"Affordable’ housing still evasive | VailDaily.com

"Affordable’ housing still evasive

Veronica Whitney

Developers of the 282 “affordable” homes at Miller Ranch, east of Edwards, say there’s still a waiting list to buy, and at Avon’s 244-unit Buffalo Ridge, only eight of the first 42 apartments put up for rent in February are still available.

“We’re doing very good,” says Deyra Loya, a leasing agent. “Three-bedroom apartments are going really fast. The one-bedroom apartments are the least popular.”

At ASW Realty Properties, developer of Miller Ranch at Berry Creek, sales agents say they’ve sold 62 properties since sales started in February.

“We’re very happy with the sales pace; we’re on target,” says LuAnn Welch, vice president of sales and marketing. “We see a very high demand for this project.”

Lowest vacancy rate

With several affordable housing projects either open now or under construction, Eagle County still maintains one of the state’s lowest vacancy rates, as well as the second-highest average rental rate after Aspen.

According to February survey done by the Colorado Division of Housing, the county’s vacancy rate is just 2 percent, compared to 6.9 percent in Aspen and 16 percent in Fort Collins/Loveland.

“People are looking at what is being built now and ask if we’re overbuilding. But we’re truly catching up with our need,” says KT Gazunis, director of housing for Eagle County.

Gazunis estimates that between 800 an 1,000 “affordable” homes will be available in the next few years, including those at Buffalo Ridge, Miller Ranch, 140 proposed units at Middle Creek in Vail, 400 homes at Two Rivers in Dotsero, about 200-deed restricted homes at the Village at Avon, and 50 more at Eagle Ranch in Eagle. Other projects, such a proposed project at a site in Avon known as “the confluence, will offer even more housing for local employees.

“Even if we add up all these, we can’t address our current needs,” Gazunis says. “A lot of these projects have 10 to 20 years projection. In terms of immediate need, we see some action; but in terms of long-term need, I don’t think we will catch up with the future need.”

Vacancy rates vs. real needs

According to a study conducted by the Eagle County Community Development Department, released in March, thousands of low-income households in the county are in need for affordable housing. In fact, there are more than 7,000 households in the county that can’t afford housing at the free market price, the study reports.

“We need more inventory at a lower price,” says Gazunis.

Meanwhile, less than 20 percent of the county’s housing inventory includes “somewhat affordable” housing, the county report says.

“The vacancy rate in Eagle County has been consistent in the past years,” says David Carter of the Eagle County Housing Department. “The county has been the first- or second-lowest vacancy rate in the state.”

A vacancy rate of 5 percent is considered “normal,” Carter says.

“If the vacancy is very tight, it tends to raise rents, and the other way around,” he adds.

The semiannual survey, which the state Division of Housing conducts every September and February, provides percentages of vacancies and the rental costs for 21 Colorado housing markets outside of the Denver metro area.

The February survey reports:

– The average vacancy rate in Colorado in 2003 rose to 11.6 percent, up from 2002’s 8.3 percent.

– Rents decreased only 1 percent during the same period. Although apartment vacancy rates have been increasing in Colorado, there hasn’t been a corresponding decrease in rents.

– The average rent for the first quarter in 2003 was $773, compared to an $781 in 2002.

High rents

Eagle County’s average rent placed it among the highest in the state. The state survey reports that in Eagle County the average rent for a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment is $982. That means 26 percent of the total renters are paying more than 30 percent of their income for rent, the survey reports. In comparison, the average rent statewide ranges from a low of $363 in Alamosa to $1,028 in Aspen.

“It’s supply and demand,” Carter says. “Eagle County has been in the top three for high rents for many years.”

To afford the state’s average rent of $773, a household would need to earn $31,000.

When a household with lower income pays more than 30 percent of their income for rent, they often forego other essentials, such as health insurance, day care, adequate food and clothing and education or job training, state housing officials say.

“Some things cost more here than in other places, but what is totally disproportionate in Eagle County is the cost of housing,” Gazunis says.

Projects like Buffalo Ridge and the Middle Creek aim to provide a break to renters in the Vail Valley. At Buffalo Ridge, for example, studios cost $575 a month, and a three-bedroom apartment is $1,396 a month. Most one-bedroom apartments in the upper valley rent for about $1,000 a month, and three-bedrooms are more than $1,500.

To qualify to rent a studio at Buffalo Ridge, meanwhile, one person can’t earn more than $26,000, or $31,000 for a one-bedroom.

Moderately priced houses at Miller Ranch, the Two Rivers project and Chatfield Corners in Gypsum, are aimed at those now renting who may be able afford to buy a house, Carter says.

“In Eagle County, we see a need for more affordable single-family homes and small condominiums for first-time buyers,” Welch says.

A four-bedroom single-family home at Miller Ranch lists for $260,000; a one-bedroom “mill loft” is $120,000. All properties in the project are deed-restricted.

“This is as beautiful community as any market-rated community,” Welch

says. “The county has worked in making this not an affordable-housing project, but a community.”

In spite of the the low vacancy rates and the high rents, says Welch, the housing situation in Eagle County isn’t as bad as in other places in the country where she has worked.

“I come from the San Francisco Bay area,” she says, “where there are 500 people on a waiting list to get five homes.”

Housing regulations still on tap

Following in the footsteps of cities like Boulder and Aspen, Eagle County officials are considering a set of affordable-housing regulations that would require developers to build a percentage of affordable homes with their projects.

“In the past 15 years we have had a consistent need for affordable housing,” says Rebecca Leonard, senior planner for Eagle County. “Some people have questioned if this is the right time to put these regulations in place. The regulations will be proportionate to the amount of development that goes on.”

If passed, the requirements would ensure new developments in unincorporated areas of Eagle County provide affordable housing to local residents through three programs: inclusionary housing; residential housing linkage; and employee housing linkage. The requirements would tell developers what percentage of affordable housing they must provide with their projects.

The regulations also would set minimum sizes and maximum prices for those units – a maximum price of $126,000 for a two-bedroom apartment for buyers with low income; and $154,000 for the same size apartment but for buyers in the medium-income range.

The Eagle County Planning Commission will review the proposed regulations on June 4. The commission already had recommended approval, but the county commissioners had made several changes to the draft, including lowering the proposed percentage of affordable housing provided by developers from 20 and 30 percent to 10 percent.

“The commissioners have made some changes, but we are pleased that all three of the programs we proposed are still there,” Leonard says. “We will see some housing, even if the numbers are down.”

If approved, the regulations will be a benefit for Eagle County, which currently has just an advisory document for affordable-housing mitigation, Leonard says.

“If these regulations get passed, we will be able to require this of all development. This will make it equitable for all, since we had been negotiating in a case-by-case basis.

“These programs aren’t meant to solve all the needs, but just a portion,” Leonard says.

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.

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