No ‘silver bullet’ fix to Summit County’s missing middle and workforce housing ‘crisis’, local and state officials say

Middle-income residents struggle to find housing options in the high-cost county. Local and statewide leaders have rolled out a flurry of proposals to change that.

Jerilynn Francis, chief communications and community partnerships officer for the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, speaks about ways the state agency is helping address Summit County — and Colorado's — affordable housing crisis during a Feb. 27, 2023 forum.
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News

In Summit County, where the average single-family home sold for over $2 million last year, even residents making six-figure salaries struggle to find housing that is affordable for them. 

That was the focus of a Feb. 27 open forum that saw county and statewide officials discuss the gap in housing supply known as the “missing middle.” But as solutions continue to come into focus, leaders cautioned the community there would be no silver bullet for fixing the county — and Colorado’s — escalating housing issues. 

“By middle-income, I mean 140% AMI,” said Commissioner Tamara Pogue, referring to the county’s area median income which — according to 2022 figures from the Summit Combined Housing Authority — equates to roughly $102,000 in gross income per individual and nearly $140,000 for a family of four. 

“Those are our teachers, our pharmacists, those are our first responders, those are many of us in this room,” Pogue said, speaking to a packed audience inside the Summit County Senior and Community Center in Frisco. 

While government-funded solutions, such as tax credits, have historically aided lower-income earners typically making between 30 and 60% of the area of median income, officials said those same benefits do not apply for middle-income residents.

The issue has been further exacerbated in mountain areas like Summit County, where limited land coupled with a large population of seasonal residents occupying existing housing stock has created what county commissioners called a “workforce housing crisis,” though speakers acknowledged the issues have been growing for years. 

“This is a generational problem,” said Garrett Scharton, vice president of development services for the national workforce housing development company Servitas. 

“It’s systemic with the restraints for developments,” Scharton said, adding that the housing market “hasn’t really recovered” from the effects of the 2007-08 recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It’s why solutions need to come from a myriad of angles — from local and statewide interventions to public and private sector partnerships, officials said. 

A slew of county-led projects to increase the area’s housing supply are currently underway, including developments for Lake Hill near Frisco and the completion of the Village at Wintergreen project in Keystone which, taken together, could bring hundreds of new apartments to the market. 

Other initiatives include a 2022 code revision to streamline the process to build an accessory dwelling unit, a smaller home which usually sits on the property of a larger unit. And the county’s recently-passed cap on short-term rentals in certain unincorporated areas is, in-part, aimed at preserving some housing stock for longterm use, officials have said. 

“The Summit County strategy is a broad brush. It’s more like silver buckshots than a silver bullet,” said Jason Dietz, housing director for the Summit County government. “We have projects we are working on across a wide range of (area median incomes) that are a wide range of types.”

Jerilynn Francis, chief communications and community partnerships officer for the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, said “historically, the lack of federal and state resources that have been able to be leveraged” has led to a lack of middle-income housing opportunities. 

Federal tax credits have recently expanded to support earners making about 80% of the area median income — about $58,000 for an individual — according to Francis.

“We’re making some progress with the program, and it’s a good program,” Francis said. “But it’s not the silver bullet for everything,” adding that incomes have “not been rising at the same level as housing costs.” 

Community members listen in during a public forum on the “missing middle” of housing in Summit County on Feb. 27, 2023.
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News

Housing variety is an essential component to addressing the missing middle of the housing market, officials said, and spotlight the need for more inclusive land use rules which have historically supported the construction of single-family homes. 

“When we just think of housing as the traditional single-family house, we’re also ignoring other types of housing that could be appealing to the local workforce or a first-time homebuyer,” said Eleni Angelides, deputy legislative director for Gov. Jared Polis. 

Angelides said Polis’ administration has made housing affordability a “top priority” for the governor’s second term, echoing Polis’ State of the State address earlier this year in which he called on local governments to allow for more “flexible zoning” that can support a range of housing types beyond single-family builds. 

Angelides said this does not mean the state is looking at “eliminating” single-family zoning, rather it wants to encourage officials to take a “holistic approach” when looking at housing policy. 

“I think what the governor, during his State of the State speech, really wanted to harp on was that we’re at this crisis level where we all need to be working together,” Angelides said. “Housing really is climate policy, it is economic policy, it is public health policy.” 

Officials acknowledged that embracing zoning reforms does not come without contention, especially if those changes lead to denser developments such as apartments or condos. 

Nathan Lindquist, a land use planner and analyst for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said this can be a sentiment of “NIMBYism” — an acronym that stands for Not in My Backyard that is typically applied to residents who oppose nearby development.

“Every community deals with this trade-off where communities as a whole support housing, support middle housing, wants to have it,” Lindquist said. “But they would all rather it happen in someone else’s neighborhood ideally than maybe theirs.”

Still, zoning reforms could prove to be a more longterm solution to the county, and state’s, affordable housing issues compared with some of the more recent fixes rolled out by the state legislature, which includes millions in grants for housing initiatives.

Those programs, such as house bill HB22-1304 — which funded $138 million for local affordable housing grants — present an “easy answer” but are “not sustainable” solutions to the problem, said Andrew Paredes, director of housing finance and sustainability for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. 

“The taxpayers can’t afford to grant that money year over year,” Paredes said, adding that a more longterm approach could be to reduce the financial risk private developers take when they build lower- and middle-income housing. “We’re really scratching the surface of that now.” 

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