EAGLE COUNTY — The status quo is back. After a couple of years of relatively abundant residential rentals, it’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to find a place in the Vail Valley to rent right now.
Calls to several property managers indicate few, if any places available right now. Bold Real Estate Management has a couple of units available in Eagle, but both may be gone by the time this story is printed. And this newspaper’s classified ads for rentals takes up less than a half-page, with half of those ads for commercial space.
In short, we’re back to the situation we’ve been in for all but a handful of Vail’s 51 years.
Master Leases Canceled
Gerry Flynn is the managing partner of Polar Star Properties, which has a management portfolio including the Buffalo Ridge and EagleBend apartments in Avon, two of the valley’s largest apartment complexes.
Flynn said he and other company officials saw the current crunch coming in the spring of 2013, and made a strategic decision — the company would get entirely out of the seasonal rental business and move entirely to 12-month leases. The company also decided it would no longer “master lease” apartments to employers.
“Master leases” were used for years by employers — including Vail Resorts — to ensure those companies would have places available for their seasonal help. But, Flynn said, the ski company a few years ago cancelled its master leases at an apartment complex his firm doesn’t manage. That left many apartments vacant, and put the apartment complex in a financial bind.
Those master leases were cancelled because, at the time, there were plenty of vacancies. Polar Star and other companies even offered move-in or stay-here incentives to keep units occupied.
And people who have been in the valley for a while are tending to stay put.
“This is a great place to live — people who stayed through (the economic slump) are staying put,” said Daniel Murray, the regional property manager for Eagle County-controlled rentals including Lake Creek Village in Edwards and Riverview in Eagle-Vail.
Under $500K Markets Tight
People are also staying put because the market for for-sale housing priced at less than $500,000 is also tight right now. So, people continue to rent.
Murray said there are no vacancies at Lake Creek right now. Riverview, which is managed for low-income renters under federal income guidelines, isn’t even taking names for a waiting list any more, since that wait is conservatively estimated at two years.
“It’s all been trending that way for the past couple of years — it’s probably following the normal trends,” town of Vail housing director Nina Timm said.
Greg Moffet is a Vail Town Council member. He’s also a member of the Eagle County Planning Commission. Moffet said the past three years have been a missed opportunity for the valley.
The current situation is “entirely predictable,” Moffet said. “We’re about three years late in talking about policy.”
While the valley’s persistent housing crunch took a few years off, Moffet said local towns and the county should have been buying foreclosed and “distressed” property to bank those units for the future.
Time To Build?
With rental housing — and, to a large extent, for-sale “workforce” housing — back to its usual scarce supply, could it be time to talk about building more rental housing?
If it is time, then local government will take a lead role. There’s very little apartment housing in the valley that’s owned by the private sector. Most has been built with some sort of government participation.
From a policy perspective, Moffet said there’s better communication and cooperation between local governments today than there has been in the past. The county planning commission is now working on a housing master plan for the area, and Moffet said he’s lobbying for that plan to call for putting rental housing closer to jobs — in the upper valley.
A prime example is the Timber Ridge apartments in Vail. After at least three failed efforts to re-develop the town-owned complex, a plan is currently on what seems to be a fairly smooth path to town approval. That plan, though, barely adds to the town’s rental stock.
That’s an example of reality trumping desire, Moffet said.
Another part of building more rental housing is the state of the workforce. Flynn said he believes average wages have declined in the few years since the local construction industry stopped working at boom-time levels.
“What that’s left us with is service workers who can barely afford rent,” Flynn said. That has to change before building any kind of rental housing can make it off the drawing boards, he said.