Opinion | Linda Harmon: Game on for affordable housing | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Linda Harmon: Game on for affordable housing

Recently, I’ve heard Summit County residents complain that the housing shortage is our politicians’ fault, that they should have done something years ago and now it’s too late. The truth is our public officials, both elected and employed, have been trying to address this situation for a very long time.

Is it too late? I don’t believe so. There are many creative solutions being considered, and as with any tough predicament, progressive creativity can produce amazing results.

Let’s take a look at what the population in Summit County looks like: The State Demography Office has projected the county’s population will grow to over 32,000. However, this projection came before COVID-19, and no one predicted a global pandemic would increase our population even more. Not only did our county grow faster than anticipated, but the people are a different demographic than before. According to the 2021 Mountain Migration Report, prepared by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, the populace of full-time residents has shifted. The median age changed from 31 to 39, and 70% to 80% of the new residents have household incomes over $150,000 a year. Contrast this to 60% of full-time residents who resided in the county in 2019 having incomes under $150,000.

The population growth from March 2020 until today has made the housing market much more competitive. Many full-time residents who resided in Summit County prior to the pandemic cannot rival the buying power of newcomers who have more income to spend on rent or purchasing homes. The report says Summit County’s rental units on average increased by $2,000 a month, a price more affordable to the new residents. Additionally, part-time residents who would rent out their homes for long periods when they were not residing in Summit County chose to stay in the county during the pandemic. This reduced the number of rentals for seasonal workers.

Is it fair to say our county leaders dropped the ball on affordable housing before COVID-19? Not really.

Prior to the pandemic, elected officials and employed town and county leaders were working hard to try to find realistic solutions to address the housing situation in Summit County.

“We were meeting with Summit County government leaders and the town of Frisco on a regular basis to address the issue,” said Tim Gagen, Breckenridge town manager from 2000 to 2017. Gagen also said Elisabeth Lawrence, currently a Summit County commissioner and a former Breckenridge City Council member, was also actively working with the group to tackle the looming housing problem.

In 2000, Gagen — along with former Breckenridge Mayor John Warner — met repeatedly with Summit County School Board members to discuss the land owned by Summit School District. Gagen and Warner proposed that the town of Breckenridge partner with the school district to build affordable housing for school employees.

“They have numerous pieces of land around the county that could be developed into affordable housing,” Gagen said. “They couldn’t afford to build the properties, so Breckenridge offered to contribute the building costs.”

Unfortunately, the district decided to pass on this opportunity.

But we are still seeing this collaborative, forward-thinking effort by our county government.

“We hoped during the COVID shutdown we could address the housing problems,” Lawrence said. “We did not anticipate that Summit County would be such a draw for high-earning virtual workers. When housing prices shot up so fast, we had to change our strategy.”

Lawrence explained that the rapid increase in home values forced the county to scrap its plan to purchase numerous existing homes and offer them up as deed-restricted affordable properties.

Jason Dietz, housing director for Summit County shared the county has several future affordable housing projects in the works, costing $3.8 million and producing hundreds of affordable housing units, including multifamily rental properties.

Clearly, the affordable housing ball is still very much in play. I encourage you to follow the Summit County commissioners’ work to see their commitment to creating solutions for our housing crisis and affordable housing.

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