Is area median income the best way to price affordable housing in Summit County? Officials say no

Summit County officials use the area median income to determine qualifications for workforce housing like the Village at Wintergreen Apartments, pictured here in Keystone. As wages in Summit County fluctuate, officials say area median income is not the best way to price housing in Summit County do to income disparities, population and restrictive federal funding.
Jason Connolly/Summit Daily News archive

Summit County government just recently increased its minimum wage to $24 an hour. 

At the Summit Board of County Commissioners meeting Tuesday, officials from the town of Breckenridge joked that employees will no longer qualify to live at Alta Verde. 

Recently, employees in Summit County have seen an increase in wages. This year, Breckenridge Grand Vacations increased its minimum wage to $21.75 per hour, and Vail resorts increased its minimum wage to $20.

While the increase is a benefit for many, it also prices some employees out of affordable housing due to area median income restrictions. It also has the potential to leave employees behind who haven’t yet gotten a wage increase. And while the county wants to build more variable housing, the process is more complicated than it seems. 

Alta Verde is the new affordable living area outside of Breckenridge, set at 60% of area median income. In 2022, that would be $43,980 per year, according to Summit Combined Housing Authority 2022 reports listing area median income. 

However, at $24 an hour, county employees will be making approximately $46,800.

There is also Alta Verde II, another affordable housing project that just recently broke ground. That project, however, is set between 80% to 120% area median income, which would be too high for employees to qualify. 

Jack Wilkinson, program manager for Summit Combined Housing Authority, said area median income isn’t the most ideal way to set income restrictions on residences in Summit County. 

“That number is getting skewed by a lot of high income earners in Summit County, and then a lot of low income,” Wilkinson said. “So they come up with a median, but that median doesn’t really represent a real person.”

Area median income is also a restriction that relies on data to set the limit, Wilkinson explained. 

“Rural resort communities and rural communities typically don’t have the population to make (area median income) a completely reliable reflection of what’s happening with wages in the community,” said Summit County County Commissioner Tamara Pogue.

Both Wilkinson and Pogue said area median income works much better for urban communities where there is a larger variety of incomes. 

Pogue added that area median income is particularly unrepresentative of middle-class workers, an income bracket many county residents are entering.

According to Wilkinson, area median income for Summit County rose 9% from 2021 to 2022. With the cost of inflation and wages rising throughout the county, there is potential for it to rise again. 

Therefore, Pogue said it’s important that more affordable housing developments with a variety of area median income restrictions are built.

But the process is harder than it seems, she said. 

“Part of the reason that this conversation is so difficult is because the state and federal governments are so prescriptive about what (area median income) projects they will fund,” Pogue said. 

Jason Dietz, the housing director for Summit County, confirmed that each affordable housing unit the county builds costs at least $400,000. 

Right now, there are about 3,000 affordable housing, deed-restricted or workforce housing units owned by the county.

“Nearly 10% of all residential units are geared towards attainable housing,” Dietz said.

That also means about $1.2 billion dollars has been put toward those units, Dietz added.

On top of this, Pogue pointed out that the state will only subsidize between $25,000 to $35,000 of the total cost — and it will only do that if those units are within a certain area median income. 

Therefore, the process to build becomes increasingly more expensive and restrictive, Pogue said. 

“I would say that in Summit County, the ideal situation would be that we have enough units for everyone,” Pogue said, “and that those units are priced at a point where nobody is spending more than 30% of their income on their housing. We have a long way to go before we get there.”

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