‘We can do better’: Amid housing inequities, Summit County seeks solutions for Spanish speakers

Local officials and nonprofit leaders say progress is being made to close disparity gaps. But challenges remain.

This is the fourth part of a four-story series exploring housing disparities in Summit County. Read the full series here.

Adolfo Ramírez slept on an air mattress on a living room floor for roughly four months. He shared the one-bedroom Summit County apartment with five others. 

He took on multiple jobs to bring in the $500 he needed each month to help pay rent, which he said was roughly $3,200. Ramírez found work wherever he could, which mainly consisted of housekeeping for short-term rental properties and private homes. 

Speaking through an interpreter, Ramírez said he was “worried every single day” about not making enough money for rent. 

“It was the most important thing,” he said. 

It’s not an uncommon story in Summit County’s immigrant community. 

Of the more than 2,280 residents surveyed for a recent county-sponsored housing study, 47% of Spanish speakers said they lived with someone who regularly sleeps on a couch, sofa bed or floor because there is no room in a bedroom compared to 8% of English speakers. Spanish speakers also reported higher rates of living in hotels and facing eviction. 

County Commissioner Tamara Pogue said the disparities are indicative of a “housing crisis that is affecting our entire community.”

“Anytime you see that level of crisis, there is no question that folks who are historically marginalized, who are more vulnerable, who speak English as a second language are going to be more deeply impacted,” she said. 

Language barriers, lack of government records and poor or non-existent credit history are among the chief reasons why immigrants can struggle to attain safe and stable housing in the high-cost county. But local officials and a network of nonprofits have sought solutions. 

One such effort is what led Ramírez to his new home: a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in Silverthorne that he shares with three others.  

It comes with a full-size kitchen to cook meals. A dining table, couch and chairs offer space to host company. And an outdoor balcony, with views of Buffalo Mountain and Peak One, allows plenty of light to flood the room. 

Here, Ramírez said, “I feel like a person, like a human being.” 

Shelby Reardon/Summit Daily News
Shelby Reardon/Summit Daily News

‘We view ourselves as a safety net’ 

Like others before him, Ramírez had little choice in leaving his home country of Nicaragua for Summit County. 

A human rights advocate and former opposition leader to the country’s current political administration, Ramírez was jailed in 2022 along with 221 other political prisoners in Nicauagra’s infamous El Chipote prison. 

For five months, he slept on a hard bed and prayed every day for his safety. Ramírez was interrogated 18 times, which included physical beatings, he said. While the prisoners weren’t allowed to speak with one another, Ramírez found opportunities to talk with a priest who shared the cell next to him. 

“We were trying to share and speak about God,” Ramírez said. “It’s how we survived.”

In February 2023, the United States government cemented a deal with Nicauagra to release the prisoners and fly them to the U.S. with the understanding that they were forbidden to return. Ramírez was granted a two-year humanitarian parole, allowing him to live and work without fear of deportation.

Government officials coordinated with Nicaraguan communities across the country to help relocate the 222 political exiles. Four of them, including Ramírez, were flown to Denver International Airport, where a group of Nicaraguan residents living in Summit County picked them up. 

They arrived with no belongings, no family or friends and no place to call home. 

“We knew that they were out there,” said county Housing Director Jason Dietz. “We worked with some nonprofits to try to reach them and say, ‘Hey, we have something that might be helpful.'”

Explore the series

A four-part series examining housing disparities between Spanish and English-speaking residents in Summit County.

Part I – A breakdown of disparities

Part II – Eviction, the “Scarlet E”

Part III – Hotel living

Part IV – Solutions and challenges

County officials were nearing the completion of a yearlong project to transform the former Days Inn hotel in Silverthorne into income-based rental housing. It was the third attempt at doing so after the county saw previous successes with hotel conversions in Frisco and Breckenridge

Applications for the new units opened in late May and, in early June, Ramírez and his companions moved into the property. For local officials, it showcased how they can provide housing to vulnerable groups who may otherwise struggle in the private market. 

While a 2020 state law prohibits landlords from asking for information regarding the legal status of a prospective tenant, county immigrants told the Summit Daily News they’ve still been required to provide Social Security numbers and photo IDs when applying at apartments. Even with those documents, an immigrant’s lack of credit history can also hinder their chances of finding housing. 

County-led projects, on the other hand, are all “documentation light,” as Dietz put it. “And that is by intent,” he said. 

For all three of its hotel conversions, for example, residents are only required to prove they work at least 30 hours per week in the county and fall within a certain income threshold to be eligible for a rental unit. That’s been the case since 2021, when a state law was repealed that required documentation of lawful status for recipients of local and state housing assistance

The county also offers those applications in Spanish, Dietz said. 

“I think one of the big differences between the private rental market and us is we view ourselves as a safety net in a lot of ways, and so there are some places where we can be more flexible with folks,” Pogue said. 

Robert Tann/Summit Daily News
Adolfo Ramírez pictured in his Silverthorne apartment on July 23, 2023. Ramírez is one of four Nicaraguan political exiles who arrived in Summit County in February.
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News

Still, hotel conversions are not a silver-bullet fix to the county’s housing woes. The former Days Inn property is being leased to county officials, an agreement that expires at the beginning of 2025, though it could be extended. 

“This is temporary transitional housing, not housing that we would want or expect folks to live in forever,” Pogue said.

Pogue said a more long-term solution will be bolstering the county’s affordable housing stock, especially rental apartments. But beyond building new units, officials must also ensure that adequate outreach to disadvantaged groups can lead to equitable access. 

It’s a critique some nonprofit leaders have levied against local housing providers, whom they’ve said have fallen short of that goal in the past. 

“It’s not to say that we’re doing everything right,” Pogue said. “I do often think that this boils down to a communication problem — that we may be doing some things that this community doesn’t know we’re doing.”

‘Some of these systems are so hard to change’

In October 2022, applications opened for the 80-unit Alta Verde workforce housing development in Breckenridge. Nonprofit leaders said they knew it would be incumbent on them to help get the word out to Spanish-speaking residents, but they were waiting for information from project leaders.

“The outreach didn’t happen in a timely way,” said Mountain Dreamers Executive Director Peter Bakken. “It was a word-of-mouth roll-out — the way we saw it.”

Alta Verde, an affordable housing complex in Breckenridge, is pictured Thursday, Sept. 8, 2023.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

While the project’s developer, Gorman & Co., and the town issued social media posts, newsletters and flyers with information about Alta Verde in Spanish, it didn’t happen until weeks after applications officially launched.

Timing was critical because placement for the units was based on a waitlist. The first to apply were usually the first in line, so long as they met income and work requirements. 

“In my mind, one of the missteps of Alta Verde is that the initial communication with information to apply didn’t go out to the community within the time we needed it to,” said Carol Saade, a Breckenridge council member and co-founder of Mountain Dreamers. “We can do better, and we need to do better from the get-go.”

After hearing concerns, town officials called a meeting in November with representatives for Mountain Dreamers, the Family & Intercultural Resource Center and Gorman to discuss outreach practices and ways to reduce barriers for Spanish speakers.

One such proposal by nonprofit leaders was to offer applications for Gorman’s workforce developments in Spanish, something they said continues to be an obstacle for their clients. Currently, applicants are required to fill out a questionnaire that screens their eligibility before completing a second form, both of which are only offered in English. 

“Part of the reason why is that we have applicants that speak many, many different languages,” said Kimball Crangle, Gorman & Co. Colorado market president. “We are very insistent that our process is the same for anybody coming through the door and that the application is literally the exact same so we don’t treat anybody differently.” 

If Gorman offered applications in Spanish, “We would need to offer it in every other language,” Crangle added. 

The second phase of Alta Verde is pictured on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023. The affordable housing project is expected to open sometime in Summer 2024.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

Gorman partners with a third-party organization to offer interpretation services in a variety of languages, including Spanish. If an applicant needs help filling out a form or asking questions, they can be set up with an interpreter over the phone, though sometimes in-person interpretation can also be arranged, Crangle said. 

None of Gorman’s rental properties in the county — which include Alta Verde and its impending second phase, the Village at Wintergreen in Keystone and the upcoming Smith Ranch apartments in Silverthorne — require proof of legal documentation, Crangle said. 

Unlike other federal subsidies, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit — which helped fund all four of those projects — does not preclude undocumented residents or mixed-status families. And following the 2020 state law that repealed income verification for state and local funding, developers like Gorman are able to use all three of those funding sources for housing projects without the need for documentation, such as a Social Security number. 

“We’re not here to judge people about anything. We’re here to house folks,” Crangle said. “We’re really hoping to be part of the solution.”

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As Gorman and town officials look to unveil the 172-unit Alta Verde II sometime next summer, Crangle said project leaders plan to engage nonprofits about outreach well ahead of when applications are set to open.

“We are absolutely, 100% open to making ourselves better any time we can,” she said.

Bakken, the Mountain Dreamers director, said he still wants to see more ways housing providers can simplify the application process, including offering it in Spanish and providing more in-person interpretation rather than virtual. 

But he’s encouraged to be working in a community that is receptive to such feedback, he said. 

“We’re not fighting against people who are actively resisting. It’s just that some of these systems are so hard to change,” he said.

Tripp Fay/For Summit Daily News
Downtown Breckenridge is pictured Sunday, Sept. 3, 2023. The town, through its partnership with Gorman & Co., is currently building the second phase of Alta Verde, a workforce housing development.
Tripp Fay/For Summit Daily News

‘It is going to take time’

At the heart of the issue is a need for more bilingual representation in housing circles, nonprofit leaders said. When it comes to applying for or even inquiring about housing opportunities in the county, immigrants are likely to encounter a patchwork of Spanish language resources. 

The towns of Silverthorne and Breckenridge as well as the county government are the only three local entities that have housing departments. Of those, just Silverthorne has bilingual representation in its housing department, with its sole employee versed in both English and Spanish, according to Town Manager Ryan Hyland. 

However, all county municipalities as well as the county governments are represented by the Summit Combined Housing Authority, which has two bilingual employees — one fluent in Spanish and the other French — out of six total staff.

Local officials said whenever possible, they partner with nonprofits to provide outreach to the Spanish-speaking community as well as offer interpretation at housing-related open house events. Hyland stated this will be the case in Silverthorne when the 135-unit Smith Ranch apartment complex, developed by Gorman, nears completion.

Outside of that, town and county officials said they rely on interpreters offered through property management companies, such as Gorman. 

As the county’s Spanish-speaking community grows, nonprofit leaders said they want to see government staffing that mirrors that population, which sits at just over 15%, according to 2020 Census data, though officials believe that figure is even greater when accounting for undocumented immigrants.

Currently, Silverthorne comes the closest, with nine town employees versed in English and Spanish out of 105 full-time staffers, equating to roughly 8.5% of staff being bilingual. 

Shelby Reardon/Summit Daily News

The county government is eyeing a plan to increase staff from underrepresented groups by 10% by 2025. It recently proposed pay incentives to attract more bilingual staff, similar to efforts in place in Silverthorne and Frisco.

“This is a high priority for me at Summit County government to focus on,” said Pogue, the county commissioner. “But I do think because of the historic distrust in government, this is difficult.” 

Increasing bilingual staff alone won’t solve local governments’ outreach challenges, Pogue said. Many immigrants come fleeing oppressive dictatorships that have disenfranchised them from seeing government as a solution, which is why building community trust is essential, Pogue said. 

Some of that will come in the form of partnerships with nonprofits. Pogue gave the example of Mountain Dreamers, which worked to get the word out about the dozens of units available at the former Days Inn hotel, which ultimately led to two-thirds of the roughly 160 applications being filed in Spanish. 

That same ratio roughly holds true for current tenants of units not being reserved for county or town staff or master leased to a business for employee housing. Of the 22 units currently occupied, 14 of those tenants are Spanish speakers compared to eight English speakers, translating to just under two-thirds of occupants being Spanish-speaking residents.

“In my mind, that is the benchmark of how we begin to address some of these inequities,” she said. “But it is going to take time.” 

The building for the former Days Inn hotel is pictured in Silverthorne on Monday, May 22, 2023. Summit County officials recently completed a renovation of the hotel, converting the property into 51 income-based housing units.
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News

‘We can’t do it alone’

Finding solutions to the county’s housing needs, as well as addressing the disparities within those needs, is a responsibility that now reaches beyond public policymakers, community leaders said. 

Often, it takes multiple community organizations working in tandem to deliver results for even just a handful of residents. 

In the case of Ramírez, the Nicaraguan political exile, he relied not just on the county and Mountain Dreamers, but also on the Summit Colorado Interfaith Council — a collection of local churches. 

The group raised funds from its members to help cover the first few months of rent for Ramírez and the other Nicauagrans. It also donated essential supplies, such as bedding and cookware, to make the space feel like a true home. 

“They had no resources at the beginning,” said Diane Luellen, an Interfaith board member and former board president. “It is our mission to do what we can, whenever we can, to assist people with housing.”

On a larger scale, Interfaith provides a space for mobile residents to park and safely sleep in their vehicles through the nonprofit Unsheltered in Summit. And it is currently looking toward its most ambitious project yet: a conversion of a former library building in downtown Frisco that could serve as transitional housing for nearly 30 low-income residents. 

While Luellen is proud of Interfaith’s work, it also represents the sheer scale of the county’s housing problem, she said. 

“It’s unfortunate that faith organizations and others like it need to be involved, but at this point in time, we see ourselves as a collaborative partner to other organizations,” Lullen said. “We can’t do it alone, and they can’t do it alone either.”

For immigrants especially, not having adequate access to housing threatens the county’s socioeconomic fabric, community leaders said, which is why they described the issue as both a moral and economic imperative. 

Adolfo Ramírez pictured in his Silverthorne apartment on July 23, 2023. Robert Tann/Summit Daily News
Adolfo Ramírez pictured in the kitchen of his Silverthorne apartment on July 23, 2023. After moving from a crowded one-bedroom, he said, “I feel like a person. Like a human being.”
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News

“When you don’t have a workforce, specifically the immigrant workforce, places do shut down,” said Family & Intercultural Resource Center Executive Director Brianne Snow.

That can threaten the county’s diverse makeup, she said, adding, “Having diverse perspectives and diverse backgrounds really make for a better environment.”

In 2022, the resource center said it served nearly a third of the country’s population. A slight majority of those, 50.6%, were Spanish speakers, according to an annual report published in August

The resource center’s rent assistance program, however, sees an outsized number of Spanish-speaking applicants. According to Snow, of the more than 280 households that have applied since January, 68% were Spanish-speaking residents. 

Beginning next month, the nonprofit will introduce a revamped version of the program that will provide more aid over a longer period of time. 

While the resource center has been providing lump-sum payments directly to landlords to help offset a tenant’s rent, those were usually one-offs. After piloting a new approach with about 20 families last year, Snow said the new model will provide smaller monthly payments, between $300 and $600, for six months to a year. 

Ultimately, she said, this will provide more financial relief to tenants who can better balance their budgets over the long term. To bolster the program’s roll-out, the resource center will also create an equity committee that Snow said will have representation from the Spanish-speaking community akin to an existing group it has for food resources. 

Currently, about 70% of resource center staff speak more than one language, Snow said. 

“Some of the things that we’re trying work, and some of them don’t. But let’s start adding more people to the table so we have a broad, diverse set of ideas,” Snow said of the committee. 

Shelby Reardon/Summit Daily News

Beyond financial support, immigrants also need help acclimating to a new community if they are to be successful, said Yerania Reynoso, a Mountain Dreamers staff member. Reynoso said she remembers how it felt when she first arrived in Summit County after leaving her home in Mexico in 2015. 

She described it like being stuck inside a bubble. 

“You keep yourself inside, and you don’t want to go outside,” Reynoso said. “But as much as you grow outside, you grow yourself.” 

That’s where Mountain Dreamers is hoping to make further inroads. Reynoso said the nonprofit recently applied for a state grant that would help them fund a program to familiarize new immigrants with the county. 

It would include helping them apply for housing and work, driving them to and from public health appointments and food banks as well as showing them where they can catch a bus. The nonprofit is hoping to serve about 30 families in six months. 

Taken together, these solutions, big and small, could help reduce inequities within the county’s immigrant population, community leaders said. Doing so can provide a place that feels like home, especially for those who’ve left theirs behind. 

Ramírez thinks about his three daughters and two sons every day. Often, they talk on the phone. He doesn’t know when he’ll see them again.

He intends to stay in Summit County as long as possible. While his long-term prospects at his Silverthorne apartment are uncertain — he has a 12-month lease — Ramírez said he’s grateful to be in a better situation than most.

This is his home now, and he has no intentions of finding another.

“I want to keep working hard for my family,” he said, “and the rest of the Nicaraguans that are living in the same situation.”