Home at last Housing Divided, part 13

Collective approach makes strides toward addressing Summit County's housing crisis

By Kevin Fixler


Editor’s note: This is the last in a 13-part series. Click here to read any of the previous stories.

Justin and Abbi Tietjen moved out to Summit County from the East Coast eight years ago with little more than the hope of making a life together in the Colorado Rockies. They both landed jobs with Copper Mountain Resort, but finding a long-term place to live soon became a test of endurance and will.

The Great Recession of the late-2000s had slowed new housing development to a crawl, dimming the native New England couple’s prospects. But they hung on. Career advancements through the years with the company and a move from Silverthorne to a friend’s townhome in Frisco put them on more solid footing. In April, they married and looked to commit to the Summit community further, even if homeownership still evaded them.

“The housing market is so high right now that’s it’s hard that if you actually live here and work here to be able to afford a home,” said Abbi, who works in Copper’s food and beverage and accounting departments. “Not everyone wants to own a home, but for most people that’s kind of what they’re working toward. I think it’s the end-all.”

Justin, a supervisor for the resort’s daily trail grooming, added that it’s “tough just throwing your money toward a rental. We’ve been renting since we’ve been out here.”

Meanwhile, the Copper Point Townhomes, a 15-unit, deed-restricted development right on the resort, was announced this spring. Not long after, with first dibs going to Copper employees, the Tietjens jumped in feet first. Now temporarily living back in Silverthorne, their brand new two-bed and two-bath unit should be finished for move-in by the end of January.

However, the Tietjen’s story, a Summit housing tale with a happy ending, isn’t as common as many would like. Members of Summit’s workforce are increasingly unable to wait out the challenges of finding permanent residences. And, as the Summit Daily has detailed time and again in this series, those homes that are available are routinely well outside the price range of those who work within the county and would reside in them year-round. These individuals are often faced with no other choice but to move on.

“A lot of people leave Summit County,” Abbi acknowledged. Copper Point “made it realistic to purchase a home here when we didn’t really think we could otherwise. We feel fortunate.”

TOP LEFT: The construction on the Copper Point Townhomes at Copper Mountain Resort began in earnest this summer, as the 15-unit deed-restricted complex approached rolling completion in December and January. TOP RIGHT: View from the deck. BOTTOM: An overhead photo of the the Copper Point Townhomes at Copper Mountain Resort shows the progress on the deed-restricted complex in East Village in early October. The 15 units were quickly snapped up mostly by resort employees and are scheduled for full completion by the end of January 2017.

A Look Back

Over the last three months, the Daily has taken readers on a walking tour of the county’s ongoing housing crisis. Along the way, we’ve shared narratives of a single mother of two who found herself in desperate search of another home for her family or be forced to decamp out of state, the innovative homebuilder who has turned affordable developments into a science, and even the out-of-sight destitute who migrate from van to empty storage locker to stick around the community they’ve grown to love. Summit County — a place where 66 percent of homes are vacant annually — is at a turning point for housing, one where a recent needs analysis showed 1,685 new units would have to be built by the end of 2020 just to keep up with demand. The picture painted shows how grim the possibilities of obtaining four walls and a roof have become.

“There’s always been housing challenges for the workforce in Summit County,” said Commissioner Thomas Davidson, noting they also existed when he first arrived as a lift operator more than three decades ago. “It’s just a matter of, are we falling further and further behind, and is the bar getting raised higher and higher every year in terms of somebody in the workforce being able to afford their housing.”

What’s clear, though, is that housing in the High County and resort communities — where land comes at the utmost premium because of its proximity to wilderness — is a big, unwieldy problem. The predicament isn’t going away, but there are some spots of hope.

Lake Hill parcel is another designated area for future affordable workforce housing.

The 45-acre Lake Hill parcel north of Frisco is one example. The county’s marquee housing enterprise, which it acquired from the U.S. Forest Service late last year for $1.75 million following presidential authorization to make future housing there a reality, is on the horizon. The purchases didn’t, however, account for the millions of dollars it will take to plan, zone, hook up to utilities and, finally, construct homes there. Initial estimates suggest that will all take at least a decade to complete.

The ongoing projects Breckenridge has at various stages of completion, including the 26-unit Huron Landing complex in partnership with the county, are others. The towns of Frisco, Dillon and Silverthorne are also taking a more progressive stance on the issue with the turn of the calendar.

A Look Around

Summit County and the towns also requested, and ultimately received 57 percent approval, from taxpayers this November for a construction fund to make additional strides in the struggle for more workforce housing. That new 5A reserve will now provide upwards of $8 million per year, divided proportionally for each jurisdiction based on a 0.6-percent sales tax, for the next decade.

A similar tax was proposed this election cycle just up the road in Eagle County, another site of significant housing strife, but the measure was resoundingly defeated by 63 percent of voters. Had it passed, Eagle’s 0.3-percent sales tax would have offered the government approximately $5 million annually to follow Summit’s example.

“I just wish our county had the game to do what Summit’s doing,” Vail town councilman Greg Moffet told the Vail Daily ahead of the failed funding bid.

In Pitkin County, the battle for housing also soldiers on. Because of a revenue stream its Aspen-based housing agency established years ago, longtime staffer Julie Kieffer explained, the coffers for construction are healthy. But there are simply so few locations for development. That’s led to local leadership pivoting away from a prior policy of limiting potential housing sites to just those in Aspen’s current borders.

“Definitely there’s a scarcity of land,” said Kieffer, the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority’s qualifications specialist. “Originally when we started buying land, the city council wanted to stay within the urban growth boundary. Now they’re expanding that, looking outside of it and considering areas not only within city limits, but just outside them and on a bus route within the county.”

Being flush with funds is a good problem to have. It’s also shown not to be the only answer.

“We know that the amount of money granted to us, while substantial, does not fund 100 percent of what that needs analysis identified,” said Davidson. “This funding for the next 10 years is going to allow us to really at least not fall further behind, and hopefully even catch up some.”

A Look Forward

Summit’s award-winning housing authority, which has for years been viewed by some as a model for how to help citizens achieve affordable and accessible housing, is itself in the midst of an overhaul as area municipalities decide how it best suits their future needs. How that shakes out won’t fully be known until at least early next year.

The need for additional public-private partnerships, on top of increased cooperation between the member municipalities, are components most recognize will be essential in realizing future solutions. Conversations with large employers like the area’s ski resorts and the Summit School District are underway as well.

“Clearly there is a level of collaborative planning that just has to be done, in my mind anyway,” said Davidson, who also serves as board chair of the Summit Combined Housing Authority. “But how is that we go about coordinating all of these different development projects? That’s one of the things that we have to work through.”

Vail Resorts, through a development partner, has already pitched use of its 28-acre Wintergreen parcel in Keystone to build upwards of 200 new units split between both low-wage seasonal ski workers and year-round rentals for outside, full-time employees of the greater community. A prior agreement between the county government and Copper Mountain also requires that the resort come up with 50 more beds, in either rental or market-rate units, somewhere in the county, plus 15 more for-sale units like those close to completion at Copper Point by the end of 2018.

It’s these types of projects that show the county and its towns are attempting to take steps forward. But also those on which they don’t plan to hang their hat and wait for someone else to fix the problem — even if a single new housing unit can mean the world to people who desire to live where they work.

“Now having something to invest in will be great,” Justin Tietjen, standing on the second floor of his yet finished townhome, said of buying his first home. “It’s about a four-minute walk up to my office, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

“We can’t wait to not deal with I-70,” added his wife Abbi. “In a few more weeks it won’t be an issue. This neighborhood is going to be awesome; to have full-time, year-round people will be fun. I think we know most of them, actually — from work.”

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