BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — Whether it’s in the back of the house or up front, few would argue with the notion it’s the waitstaff, cooks, lift operators and those in the service industry who allow Colorado’s ski towns to thrive.
“I love it here,” said Randy Nichols. “I don’t want to leave.”
For Nichols, who is a part-time waiter in Breckenridge and attends nursing school in Summit County, when it comes to living where you work, that has become increasingly challenging.
“It’s hard to save enough money to buy a house,” he said.
Nichols considers himself lucky to have found a buddy who does own a home in Silverthorne.
“I get cheap rent through him,” Nichols said. “I pay $750 a month.”
That’s a steal. The affordability crisis has perhaps hit hardest in Colorado mountain resort towns like Breckenridge.
“Housing prices and rents have just completely outpaced people’s ability to pay,” said Jason Peasley, executive director of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority.
“It’s always been tough, it’s just gotten a lot tougher lately,” said Eric Mamula, owner of Downstairs at Eric’s and mayor of Breckenridge.
“You can’t find a place for $1,500 bucks for one person,” said Al Furlone, board member for the Fraser River Valley Housing Partnership in Winter Park. “It’s unsustainable. There’s no place to live. We post on job boards down in Denver and we find tons of applicants, but they can’t move here because there’s nowhere to live up here.”
But hope could be coming soon.
Let’s break down the mountain housing crunch by looking at three of Colorado’s premier resort towns: Steamboat Springs, Breckenridge and Winter Park, which is where we’ll start.
Winter Park has a new affordable housing complex under construction right now that will offer 330 rooms at the base of the mountain at a fraction of the rent.
“We’re looking at between $600 and $800 a month,” said Jen Miller, spokesperson for Winter Park Resorts.
The project is a first for Winter Park.
“It is a modular build,” Miller said. “It is currently being finished in Idaho.”
If you’re wondering what that might look like, think of several modular homes stacked next to and on top of one another — almost like Legos — until you have a four-story, 330-bed structure.
“Modular building is more affordable, more sustainable, less waste,” Miller said.
That brings us through the tunnel and up to Breckenridge, where officials there are also exploring the idea of modular builds.
“You know, they build these boxes, and then they ship them to you,” Mamula said. “The interior, even the kitchens, are complete when they ship. Sixty-six units. We’re buying pre-built boxes, and then they bring them here and they stitch them together. And they are theoretically cheaper."
Mamula says there’s also an 80-unit super low-income project called Alta Verde in Breckenridge that’s almost complete. It’s being offered to those making as low as 30% the area median income.
“In the next five years, we’re going to generate another 950 units,” Mamula said.
Breckenridge is also getting creative by buying houses and flipping them. But unlike most fixer-uppers trying to make a profit, Breckenridge is losing money on purpose by buying houses and then putting deed restrictions on them so workers can afford them.
“We will purchase a property, put on a deed restriction, and then flip it for 30% less than we bought it for,” Mamula said. “And that deed restriction, to just boil it down, is no short-term rental, and you have to work in the community for 30 hours a week.”
Mamula says the idea is simple: you have to invest in your community to create and maintain a community.
“We’re trying to maintain fabric of the community where you walk into a coffee shop, restaurant, or retail store, and you know the person who is working there because you’ve seen them around town. They are someone’s neighbor,” Mamula said.
And that takes us north over Rabbit Ears Pass to Steamboat Springs.
“It was definitely expensive,” Peasley said as he walked around a 500-plus acre ranch with Denver7. “But if you think about controlling the future of our community’s housing, it’s sort of priceless.”
The Brown Ranch is viewed by some as a symbol of hope for solving the housing crisis. Others are critical of the size and scope of the project, and whether it will truly serve the need it’s intended to serve.
“I see hope,” Peasley said.
Steamboat Springs received a $21 million anonymous donation to purchase the Brown Ranch on the western edge of town, where the street grid is beginning to take shape for three new neighborhoods that will offer affordable housing.
“Steamboat has the very unique character of being a real town, and that is very quickly fading away because people can’t make it here,” Peasley said.
The goal with the picturesque 546-acre Brown Ranch is to build out 2,300 housing units over the next two decades.
“We have a seriously large problem. We need a seriously large solution,” Peasley said.
The Yampa Valley Housing Authority also has the good fortune of a new tax on short-term rentals, just approved by voters in November 2022, which is expected to generate $12 million for the housing authority each year.
“You’re going to see a mixture of apartment buildings, row homes, town homes, single family homes, small cottage homes,” Peasley said. “Our goal there is to make this a community where it’s very walkable.”
Back in Winter Park, voters approved a new tax in November, as well. But unlike Routt County’s short-term rentals tax, Grand County passed a property tax that will help fund the up-and-coming Fraser River Valley Housing Partnership.
“And hopefully that will allow us to start making a dent in the affordable housing crisis that we have,” Furlone said.
The property tax is about $70 a year on a home valued at $500,000. It’s expected to generate $1.2 million in its first year.
“Our community has a different philosophy than Routt County, but even with a seemingly small amount of money, you can actually still get the first projects in the ground and build from there," Furlone said.
“We’re all working toward solutions to figure out housing,” Miller said.
“We used to be, for quite a while, the best town in Colorado for talking about our housing problem,” Peasley said. “And now we’re the best town in Colorado for dealing with our housing problem.”
“It’s an issue,” Nichols said. “They’re working on it, but it’s a hard thing to deal with.”
Nichols and other service industry workers are hoping those solutions allow them to stay in the place they love.
“You make it work and you don’t want to leave. It would be hard to run a resort, run the town without the people who love it here,” he said. “We’re the people here who are making it work for all the tourists and all the people visiting. I would ask that you please continue to help us out.”
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