FRISCO, Colo. — Take a drive along I-70 toward the mountains from Denver. Before you reach any of Colorado’s many well-known ski resorts, you’ll pass by the tiny town of Frisco. A little more than 3,100 people currently call the town home.
Like many other mountain communities, though, the town is facing a housing crunch. The issue is so serious Frisco’s town council even considered declaring a housing emergency.
“The housing emergency is still something we’re in, we just haven’t officially declared it because it’s kind of known at this point. It’s not news, we didn’t need to belabor something that was already there,” said Frisco Mayor Hunter Mortensen.
The COVID pandemic only exacerbated the problem since people were able to begin working remotely and some chose to relocate away from cities and into the mountain communities.
“That was the big change is the size of people that can work from anywhere now working from here,” said Mortensen. “That’s when we really started seeing real estate sales skyrocketing and prices going through the roof and more people now living here on a full-time basis.”
The median home price in the area is now around $1 million. Mortensen says some people are even buying those pricey homes just to tear it down and build an even bigger one.
The rise of short-term rentals like VRBO and Airbnb aren’t helping matters. Like other mountain communities, more homes and condos are being offered on these platforms for visitors than ever before.
Frisco is averaging about 10 license requests for new short-term rentals per week. The trend is becoming so popular the town is creating a new full-time position for a short-term rental manager.
It’s not just restaurant workers or ski resort employees who are having a difficult time finding housing; doctors, lawyers, health care workers and other employees with good-paying jobs are also struggling to find a place to live.
“We are in a moment where we are beyond our own means to address a critical, critical problem for our community,” Mortensen said.
Mortensen is a Frisco native and a professional ski patroller. He’s been so focused on the housing shortage for years and says the problem is so serious the town council has put it on every single one of its agendas moving forward until they feel they have a handle on the issue.
While the town council takes a closer look at the housing crisis, one Frisco resident has started a petition to limit short-term rentals in the town.
James Hayes Walsh is not someone who normally gets involved in town politics. He has a mullet, rides a bicycle to get around in the summer and almost always has a Frisbee ready to go for his dog, whom he carries around with him everywhere.
Walsh decided to start a petition when he noticed the makeup of his neighborhood changing.
“The short-term rentals, specifically of single-family homes, is diminishing the quality of life and neighborhood culture,” said Walsh. “We are going to protect our community and protect a resource — that is, the people that live here — by prioritizing them when it comes to single-family homes.”
The petition would prohibit single-family, detached homes from being used as short-term rentals unless it’s the owner’s primary residence.
The ban would not apply to condos or townhomes, and he contends it offers enough leeway for families who want to rent their home out.
“If somebody is living in the house and subsidizing their mortgage by doing short-term rentals, that’s great. If they have a guest house that they live in and they Airbnb out the house, great. If they divide it up into multi-levels and you can live in one level and Airbnb out the other level, great. If they live in the house for six months and one day and rent it out the rest of the year, great,” Walsh said.
However, Walsh says he has noticed more real estate groups with better buying power scooping up houses and renting them out to tourists.
Instead, he wants to see families who live and work in the communities given the option to either buy or rent the homes by transitioning them to long-term rentals.
A short-term rental ban is not a completely novel idea. Residents in Telluride, Steamboat Springs, Buena Vista and other mountain communities are considering placing more limits on these types of rentals while Crested Butte issued a one-year suspension of all vacation rental permits.
Cities like Denver have also placed restrictions on short-term rentals and requires the houses to be the owner’s primary residence.
However, some rental companies argue that this is the wrong solution and could end up hurting the town’s overall economy.
“Short-term rental is not the cause of housing problems. It’s really the byproduct of a deeper economic issue of supply and demand,” said Mary Waldman, the owner of Summit Mountain Rentals. “Banning short-term rental is not going to create more long-term housing.”
Summit Mountain Rentals is a property management company that oversees more than 250 properties in Breckenridge and Frisco.
She doesn’t like the idea of the government telling people what they can and cannot do with their own properties.
For one thing, Waldman says almost all of her clients are not making a profit from short-term rentals and are only using it to help cover some of the mortgage and HOA costs.
Many also come to stay in the home for a few weeks a year and say converting to a long-term rental would remove that option.
She also doesn’t believe that requiring the homes to convert to long-term housing will make them any more affordable since the owners will have to charge more to make the same amount.
“If they were to go long-term, $4,000, $5,000, or $6,000 a month for a two or three bedroom house, it’s just not affordable. So, the math simply doesn’t work,” Waldman said.
Beyond that, Waldman argues that the town is run by tourism dollars and so the short-term rentals are helping with the area’s overall economy.
If the rentals are taken away, she believes tourists won’t visit as frequently and the town won’t have a need for more employee housing.
“We’re going to become a sleepy town with day trippers from Denver. I believe I know that these businesses are going to suffer and affordable housing for workers will become a non-issue because there will be plenty of housing available with not a lot of demand,” she said.
Walsh disagrees and says he doesn’t buy the argument that putting more guardrails around these rentals will hurt the town.
Frisco is in the process of hiring a full-time short-term rental manager to take a closer look at the issue to help the town council understand the impact these units are having on the area.
Mortensen is hoping to get a better understanding in coming months of how many homes are not used as a primary residence and how often they are being used by the owners.
He believes there might need to be more fees on these rentals or more limits to the licensing.
“I think there needs to be something addressed with it and definitely scope is the big question and what that looks like,” he said.
He has not taken a stance on the petition but says it has certainly gotten people all over Frisco paying closer attention to the housing crunch, which might help bring new ideas or solutions to the table.
Perhaps ironically, Walsh himself works for a short-term rental company as a maintenance man. He knows his petition could end up affecting his job but says it’s worth the risk to try to help the community.
“I see people leaving because they can’t afford to live here. I see the town trending towards this identity of being a resort vacation town,” he said. “I’m fighting to preserve these relationships.”
He doesn’t believe this petition is perfect, nor is it the silver bullet for the housing issues in the community.
Still, he’s continuing to collect signatures, hoping to spur a conversation about how Frisco should address its housing issues.