Federal data shows a sharp rise in average income for a Summit County family of 4. Local officials say the numbers are baffling.

The median income of a four-person household rose by more than 28%, according to new federal data, but officials are unsure about what it will mean for housing in the county

The Village at Wintergreen brought nearly 200 workforce housing rental units to Keystone when it first opened. These projects are directly tied to area median income, with eligible tenants needing to fall within a certain income bracket.
Jason Connolly/Summit Daily News archive

Recently released figures from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development show a 28.5% increase in area median income for a family of four in Summit County. For local officials, the change is stunning. 

“I was certainly expecting an increase in our area median income, but a 28% increase is unprecedented,” said Commissioner Tamara Pogue.

Last year, area median income for that same family size increased by 3.8%, rising from $96,100 in 2021 to $99,800 in 2022. In 2023, that figure rose to $128,300, according to data from HUD and the Summit County Combined Housing Authority

Jack Wilkinson, the housing authority’s interim executive director, said the four-person household figure is “more than double I’ve ever seen.” But it may not be completely accurate, Wilkinson said. 

HUD releases income figures every year based on census data and other factors, such as the rate of inflation. But for rural areas like Summit County, that data covers a five-year period that is usually three years old, according to Wilkinson. 

This year’s data is slightly more recent, using information from 2021 as opposed to 2020, which would be the typical cut-off point for data collection from HUD. Still, the 2023 figures don’t offer the most up-to-date snapshot for economic trends in the county, such as the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

HUD only releases income figures for three categories that are used by the county’s housing authority: extremely low-income, low-income and median income. The housing authority calculates the percent change in these figures each year to fill out the rest of the income spectrum up to 160% of the median income. 

But the 28% increase reported this year is not consistent across the income spectrum, with families at lower-income levels seeing far smaller changes. 

For example, a family of four considered by HUD to be low income, which is less than 80% of the area median income, made $83,750 in 2022. In 2023, that rose to $88,650, a 5.8% increase. 

It’s for these reasons that Wilkinson and other county officials remain skeptical of the data’s accuracy. The figures hold major sway over residents’ ability to access income-based resources, such as child care subsidies and workforce housing, but officials said that may not be the best way to address community needs. 

“We’ve had issues with (area median income) for a long time,” said Lina Lesmes, housing manager for the town of Silverthorne. “It just never seems to be keeping up with the current market conditions.”

While the income figures won’t affect much of Silverthorne’s deed-restricted homes, future figures will impact the eligibility of residents looking to rent one of the 135-unit apartments currently under construction in Smith Ranch. Those units, slated to be opened in early 2025, are eligible to residents within a range of 30% to 120% of the area median income. 

The new income figures could also expand the eligibility for existing for-rent workforce housing in the county, such as the Village at Wintergreen in Keystone or Alta Verde apartments in Breckenridge. Income eligibility for both complexes ranges between 30% and 100% of the area median income. 

But an increase in the pool of eligible residents could be complicated by a lack of housing supply.

“In some sense, (the 2023 figures) lower the barrier for entry because it’s going to increase the income for entry,” Wilkinson said. “But there’s a supply and demand mismatch. The more demand and the less we can provide could potentially lower the amount of people we can approve to get into those units.”

Area median income figures remain intrinsically tied to affordable housing, with local governments able to access federal funding for a project so long as they set income requirements for who can live there. The strategy has typically benefited lower-income residents most, typically those below 80% of the area median income. But for those on the higher end of the spectrum who still can’t afford market-rate housing, it offers little to no relief. 

“For a long time, rural resort communities have had housing needs above 80% (area median income). But for a long time, the state and federal government would only fund housing needs at 80% (area median income),” Pogue said. 

Locally referred to as the “missing middle,” it’s a population of the county that local officials have said needs more attention when it comes to housing solutions. While this year’s income figures may push more people into workforce housing eligibility, Pogue said it also likely means there’s an even larger population of residents unable to access market-rate housing. 

“It’s too soon to tell who this will most benefit and if it can create additional challenges for some of our middle-income folks,” Pogue said. “At the end of the day, the thing that hasn’t changed is we need more affordable housing for our workforce.”

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