Opinion | Bruce Butler: Improving workforce housing in 700 words

Last month, the Summit Board of County Commissioners proclaimed a workforce housing crisis in Summit County. It doesn’t take a proclamation to know that workforce housing is expensive and in short supply, which has resulted in people leaving Summit County and significant staffing shortages for local businesses.

Many blame the proliferation of short-term rentals for the problem, but high land costs, high construction costs, civil infrastructure limitations and area median income targets — which often exclude lower wage workers — are all contributing factors.

Summit County voters have overwhelmingly approved taxes to help increase the supply of workforce housing. So now the challenge is: How do we make those tax dollars go further?

At this point in time, public funds should be building only rental housing inventory. The absorption on apartment rentals is functionally 100% in Summit County, which affirmatively makes the market-driven case for more of it! For-sale housing has its value and place, but the quickest way to address the acute shortage of workforce housing is to construct apartments that accommodate the transient nature of Summit County’s workforce. Breckenridge deserves credit for being ahead of this trend. The rest of the county should follow its lead.

Do not buy old hotels and covert them to condominiums — convert them to dormitory-style apartment rentals so that the properties can be redeveloped over time as these buildings reach their planned obsolescence. If we are going to build workforce condos, offer them directly for sale to local qualifying businesses. Housing is an asset. It will incentivize employee loyalty and stability if housing is tied to employment, and the invested business community will ensure its common asset is maintained and safe.

Summit County should be partnering with entities that specialize in developing and operating low area median income workforce apartments, like Archdiocesan Housing, which built and operates Villa Sierra Madre in Silverthorne. Summit School District should partner with the town of Silverthorne to swap the old Silverthorne Elementary School site on Brian Avenue for town-owned land immediately north of the current Silverthorne Elementary. This would ensure the ability to expand the school, if needed, and make land that is ideally situated for workforce housing immediately available. What the heck, maybe even make a few houses available for sale to teachers and school bus drivers!

Since building materials and construction costs are at an all-time high, partner with local architects to design some prototypical housing units that conform to dimensional lumber and shelve counter-productive zero-emissions regulations that are impractical and only lead to higher construction costs just as inflation is gripping the economy. This would reduce material costs and construction waste.

How about incentives for locals to create housing for long-term renters? Waive water and sewer tap fees for construction of accessory dwelling units that are committed to five years of long-term workforce rental. If the long-term rental commitment is broken between three and five years, the owner owes 50% of the tap fees. If rented for fewer than three years, the owner must pay back all the tap fees and a penalty. This incentivizes private capital to build workforce housing, too.

Rather than apply one-size-fits-all regulations to short-term rentals, let’s directly address the most persistent complaint about short-term rentals across the county, which is that vacation party houses are proliferating in the middle of otherwise single-family residential neighborhoods, resulting in all sorts of noise, trash and parking problems.

The county and the towns should work together to create rental zone overlays. The goal should be to direct as much short-term rental traffic back toward the places that were designed, built and intended — from Day 1 — for short-term rentals, like Copper Mountain, Keystone and the Breckenridge base area. Drop counterproductive regulations, like arbitrary maximum occupancy, in these zones. Keep the short-term rental permitting fees in these districts as low as possible and increase the fees in predominantly single-family neighborhood zones.

Hotels and other commercial lodging entities pay much higher taxes and additional lodging taxes mostly to promote tourism. Do we really need to promote more tourism in Summit County? Maybe we could work with voters to direct lodging tax back toward workforce housing.

That is 692 words. Keep the ideas flowing.

Bruce Butler


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