Opinion | Tamara Pogue: Colorado’s mountain towns are losing their workforce
Summit County commissioner
Our workforce, many of them on the front line, is the engine that powers our pristine ski resorts, protects our forests and drives our local economy. From hospitality workers, shop owners and grocery store clerks to our nurses, firefighters, rangers and teachers, Summit County could not exist without them. So why do I see our hard workers sleeping in their cars?
Simply put, Summit County does not have enough affordable housing to keep our workers and their families housed and safe. It’s become well-known that living in our community is out of reach for many unless they have the immense resources to afford it. This has caused labor shortages that have forced businesses to close or prevented them from investing further into our economy. On the edge of eviction is a devastating place, but for many in Summit County, it’s a daily trauma.
The Summit Combined Housing Authority found in the Summit County Housing Needs Update from March 2020 that we have a collective gap of 2,400 housing units. Over the next few years, this regional gap is projected to exceed 5,100 units. Furthering our housing crisis, it’s projected that we will be short 2,400 affordable housing units in the next few years. The availability to secure affordable housing has put too many of our residents in an insurmountable dilemma leading them to make the hard decision to leave. Once members from our workforce leave the community, it’s almost impossible to get them back.
This issue has been exacerbated by a rapidly changing economy. The short-term rental industry has been a welcome influx of innovation and investment. Tourism has always been the bedrock of our infrastructure and expanded the opportunities for Coloradans and people from all over the world to experience the Rocky Mountains. With this new industry, we’ve been presented with new challenges, and we have not kept pace with the needs of our permanent residents. I’ve seen working-class neighborhoods flip to short-term rental communities. Where have the residents gone? We are not creating new housing to replace them.
This is a serious problem that has evolved into a crisis that the pandemic exacerbated. When people cannot afford their housing, they often go without vital necessities like food, water and medical care. This isn’t just anecdotal, I’ve seen it. As the former executive director of the Family & Intercultural Resource Center, I can attest to the truth that housing affordability is a significant predictor of health and mental health.
Working families with difficulty paying their rent or mortgage or utility bills are less likely to have a usual source of medical care and more likely to postpone needed treatment than those who enjoy more-affordable housing. Homeowners who are behind on their mortgage payments are also more likely to lack a sufficient supply of food and to go without prescribed medications compared to those who do not fall behind on payments.
Localities across Colorado need the right tools to do what is best for their communities. Unfortunately, our hands are tied because of current state laws.
House Bill 21-1117 would resolve this and create greater opportunities for us to continue investing in our economy while also aligning the needs of our workforce. The bill would establish local control efforts, for those who choose to use this new tool, to negotiate affordable housing options with developers in new or redevelopment projects. This is one necessary step the Colorado Legislature must make to help alleviate the affordable housing crisis that not only Summit County faces but also many communities across the state.
Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue is the former executive director of the Family & Intercultural Center and CEO of The Peak Health Alliance.
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