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Affordable rental housing in Vail?

Geraldine Haldner

“If all goes well, there is only one more ski season between us and a significant number of new affordable housing coming to Vail,” says Mike Coughlin of Denver-base Coughlin & Company, a private development company hired to build the first large-scale, affordable rental project in Vail in more than a decade.Coughlin & Company was selected last summer from a field of three private developers to finance and build an affordable housing project at Middle Creek – a 56-acre site better known as the Mountain Bell Site for its landmark microwave tower.In return for the right to “rent” the town-owned land for 50 years at an annual cost of $1, Coughlin & Company has agreed to design and build a project that will meet the town’s affordable-housing standards, pay for it and run it for the duration of the lease.In addition, the developer has also agreed to build a $1 million child care center on the site to replace the existing facilities of the ABC School and Learning Tree – at no cost to the town or the child care operators.Coughlin says he is confident the project can be approved and lenders can be located – a total of $15 million have been secured in private bond allocations from the state and Eagle County – in time for a fall construction start. Members of the newly re-established Vail Housing Authority, who oversee the project on behalf of the town, appear more weary, however, in the face of mounting town requirements and escalating cost estimates.After all, the previous housing authority failed to bring an affordable-housing project to the very same site eight years ago – ultimately disbanding over it.”We did settle on the Mountain Bell Site at that time for affordable housing as well,” remembers Mark Ristow, the current chairman of the authority and the only hold-over. The authority was formed in 1991 and stopped meeting three years later.”Our position then was that affordable housing should go there, but given that we didn’t have the support from the (Vail Town) Council, we felt the need for a housing authority didn’t really exist. So we eventually stopped meeting.”Armed with a clear mandate from the council, which revived the housing authority a year ago, Ristow says he is more confident that an affordable-housing project can be realized at Middle Creek this time around.”We are clearly being sent down this path,” Ristow says. “The biggest challenge now is to make this a financially feasible project as it progresses through the town’s approval process.”Though Coughlin &Company, Ristow says, “has been going into this project with eyes wide open” and has displayed “a great deal of innovation with all the requirements handed down” during preliminary review hearings before the town’s Planning and Environmental Commission, or PEC, and the Design Review Board, or DRB, this spring, rents can only be as affordable as the project is inexpensive.That’s a challenge, considering preliminary suggestions from the PEC and DRB have already increased the proposal’s projected price tag from $15 to an estimated $23 million – including the $1 million for the child care center.Instead of Coughlin’s initial proposal, which called for surface parking and scattered one- and two-story buildings, the two boards have recommended fewer but higher buildings, stacked on the hillside and built atop covered parking. They also want to see the child care center clearly separated from the housing development with its own access road.”I understand the need for child care on the site, otherwise we may address one problem but create another,” says Ristow. “But including the child care center does create a burden on the project. Likewise the covered parking that the DRB and the PEC want is making the project more expensive, which will ultimately affect the rents.”At this time in the planning process, Coughlin says, rents are estimated to range from $600 for a studio to $900 for a three-bedroom apartment – making them affordable for households with an income of half or less of Eagle County’s median household income of approximately $36,000 a year.While Coughlin says he remains confident that a project can come together and promises to return with a revised development plan this month in time for a full-fledged town review this summer, housing authority members are bracing for a season of tough choices with wide-ranging consequences”We may be faced with the decision at some point to have no project on the Mountain Bell Site or have a project that might result in some people thinking it is not all that affordable,” Ristow says. “That’s a fairly slippery slope for us to be going down for sure, but we need to generate a financially feasible and high-quality project in order to gain momentum as a housing authority.”Providing rental homes for as many as 300 new Vail residents – who hopefully will choose to work in town – will not only ease seasonal labor shortages but also re-invigorate the local community year-round by making Vail once again an attractive and affordable place to work and live, says housing authority member Steve Lindstrom.”There is just such a screaming need for more affordable housing here most anything will help,” says Lindstrom, who applied to serve on the housing authority, because “I’m one of 10 people left living in Vail.”Indeed, the lack of affordable, for-rent housing in Vail has been identified in past town-wide surveys as a prime worry of Vail residents and business owners.Building affordable tenant housing, says Lindstrom, is of “utter importance” to the future of Vail.”We’ve got to do something to rebuild this community,” he says. “We are losing our citizens to downvalley locations.”With median home prices in Vail hovering somewhere around $530,000 – about $400,000 more than what the average household could afford based on their income, according to the same housing study – Lindstrom says that without some government-sponsored efforts like the Middle Creek project, Vail will end up being “nothing but manor homes and slaves’ quarters.””The town has been fairly successful adding to the affordable housing mix, but they are all for-sale projects,” says Ristow of 80 deed-restricted units, including 53 homes at Vail Commons, and most recently six units at the North Trail Townhomes in West Vail, which the town helped build.But when it comes to rental housing, sought-after by low- and middle-wage earners, Vail’s market has remained static over the last 10 years.Middle Creek, Ristow says, may be Vail’s last chance to make its rental market more welcoming to people in low-paying jobs.”It doesn’t take much surveying and looking at the land left to see that there aren’t very many alternatives to Mountain Bell for an affordable rental project,” says Ristow.Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 602 or at ghaldner@vaildaily.com.


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