Colo county offers housing comparison
Times Staff Writer
It's a problem that's not exclusive to the Gunnison Valley: Soaring real estate prices and a tight rental market are putting the squeeze on residents whose income struggles to measure up to prices.
Summit County and the Town of Breckenridge were once in the same shoes as Gunnison County, with a diminishing housing supply and a growing gap between affordability and actual prices. Yet, an aggressive effort to define a community vision, set goals and dedicate funding has produced a machine for supplying housing demand and retaining the diversity of the community.
However, housing experts say the problem persists in Summit County. Just last year a new housing assessment showed 1,685 units must be built by the end of 2020 to meet workforce housing needs.
But housing leaders in the similarly tourism-reliant Colorado county also believe they are making a difference, and have evidence to show it. According to a 2014 housing report published by the Town of Breckenridge, prior to 2000 the town had 209 workforce housing units in its inventory. That number grew to 818 when the report was issued with about a quarter of them being single-family homes. The report also touted the expansion of families living within the community — an increase 5.1 percent — at a time when similar resort communities were losing households with children.
"We've been at this for years," said Breckenridge Community Development Director Laurie Best. "We're making a difference. Whether we'll ever really solve it I couldn't say. If we hadn't been doing all the neighborhoods and projects we've been doing, I don't know where the folks in our community would live right now."
Housing conditions lead to action
While Breckenridge had been building affordable housing units since 1997, home prices continued to top what local residents could afford. Demand by second homeowners willing to pay top dollar largely was blamed for driving up values.
In 2006, voters passed a .125 percent sales tax and a housing impact fee, at the same time creating the Summit Combined Housing Authority (SCHA). The "Workforce Housing Fund" generated $13 million during its first 10 years and was responsible for building 350 affordable homes and supported other programs such as homebuyer education and downpayment assistance loans.
By way of comparison, Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority has adopted a goal of raising $1.5 million annually, through new taxes, to build 400 units by the end of 2020.
Between 2006 and 2016, Breckenridge Town Council also diverted $2.5 million from the town's general fund into affordable housing.
"The thing we were very fortunate that (previous community leaders) did was they worked hard to get land," said Best. "The biggest challenge for us is land."
When the recession hit Breckenridge in 2008, housing planners did not relent in striving toward their goals. Instead, workforce housing construction continued as the cost to build decreased. Local contractors were employed during the downturn, further supporting the area's economy.
"It stimulated the jurisdictions to start building because contractors weren't working, labor was cheap, materials were cheap and available, so they said now is the time to build," said Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority Executive Director Jennifer Kermode, who served as SCHA’s director when Summit’s sales tax was permanently renewed in 2015.
Voters passed the measure with 77 percent approval. Then, in 2016, voters increased the tax by .6 percent, which is distributed to municipalities throughout the county for affordable housing construction.
"We were able to show some incredible results," said Kermode.
The new taxes and fees now generate approximately $3.5 million annually for Breckenridge alone.
Over the last decade, the town's Community Development Department has set up a cycle of projects — units being planned while others are in the midst of construction.
"Breckenridge, when they're bringing housing online … they already have two or three more in the pipeline," said consultant Melanie Rees, who has authored housing needs assessments for both Summit and Gunnison counties. "There's not this lag. … It takes this ongoing effort."
Measurable results, but problem persists
According to the 2014 Breckenridge housing report, the percentage of locals occupying homes increased from 25 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2010. The number of households with children increased by 216, or 60 percent.
The town also saw a double-digit increase in homeownership — 12.6 percent — compared to similar towns which saw only modest gains, or decreases in the rate. The report said that 32 percent of permanent households reside in what it termed “workforce housing.”
Yet, within the town there is more work to be done. A "white paper" penned by consultant Wendy Sullivan, who has worked in conjunction with Rees to assess housing needs for communities throughout Colorado, determined that even in 2012, the average residential price in Breckenridge was $585,509, while the home price an average local household could afford was $300,000.
And the most recent needs assessment authored by Sullivan and Rees in August 2016 indicated the inventory of homes for sale decreased 60 percent between 2013 and 2016 — particularly for homes under $400,000. Rental vacancy rates were below 2 percent in 2012 and have since decreased.
Further, the assessment noted rent prices in 2015 increased 10 percent, and that the average rent in Summit County ($1,898) was affordable to a family earning more than 110 percent of the area median income.
Vision central to success
But consultant Rees credits more than just money to Summit County's successes. She said municipal and county leaders determined the vision they had for the community's character and molded their plan accordingly. For example, Breckenridge set a goal that 50 percent of those who work in the town would actually live in the town — and set out to address housing needs for a diversity of incomes.
"In every new housing development they do, they understand how it fits relative to everything else they've done and what else they're planning in the project pipeline," said Rees. "Decisions aren't made in isolation. They're done in understanding the entire continuum and the entire spectrum of needs and the community's vision for diversity."
Additionally, Rees said, the vision was formed with public input and then communicated back to voters before they were asked to reach into their pockets.
"They have made significant measurable positive impacts on their community," Rees concluded. "I don't think there's anything they've done that they regret doing or that people say, 'You shouldn't have done that. That was a mistake.'"
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)