Opinion | Summit County commissioners: Finding long-term housing solutions | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Summit County commissioners: Finding long-term housing solutions

Elisabeth Lawrence, Tamara Pogue and Josh Blanchard
Summit Board of County Commissioners
Summit County Commissioners Tamara Pogue, from left, Josh Blanchard and Elisabeth Lawrence

As recently as a couple of decades ago, homes were not so out of reach for much of Summit County. Back in 1998, the median price of a home in Summit County was just over $180,000, and the area median income was around $40,000.

Today, wages have increased to $67,000, but the median home price is now $875,000. Today, home ownership is out of reach for the same family, and even seasonal workers have found it impossible to compete with a remote workforce paying thousands of dollars a month for a single bedroom.

It’s a fact that experts saw this gap growing years ago, and some sounded the alarm. Here in Summit, work began to address the gap as a way to ensure an adequate workforce, essential to our lifeblood as a tourist economy.

Few of those experts, however, saw COVID-19 accelerating what they thought was years away: A seasonal workforce unable to return to Summit County due to a lack of housing, and a market so out of balance that even increased wages can’t solve their inability to hire enough workers.

2021 has brought a simmering problem, decades in the making, to a roaring boil: Tourism is higher than ever while demand for workers remains unfilled, forcing small business owners to turn customers away, while visitors and residents alike often can’t find groceries on the shelves or gas for their car.

The crux of it all? Housing.

In response, the Summit Board of County Commissioners in June declared a housing emergency to raise awareness at every level and to prioritize Summit County’s focus on addressing the crisis.

In just the past several weeks, with the help of our staff and partners across the county — and with some of the tools already on hand — we’ve identified additional housing opportunities for Summit County.

So far, we’ve brought online or put into planning a total of 260 units. This includes a master lease, signed in July, to convert Alpine Inn into rental units with applications for rentals now available.

The board continues to work on additional strategies to further address the crisis, including:

  • Opportunity zones: The county has identified traditionally workforce neighborhoods as potential areas for incentive programs to encourage short-term rental owners to convert their properties to long-term. These incentives could include conversion grants, security guarantees or property manager finders fees.
  • Planning and code changes: We’re looking at nearly every piece of code that might help foster additional workforce housing, including the waiving of building, planning and engineering fees for workforce housing development. We’re also working to revise code restrictions related to accessory dwelling units in order to incentivize their construction and creating an accessory dwelling unit grant program for property owners.
  • Building and development strategies: The county is currently planning the expansion of Wintergreen Ridge in Keystone by an additional 47 units. We’ve also identified land at the Summit County Justice Center and Soda Creek in addition to land adjacent to Summit Cove for additional workforce housing.

Just as there is no single cause of the housing crisis, there isn’t one single solution. There remains a remarkable amount of ideas on the table and much work left to do.

It will require a diversity of partners — from developers to town government, from water and sewer districts to small and large businesses alike. For any long-term solution to succeed, everyone has to be at the table.

The gears of planning and development often feel far too slow, and we don’t always get it right the first time. But our spirits are lifted by those of you in our community who have offered their expertise, ideas and support.

Today, we’re more hopeful than ever that, together, our community can turn the corner on this existential crisis.

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