Housing crunch: Summit County’s workforce is increasingly being pushed out by second-home owners

Townhomes at the base of Peak 8 in Breckenridge are pictured Friday, Nov. 20. Only one-quarter of the homes in Breckenridge are owned by locals.

DILLON — The struggle to pay rent is a collective anxiety among Summit County’s hourly wage workers, who often live in overcrowded spaces, commute from outside the county or hand over half their monthly paycheck to landlords, leaving little money for other necessities.

Some join long waiting lists for workforce housing developments, but availability is never guaranteed. Some live in unpermitted units or in their cars.

With the cost of housing and construction increasing each year, the problem is a top priority for local governments.

The price of rent

The 2020 self-sufficiency standard in Summit County estimates the monthly cost of housing for one adult at $1,098 and for an adult with one to two children at $1,414 based on fair market rent data for one- and two-bedroom apartments in the area, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

For an employee making $13 an hour — $1 above minimum wage — half of the employee’s wages before taxes would go straight to rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

Based on the Summit County Housing Needs report, which was updated in 2019 and published in March, a one-bedroom apartment would need to cost $1,003 per month to be affordable for someone who makes $19.38 an hour, or 60% of area median income. For someone making $25.85 an hour, or 80% of area median income, an affordable rent would be $1,337 per month for a one-bedroom apartment.

Data from the Family & Intercultural Resource Center shows that the nonprofit’s clients pay an average monthly rent of $1,392. Executive Director Brianne Snow said the average is based on monthly rents ranging from as high as $4,000 to as low as $100, with the low amount being unusual and skewing the average.

Cost and availability of housing are the two biggest issues in Summit County, Snow said.

The general rule of thumb that no more than 30% of household income should be spent on housing stems from the U.S. National Housing Act of 1937. That’s often not the case for families and individuals in Summit County. With the average monthly rent at $1,392 and average income at $2,450, according to resource center data, the nonprofit’s clients are putting about 57% of their income toward rent.

Family & Intercultural Resource Center Support Manager Michel Infante said more than half of the nonprofit’s clients put over 50% of their income toward rent. And as renters, their housing situation is less stable than someone who owns.

“We have a lot of families that come in here that have been here for many years, have kids in school. They have a decent job, maybe not the highest-paying job, both parents are working, and then the homeowner decides to sell or decides to short-term rent it, and so they’re left back into the market trying to find housing, and it’s just not the same as when they first got into this house seven years ago,” Snow said as an example. “They’re looking at completely downsizing but paying maybe sometimes up to double the rent.”

Amy Priegel, executive director of the Summit Combined Housing Authority, is pictured at her office on Thursday, Nov. 19.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

Housing instability

According to the Housing Needs report, Summit County has a housing gap of 725 units, meaning current inventory is short of the demand generated by Summit County’s workforce. The Upper Blue region, which includes Breckenridge and Blue River, and the Tenmile region, which includes Frisco and Copper, have the largest gaps in available housing in the county.

The report also found that there is a large need for rental housing for those making up to $53,760 annually, or 80% of area median income.

“If there’s one overall issue that we see in housing, (it) is that we need more of it,” said Amy Priegel, executive director of the Summit Combined Housing Authority. “Particularly for our local workers.”

Priegel said she sees more and more people who come to the Housing Authority and say they need housing but don’t know where to start. She said the people who ask for help have sometimes lived in the county for years and are forced to find a new place because their rental unit is being sold, and they’re losing their housing stability. Overall, Priegel said the majority of people who reach out to the Housing Authority are stressed due to housing instability.

She noted that most renters are served in the “nontraditional marketplace,” such as renting a room or basement in someone’s house rather than a one-bedroom apartment.

Prosperity Disparity

Prosperity Disparity is a three-part series by the Summit Daily News highlighting the struggles of the hourly wage workforce.

Nov. 16

Making ends meet: How Summit County’s hourly wage workers patch together a tight budget

Nov. 23

Housing crunch: Summit County’s workforce is increasingly being pushed out by second-home owners

Nov. 30

Transient workforce: How high turnover affects the workplace and the mental health of seasonal workers

Carla Decker, director of programs at the Family & Intercultural Resource Center, said people find creative ways to come up with housing solutions that work with their income.

Some will live with multiple people in one bedroom or generally overcrowd a home, live in illegal spaces like apartments built over garages that are not permitted by the town’s building department, or live in campers, trailers or cars. Decker also said many people work in Summit County but live in neighboring counties, including towns like Leadville, Fairplay and Kremmling that tend to have lower rental costs.

Often, people will move frequently, moving out of the county in the winter when ski resort employees move in and housing availability shrinks and then moving back into the county during the summer.

“It’s just like a never-ending puzzle switching jobs, houses all the time, every six months,” Decker said.

Workforce housing

Workforce and affordable housing exists in Summit County in the form of deed-restrictions on rental and for-purchase homes, many of which require at least one member of a household to be employed in the county for 30 hours or more per week. Other deed restrictions are based on income. For example, a workforce housing complex might provide a certain number of units to renters who make no more than $47,040 annually, or no more than 70% of area median income, which is defined as low income by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In a development project like Silverthorne’s Smith Ranch Neighborhood, which offers deed-restricted units for ownership, units are available to residents earning 80% to 130% of area median income, or $53,760 to $87,360 annually for one person. For a family of four, area median income is $95,900 in Summit County. A two-bedroom home in the complex is priced at $287,927 for households earning 85% of area median income.

And Smith Ranch isn’t the only new workforce development. The housing needs report found that there are 532 units in affordable housing projects that have been recently completed or are under construction and another 246 affordable units are in the pipeline.

That’s a significant step toward addressing the housing gap of 725 units indicated in the report, but the affordability problem persists.

Breckenridge housing and child care planning manager Laurie Best said the lack of housing extends beyond inventory to availability and affordability for the local workforce.

“What causes that affordability gap, obviously, is more demand … from outside sources, people that are not earning their living here that want to retire here or want to vacation here,” Best said. “And so those folks … are bringing money from outside, and they’re able to drive up the price of housing so it becomes unaffordable to the people that are working here. So it’s kind of a broken market. Typically, supply and demand would work out, but when your supply is being used up from outside your market, then supply and demand don’t work.”

Based on data from the Summit County Assessor’s Office, the amount of residential properties compared to properties with a local mailing address is a difference of 19,667, signifying that about two-thirds of units in Summit County are owned by second-home owners.

Local’s neighborhoods have a higher proportion of properties with local mailing addresses — Summit Cove is about 65% locals — while areas with historically high visitation have a lower percentage. Breckenridge’s residential properties with a local mailing address make up 24% of total homes.

Due to the pandemic and resulting trend to move to desirable areas to work remotely, the local real estate market is booming and putting a strain on would-be local homebuyers. Best said the hot market has driven up housing prices so that locals have even less of an opportunity to compete, putting additional pressure on local housing inventory.

Priegel added that the growing middle class in Summit County has its own set of anxieties due to the gap between workforce and market-rate housing.

“We’re having people come in and saying, ‘Gosh, I’m making too much to afford to buy into the current deed-restricted housing, but we don’t make nearly enough to make that jump into the free-market housing, so what do we do?” Priegel said.

Best said a priority of the town of Breckenridge is to have a diverse housing inventory that includes homes and apartments for purchase and rent. She said the biggest need is for affordable rental apartments, which have long wait lists.

Currently, Breckenridge is moving forward with its Alta Verde project, which will provide 80 rental units for those making 30% to 60% of area median income, or no more than $40,320 annually for a single person.

However, Best said working to solve the affordable housing inventory shortage is not just about building new units.

“We can’t build our way out of this,” Best said. “We have a lot of housing that’s currently serving workforce, it has historically served workforce, but we’re at risk of losing it as it flips to either a short-term rental or retirement or a vacation home. And so our Housing Helps program and our buy-down program are programs that preserve that inventory by putting deed restrictions on existing units. … Preserving some of what we have is probably the most sustainable and greenest way that we can address some of the needs of the employees in town.”

Melissa Giroux works at Blue Valley Ski Shop in Silverthorne on Thursday, Nov. 19.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

The human element

For Kia Grant, who moved to Summit County in 2016, living in her van is the most practical solution to the housing problem.

Grant started out working in product sales for Vail Resorts.

“I didn’t live in employee housing because I wanted more space than they allowed for, so I ended up living in Silverthorne,” Grant said. “And I was paying $960 a month for rent. … I had to work six days a week to even afford that.”

Now, Grant works at Breckenridge Coffee Roasters and lives in her van as part of the local overnight parking program, which was launched last summer by the Summit Colorado Interfaith Council to provide working homeless individuals with a safe and reliable space to park their cars and sleep overnight.

Grant said living in her van is a huge part of making her life in Summit County sustainable. She said she didn’t feel that she could achieve a work-life balance when she was working for the resort and living in a rental property. The flexibility of living in her van makes for less financial hardship, particularly through the pandemic, when Grant’s work hours were cut during the springtime shutdown. And the van helps to cut down on her commute, which used to be an hour each way on the bus.

She also said she prefers to live alone rather than crowding into a rental with several roommates.

“I think for a lot of folks up here, a high percentage of people are working in the customer service sphere,” Grant said. “And for myself, I’m very introverted, so having to be in that environment for 50-60 hours a week and then to come home and have to interact with people, when all you want to do is shut down and recharge, definitely affected my mental health. So having a space to go back to where it’s just me — I can unwind, I know what I’m coming home to — has been extremely beneficial.”

Melissa Giroux, who came to Summit County last fall, recently left her position at Breckenridge Ski Resort to work at a local ski and snowboard shop.

She said it felt nearly impossible to make starting wages at the resort, which are $12.25 an hour this year, and pay standard rent in the county. That’s why Giroux opted to live in the Breckenridge Terrace employee housing complex, where she could split a one-bedroom unit for $495 per month plus $25 for parking.

However, she said employee housing is more like moving into a college dormitory than renting an apartment as she moved in sight unseen with an assigned a roommate. Giroux said she left employee housing when she was given just five days’ notice to move out this fall. To find housing on such short notice, she made a post on the local Facebook page One Man’s Junk Summit County and found someone renting a room in their condo.

Despite housing challenges, Giroux said she wants to stay and make it work in Summit County because it has become her home and she has started to make friends and plant roots.

Echoing Grant’s sentiments, Giroux said she thinks the biggest housing challenge for hourly workers is simply affording any housing that is available.

“I don’t know where even the money comes from sometimes,” Giroux said. “It just becomes, ‘This is automatically the real estate. You are going to pay … $1,800 for a one bedroom.’ How do you do that? … Working for a corporate (entity) with an hourly wage, it’s almost impossible.”

Coming next week: The Summit Daily News explores the transient nature of Summit County’s workforce and how it impacts the workplace and the mental health of seasonal workers.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Summit Daily is embarking on a multiyear project to digitize its archives going back to 1989 and make them available to the public in partnership with the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. The full project is expected to cost about $165,000. All donations made in 2023 will go directly toward this project.

Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.