‘It breaks my heart’: Spanish-speaking residents in Summit County face greater housing insecurity than English speakers, study shows

Disparities in overcrowded living, evictions and continuous relocation show the housing crisis’ acute effect on immigrant population, community leaders say

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

In a resort mountain community where roughly two-thirds of homes sit vacant several months of the year, nearly 1 in 2 Hispanic residents say they live with someone who regularly sleeps on a couch, sofa bed or floor because there is no room in a bedroom.

Yet less than 1 in 10 English-speaking residents say the same. It’s just one of several disparities between the county’s Spanish and English-speaking populations revealed through a recent housing study. 

A survey of 2,284 residents conducted in English and Spanish this spring by housing research firm Root Policy Research shows that Spanish speakers reported higher rates of eviction, overcrowded housing, living in a hotel and being forced to move in the past five years when they didn’t want to. 

County officials shared the responses, more than 1,800 of which were in English and more than 470 in Spanish, with the Summit Daily News ahead of an impending final report. 

Community leaders say the findings, while sobering, are unsurprising. To many, the data shows how the county’s lack of affordable housing has an acute impact on its immigrant population. 

“It really hurts me that our community does not have more affordable options,” said Mateo Lozano, the county’s representative for the Colorado Latino advocacy group Voces Unidas. 

“We’re the dishwashers, the construction workers, the people that clean everything. We lay the foundations for a lot of the things that happen here in Summit County,” he added. 

The survey was part of a broader study launched this year that sought to examine the county’s housing needs. The last time local officials commissioned such a report was in 2019. 

“We suspected that there might be those types of disparities, but the previous housing needs surveys that we had didn’t really flush that out,” said county Housing Director Jason Dietz, adding that outreach to Spanish-speaking groups was a key focus this time around. 

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Much of the survey was carried out through door-to-door interviews led by county nonprofits like Mountain Dreamers, which works directly with immigrants. 

As someone who helped circulate the survey, Mountain Dreamers staff member Miriam Garcia said she saw first-hand how some Spanish-speaking immigrants were living. 

“In one of the interviews I did, someone said they used to live with 16 people in one hotel room,” she said. “In an apartment in Dillon, one lady mentioned, ‘I have bed bugs in my apartment, but I’m afraid to say something at the office because if they ask me to move out I have nowhere to go.'”

“It breaks my heart,” Garcia added. 

Tripp Fay/Summit Daily News
Homes sit above the Snake River Arm of the Dillon Reservoir on Sunday, Sept. 3, 2023. Data shows most homes in the county sit vacant several months of the year while nearly one-third are used as short-term rentals.
Tripp Fay/Summit Daily News

‘We see the disparities every day’

Language barriers, immigrant status and a lack of community connection are compounded and create a higher likelihood of housing instability for Spanish speakers, Garcia said. That’s in addition to challenges already plaguing working families unable to afford record-high home prices that hover in the millions. 

According to a June housing market report, single-family homes sold on average for $2,004,223 while multifamily units, such as a condo, sold for $944,316. A market analysis between March and June showed average rent costs ranged from $2,300 for a studio or one-bedroom apartment to $6,350 for a four-bedroom unit or larger. The median rent per bedroom, according to the county’s latest housing survey, is $1,667.

Housing is typically considered affordable when residents are paying no more than one-third of their annual income on it. In Summit County, that would mean having an income of roughly $67,000, yet more than 43% of Spanish-speaking households reported earning $35,000 or below.

“I would argue, if we don’t really look at these housing inequities, we are going to continue to have economic ramifications into the future,” said county Commissioner Tamara Pogue.

Few Spanish-speaking residents own a home in Summit County. 

Of the more than 2,280 residents surveyed, 56% of English-speaking respondents reported being a homeowner compared to 6% of Spanish speakers. More than a quarter of Spanish speakers, 26%, said they rent without a lease agreement compared to 6% of English speakers. 

When asked if they’ve ever had to move in the past five years despite not wanting to, 19% of English respondents said yes compared to 49% of Spanish-speaking respondents. The top reason for Spanish speakers was because of an eviction, with 23% reporting one in the past five years compared to 5% of English respondents.

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

“Unfortunately, I’m not surprised at all,” said Brianne Snow, executive director for the Family & Intercultural Resource Center. “We see the disparities every day.”

Snow, whose nonprofit provides a slew of services for lower-income residents including food and rental assistance, said income is likely one of the main drivers for why Hispanic residents, particularly immigrants, struggle to find and retain housing more than their English-speaking peers. 

Immigrants tend to work multiple low-paying jobs, many of which can also be seasonal, and see a less steady stream of income, Snow said. 

Most Spanish-speaking families reported an annual income of $75,000 and below while more than 75% of English-speaking households said they earn $75,000 or more. Just over 31% of English speakers said they made $150,000 or over compared to just over 1% of Spanish speakers. 

According to 2023 data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an income of less than $75,000 for a three or four-person household would be considered low in Summit County.

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

A lack of credit history, ID or Social Security number can also hamper immigrants’ ability to secure a lease. Despite a law passed by Colorado lawmakers in 2020 that prohibits landlords from asking for citizenship or immigration information from tenants, many still ask for documentation that could only come from having lawful status, such as Social Security, according to the experiences of several immigrants who spoke to the Summit Daily.

These problems are only exacerbated by language barriers between landlords and prospective tenants, Snow said. 

“If you can’t explain things to them, you’re looked over — passed over — on the limited housing supply that we have here in Summit County,” Snow said. 

The survey also shows a higher rate of Spanish speakers living in overcrowded housing. 

When asked if anyone who regularly lives with you sleeps on a couch, sofa bed or floor because there is no room in a bedroom, 8% of English respondents said yes compared to 47% of Spanish respondents. 

While accounting for a slim slice of respondents, more Spanish-speaking residents are also living in hotels, 7%, than English speakers, less than 1%.

Though disparities exist, the survey also showed that more Spanish speakers feel secure in their housing, 64%, than English-speaking residents, 58%.

Pogue, the county commissioner, said it could come down to a different standard for security. 

“If you’re from a community that’s used to being evicted more frequently, if you’re from a community that is already moving around four or five times a year, if you’re from a community that is living in an overcrowded situation — your standard is likely to be lower,” Pogue said. 

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

‘We are a utilization-constrained community’ 

Addressing these disparities is more important than ever as the county’s Spanish-speaking immigrant population grows, community leaders said. 

2020 United States Census data shows that just over 15% of the county’s permanent population identifies as Hispanic, a 50% increase from the previous Census. Representation is even greater in the Summit School District, where roughly 40% of the student body is Hispanic. 

But with status and language differences making Hispanics a more complicated demographic to survey, some said the country’s true population is likely far greater than what Census data shows. 

“We know that we are seeing a large migration to Summit County of undocumented immigrants, folks that typically don’t get counted in our Census data,” Pogue said. 

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

Nonprofit staff members said they’ve seen a particular rise in migrants coming from Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia and Venezuela, where political and economic turmoil has forced individuals and families to flee. 

For example, nearly 6,000 Nicaraguan immigrants filed for asylum protection in Colorado between 2018 and 2022, according to a Syracuse University database. About 1,400 of them filed in Summit County, which had the most filings of anywhere in Colorado, according to reporting by KUNC

Prior to that reporting, Pogue said she believed the county’s Nicaraguan population was closer to 500. 

“To me, that is an indication that we still don’t have a great way to understand and work with these communities and share information with these communities,” she said. 

Much of that could be attributed to language barriers, though Pogue said general government distrust may also be a factor as many immigrants and migrants come here while fleeing hostile dictatorships. 

Nonprofit staff said they are putting more pressure on housing providers, including private developers and local officials, to integrate Spanish into their outreach efforts. 

Yerania Reynoso, a Mountain Dreamers staffer, said the organization often has to use its own staff to provide interpretation services for local governments during housing-related events. But she believes bilingual staffing should be more commonplace. 

“You have to be fighting for that right,” she said.

It’s an issue that nonprofit staff leaders said will continue to take on urgency as hundreds of government-subsidized housing units come onto the market in the coming years. 

According to Dietz, the county’s housing director, roughly 400 income-based apartments are currently under construction across various local government projects in the county. That includes the 135-unit Smith Ranch apartments in Silverthorne, the 172-unit Alta Verde 2 development in Breckenridge and the 47-unit final phase of the Village at Wintergreen apartments in Keystone — all of which are being built by developer Gorman & Co.

Pogue, the county commissioner, said increasing the stock of affordable housing, particularly rental units, is a key strategy in local officials’ plan to reduce costs. While 2022 federal government data shows there are more than 32,200 housing units and roughly 30,500 residents in the county, a majority of those homes will never be available to working families, Pogue said. 

“We are a utilization-constrained community because, off the top, we’re losing 70% of our housing stock to second homeowners,” Pogue said, referring to a statistic identified in a March 2020 housing report

Tripp Fay/Summit Daily News
A mobile home park seen in an unincorporated area of Summit County near Breckenridge. Mobile homes are seen by some community leaders as the last bastions of affordable housing in the county.
Tripp Fay/Summit Daily News

“This is all an ecosystem that has to balance out,” she added. “If folks want jobs, we have to have tourists and second-home owners to drive that economy.”

But disparities will only grow if housing availability, and equitable access, cannot. 

“Until we can figure out a model to sell a home for $150,000 to $250,000, many of these folks are not going to have an opportunity to stay in this community long-term,” Pogue said.

For Reynoso, the Mountain Dreamers staffer, and Lozano, the Voces Unidas representative, this is already their reality. Both currently live in Leadville after being unable to contend with the high prices in Summit. Both still commute to the county for work, a 30- to 40-minute drive. 

For Lozano, it’s particularly disheartening. 

Two generations of his family have made Summit their home since emigrating from Colombia in the late 1990s, he said. He and his partner have a combined annual income of about $125,000 and, up until last year, were searching for a home to buy in the county that could accommodate them and their expected baby. 

Nothing they found came close to what they could afford. 

“I feel like we have a comfortable salary … but there’s no way that I would be able to pay off a million dollar home in my lifetime with the salary I’m doing right now,” Lozano said. “It’s just crazy how we’re still not able to afford the most basic living quarters.”

Unless families can live where they work, more will continue to be displaced, he said. 

“Let’s try and create a situation where we are creating more of a priority for our Latino workers, our immigrant workers, our workers of color,” he said. “If they can’t afford to live in Summit County, then we’re going to start losing our workers.”