Opinion | Bruce Butler: Let’s partner with local businesses for workforce housing | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Bruce Butler: Let’s partner with local businesses for workforce housing

Bruce Butler

With many national retail brands in financial trouble, like Bed Bath and Beyond and Tuesday Morning, it is no surprise to see store closures impact Summit County, including many brands formerly in Silverthorne’s factory outlet stores. 

Certainly, Summit County is not immune from the broader financial woes national brands are experiencing, and there is no doubt the retail landscape has changed dramatically since the arrival of Amazon and online shopping. Regardless, the demise of many brands has been considerably accelerated by the at-home shopping convenience brought about by the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Even if our Summit County locations post decent sales, the cost of operating and staffing these locations make them a red flag in the downsizing department.

While many Summit County residents are just as happy to say goodbye to big national brands in favor of local stores, shops, and restaurants, the empty and blighted Arby’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Factory Outlet storefronts only serve to remind us how difficult it is to staff and operate these establishments — even if the location has plenty of customers. We all know high housing costs and the overall cost of living in Summit County have only served to drive many workers out of our community, and it is a rare business that is not short staffed, but addressing the problem requires more creativity than the current status quo.

In past columns, I have advocated for more rental workforce housing opportunities, and I continue to urge our leaders to explore housing options that resemble The Pad in Silverthorne. Many of our essential workers only spend six months to three years in Summit County, and housing options that enable workers to have leftover money after paying rent will improve their overall experience and quality of life while they are living in Summit County — and perhaps encourage them to stay longer.

If our community is going to staunch the loss of businesses, we must adjust our traditional workforce housing model approach. Some of the status quo problems include obstacles like Area Median Income (AMI), which is attached to larger sources of workforce/affordable housing money, but it is not an applicable metric in most rural resort communities like Summit County. For example, Summit County has a growing medical industry, but many medical workers cannot qualify for workforce housing because they have high debt-to-income ratios due to medical school student loans. Summit County is going to have a hard time changing federal funding measures, so we need to get more creative to address the problem.

I am not a fan of condominiums in general — especially for workforce housing — however, there are exceptions to every rule. One approach I would love to see Summit County try is a public-private partnership with local businesses to construct garden-style apartment condominiums that are sold directly to local qualifying businesses. This could be a win-win proposition for all involved: (1) Public-private partnership combines public money with private money that stretches housing money farther. (2) Businesses that have housing own an asset that makes the business more valuable. (3) Job-attached housing encourages employee loyalty and longevity. (4) It does not matter what AMI the employee would qualify for. If the business needs managers, they can house mangers; if they need electricians, they can house electricians; if they need dishwashers, they can house dishwashers. (5) The condominium covenants will be self-enforcing, so there is minimal need for additional oversight. Local business owners are not going to allow their asset to fall into disrepair or be abused by employees or another local business owner who is not housing employees on the property.

The covenants could even be set up like a cooperative. If a business decides to close or no longer needs employee housing, the other business owners in the condominium would have the first right of refusal. If no business already in the condominium wants to purchase the unit, then it will be available for sale to another Summit County qualifying business. This model functions like a rental for employees and is maintained as a private housing property by the owners, addressing two status quo problems.

The solution to Summit County’s workforce housing problems requires a multi-faceted approach.  Much progress is being made, but new ideas must be tried.

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