feel it. You can see it. As the costs rise for being in this place, it just isn’t viable for the middle class and workers to be here,” he said.

People who make their livelihoods outside the Rocky Mountain West “will want to come and they will continue to buy the houses. But they aren’t really invested in the place the way full-time residents are. When you are invested, you serve on a board, take kids to schools, see friends at the post office, and they know you. You have commitments. ….. Those connections are getting weaker and weaker.”

State government agencies in Denver for years have been promoting western Colorado for tourism and recreation, seen as a profitable “industry” to drive economic development.

But these agencies, and Gov. Jared Polis, increasingly are hearing about the consequences.

“Every local government has been talking about housing,” said state demographer Elizabeth Garner.

The rush on western Colorado “is both a benefit and a curse,” Garner said. Tourism, recreation and rising visitation gives “an economic livelihood” towns need to survive, she said.

“The curse is what it does to home prices. It takes housing out of residential units, out of being places where people affordably can live.”

Over the last few years, almost every town and county government in western Colorado has considered or passed measures to try to control market forces by capping or regulating short-term rentals enabled by internet services such as Airbnb and Vrbo.

The idea is to preserve some affordable housing, said Margaret Bowes, director of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns, who tracks the ordinances and this fall observed “increasing urgency.”

Meantime local officials also push for increased construction of new housing, including subsidized hotels and dormitories such as one proposed for preschool teachers and health workers in Summit County.

In Winter Park and Breckenridge, labor shortages have reached the point where governments have launched “Lease to Locals” programs targeting housing owners. The Breckenridge pilot project that began Oct. 15 has paid 30 owners up to $24,000 a year, on top of the rent they collect, in return for leasing for at least one year to a local worker. This ensured housing for 65 local workers to stay in the Breckenridge area through next summer.

A tipping point may be near where labor shortages must be addressed because well-heeled visitors expect services. Finding room for locals will be necessary to maintain the attractions that draw visitors in the first place, Bowes said.

“You cannot run a ski lift remotely.”

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