Summit County officials discuss strategies to mitigate housing ‘crisis’

Among the options discussed are building new units, offering incentives and modifying zoning requirements

The Village at Wintergreen brought nearly 200 affordable housing units to Keystone when it first opened, the largest workforce housing project recently completed by the county. There is a workforce housing shortage in Summit County, and local leaders are currently brainstorming ways to solve what they're calling a crisis.
Photo by Jason Connolly / Jason Connolly Photography

Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue has described the area’s housing issue as a crisis in multiple instances.

“This is a crisis,” Pogue said April 29. “This is not something we have ever seen in Summit County, and while I admire the work that Summit County government has done in the 367 units that we’ve built in the past five years, that kind of thinking is not necessarily going to get us to a solution.”

The Summit Board of County Commissioners, along with other local leaders, listened to a housing needs presentation hosted by the Summit Combined Housing Authority on April 29.

During that presentation, local leaders learned how dire the county’s housing situation currently is. According to the data presented, over one-third of the entire housing inventory is listed as short-term rentals. Currently, Summit County has a shortage of 725 units, meaning the county needs that many new units to meet housing demand. That number is expected to balloon to 2,400 units by 2023.

On Tuesday, May 4, the commissioners and other county officials reconvened to discuss strategies to mitigate the issue as quickly as possible.

“Our goal on Tuesday was to put every idea we possibly could on the table, and then obviously our housing folks need to go back and work through all those strategies, take a look at what is most realistic to move the needle quickly, what is not, certainly take a look at these ideas versus budgetary impacts for the county,” Pogue said.

Pogue said she hopes this proposed plan will be available in the next 30 days, though that is not a set timeline. She said she expects county staff to lay out a phased approach that offers strategies to implement in the short and long term. Above all, what she wants to see is a package that contains policies and programs that puts the county in a better housing position.

“What I would like us to do is sort of challenge some fundamental philosophies that we’ve had in the past about how we approach housing,” she said. “I think what we need … is — for lack of a better term — a housing stimulus package.”

An unexpected flip

So what contributed to the current housing climate? Part of the issue is caused by a rise in employment in low-wage industries, like arts and entertainment. Another contributing factor is the amount of inventory available: 70% of the county’s housing supply is vacant homes and 30% is occupied housing, according to the most recent housing study.

Another part of the issue is due to unexpected trends caused by the pandemic.

When COVID-19 began impacting Summit County, local officials expected prices in homes to plummet. Summit County Housing Director Jason Dietz said his team expected to acquire more units through the county’s buy-down program. According to Dietz’s presentation, the program allows the county to purchase a favorably priced, market-rate unit and place a deed restriction on the property, thus requiring the unit’s occupant to work full time in Summit County and to resell the unit with a limited appreciation.

Dietz said the program’s guidelines are to stick to $35,000 per bedroom and sell it at a price for buyers who make below 100% of area median income, which is $67,300 for a single person and $96,100 for a family of four.

“COVID completely switched that over, and the listing prices of the houses we’re seeing (are) now … at $100,000-plus per bedroom,” he said. “A $500,000 budget goes really fast when you’re spending $100,000 per bedroom.”

Do existing programs work?

One solution Dietz proposed is to continue purchasing units through the buy-down program using subsidies and to sell them back at a moderately reduced cost. Dietz estimated that this would save the county $20,000 per bedroom and that the county would be able to get these units resold at $30,000 to $50,000 per bedroom, depending on the unit and where it’s located.

Another program that could provide relief is the Housing Helps program. According to Dietz’s presentation, the program incentivizes homeowners and sellers to deed restrict their properties to help maintain and sustain homes for locals in the community.

Dietz did note during his presentation that since it was launched, the county has not received much interest in the Housing Helps program from existing owners.

“We have only seen a few of those folks inquire about it and likely because the appreciation is going up so fast just in the last couple of months that it seems to change dramatically, and there’s not as strong of an interest for that seller of a deed restriction,” Dietz said.

In these programs, Dietz reported that the county has $1 million to spend on the buy downs and Housing Helps. Because home prices are ballooning, he estimated the county could absorb only about three to eight units with the existing budgets.

Could incentives help?

Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence noted that these programs still have high costs. In an example, she pointed out that it’s likely the county would have to pay $300,000 to subsidize a house before it can be deed restricted. At that point, Lawrence brought up new construction.

“I think that’s tough to decide where does our subsidy go,” Lawrence said. “Are we better off trying to do new?”

Lawrence also said she’s unsure that the current housing market is set up to make the buy-down program successful. Instead, she proposed incentives that the county could employ to convert short-term rentals into long-term rentals.

Lawrence used arbitrary numbers to demonstrate her line of thinking: Say the owner of a short-term rental earns $3,000 per month. If that same owner were to turn their property into a long-term unit, they might make $2,000 per month. Lawrence suggested some kind of subsidy that would make up for the loss.

Pogue noted that roughly 10% of locals rent short-term properties and suggested that the county try to target these units and turn them into long-term housing.

Summit County Commissioner Josh Blanchard said beyond the financial incentive, the county would also need to develop some kind of incentive to owners of short-term rentals who use their property sporadically throughout the year.

The Dillon Valley Vistas workforce housing complex is pictured while under construction Nov. 19. The project added 12 three- and four-bedroom for-purchase units to the workforce housing inventory.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

Exploring new construction

“Can we build our way out?” Dietz asked rhetorically. “Probably not if you look at the total budgets of that actual deficit.”

During his presentation, he stated that the county’s housing budget was nearly $6.5 million at the start of 2021.

By the numbers

Completed county workforce housing projects:

• Huron Landing in Breckenridge produced 26 units

• West Hills in Keystone produced 26 units

• Village at Wintergreen in Keystone produced 196 units

• Sky Chutes Apartments in Breckenridge produced 44 units

• Dillon Valley Vistas in Dillon produced 12 units

• Through the Housing Helps and buy-down programs, 23 units were preserved and deed restricted

Previous projects completed by the county were about $300,000 per unit to build. If built today, Dietz said these projects would cost close to $400,000 per unit. Factoring in the current deficit, Dietz estimated it would cost more than $1 billion to “build our way out of this” housing problem.

Though building isn’t the only answer, officials are in agreement that building new units will be one of the strategies used to mitigate the county’s housing issue. During his presentation, Dietz reported that the county owns 531 parcels in Summit. Of these, 14 are deemed to be developable in addition to four parcels that are currently designated as open space, including Fiester Preserve.

“It is somewhat mind-blowing to me that of the 37,683 parcels in Summit County, we only own 531,” Pogue said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the team reviewed 16 parcels of county-owned land that could be sites for potential projects.

Some of the parcels the team reviewed are more likely to be developed than others. For example, one parcel near Soda Creek Condos in Summit Cove is owned by the county. The team determined the 0.2 acres could be easily developed, though it’s a very small area. Pogue suggested placing tiny homes on the parcel.

Other parcels, including roughly 2 acres in Bill’s Ranch, would be more difficult to develop because of opposition from nearby neighbors. One parcel is identified in the Upper Blue Master Plan as part of a transit area. Another parcel contains steep slopes that would be difficult to develop. Others would displace parking or need to be rezoned.

Finding a path forward

To conclude his presentation, Dietz identified other methods to implement in the near future. One would be to modify the current housing code to better incentivize the construction of workforce housing, particularly rentals.

Another strategy proposed was to reduce or waive county planning, engineering and building department fees for owners and developers building workforce housing. The county could also partner with Habitat for Humanity or other groups to develop additional low area median income ownership housing. Dietz also proposed modifying current zoning requirements and practices.

Above all, officials agreed a countywide effort is needed to solve the housing shortage.

“More than ever, this is going to be about partnership, creative thinking and really hard work in how we dig ourselves out of this because it could completely — or it will completely — change the fabric of our community very, very quickly if we cannot house people that work (here),” Lawrence said. “That’s always made Summit County so special. Our charge right now is to maintain that.”

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