Big Ideas series: Group projects, swaps may help with housing
EAGLE COUNTY — Local paramedic Jennie Thorne has lived in the Vail Valley for nearly eight years, but this October, she was finally able to hit a milestone she hadn’t thought was possible — she became a homeowner.
Thorne and her fiance recently purchased a townhome in the Wildridge neighborhood of Avon, and even though it’s what she calls a “fixer-upper,” she’s optimistic about the purchase because it means they’ll have roots in the valley, where she hopes to stay for a long time.
Thorne’s situation is similar to many other mid-to-lower income Eagle County residents who struggle to find affordable housing, except that she benefited from a homeowner assistance program through her employer, Eagle County Paramedic Services. With the program and the sale of her fiance’s condo, the couple was able to put down 5 percent for the down payment and received help from her employer for the remaining 15 percent. That boost left enough money for some major work that needs to be done on the home, she said.
“I don’t think we could have done it without help from the program. (Previous to working for the paramedic service), buying a home was nowhere near my radar, and it certainly was because of the cash it took,” said Thorne. “We obviously have a lot of really nice homes up here, but those of us who are working here can’t afford that. We see a lot of people move here for a couple of years and then leave because they can’t afford to stay.”
Everyone from potential homeowners to seasonal workers looking for rentals struggles with the high prices that seem to be a mainstay in mountain resort communities, and local leaders say they want to tackle some long-term solutions.
“We have such a big gap and need here in Vail,” said Alan Nazzaro, the housing manager in Vail, where the problem is arguably the worst. “We need housing that is for-sale and rentals, from those priced for the lowest average incomes to those for people making up to 140 percent of the (annual median income).”
Housing in ski resort communities presents a few inherent problems, officials and leaders agree. The two biggest barriers to affordable housing are lack of land and high building costs.
“I think any solution is going to have a regional scope, bringing some of the big players together to look at some of the available land and funding sources,” Eagle County Housing Director Jill Klosterman said. “Can we put the land we have to better use than what we have today?”
As Eagle County continues to rebounds from the recession years and demand spikes for housing, several projects are already underway in an attempt to chip away at the situation.
For rental housing, Vail’s Lion’s Ridge is currently under construction. The project will remodel and expand the existing eastern half Timber Ridge employee housing. While town officials originally hoped for more units on the property, they ended up with essentially a unit-for-unit replacement. Unlike the Timber Ridge units, which are geared more toward seasonal workers, Lion’s Ridge is aimed at renters who live in Vail all year.
Chamonix, a roughly three-acre parcel behind the West Vail fire station, is a project in the planning phase. The for-sale housing project is expected to produce about 53 units, depending on the ultimate configuration.
Vail Town Council member Greg Moffet said he envisions housing that will fill a gap in mid-level housing in Vail, homes that will be affordable for professionals and workers in the managerial ranks.
Moffet also points out that the free market can’t be depended on to solve the problem.
“We saw the answer to that — the free market failed,” he said.
That’s something that Eagle County residents know all too well. Avon homeowner Andrew Kirsch works for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District. When he arrived in Vail in 2000, he started with the district’s rental program and eventually bought a townhome at Red Sandstone, where the district owned a number of deed-restricted units. When he looked into moving to a bigger place in the late 2000s, he considered moving into the free market, but decided to stick with another deed-restricted, employee unit in Avon.
“I just didn’t think the way real estate was appreciating was sustainable, so staying with employee housing made a lot of sense. Development in this area doesn’t occur normally, particularly for the middle class like me,” Kirsch said, adding that the deed-restricted housing has allowed him to stay and work in Eagle County. “For me, the employee housing program has been critical with prices what they have been. That, and this is one of the most costly counties in the country to live in.”
The big ideas
So what might fixing the housing problem look like? Some leaders have dedicated considerable time and energy to tackling the issue, and they say that future solutions will take more than one government or one business patching up the problem.
“It’s going to take a partnership with everyone working together. We’ll need to realize that housing is infrastructure for the community. Everyone is going to realize this is the cost of doing business in this valley,” Nazzaro said.
Some entities may have the money but not land, while others may have potential housing sites but not funds. The key is intergovernmental cooperation that also includes the business community, Nazzaro said.
Finding land for housing may depend on purchasing land from unlikely sellers. Some have already floated the idea of looking to the biggest land manager in the county — the U.S. Forest Service.
The local Forest Service ranger district has considered consolidating its offices and making better use of its administrative properties, said district ranger Dave Neely. Emphasizing that talks are very much in the theoretical phase, he said the district has looked into selling some of its land at Dowd Junction, where the up-valley offices currently sit. Such trades or sales could only be made if it is in the public interest and would have to go through a public comment phase and all the legal processes that Forest Service land transactions must undergo. There have been a number of interested buyers, among them the town of Minturn for the purpose of building affordable housing. And, unlike most Forest Service land deals, which require trades of similarly-valued property — a complex and lengthy process — the Dowd Junction site could be sold outright.
“We would want to make sure the use of the land lines up with the community interest in Meadow Mountain and Dowd Junction, and that people are behind it,” Neely said. “There are a lot of options to consider, but just like everyone else, we are having a difficult time with retention and hiring of employees because of affordable housing. We’d be very happy to see some kind of affordable housing or rentals for employees. We very much feel the problem ourselves.”
Moffet said that beyond major pieces of land like Dowd Junction, he would be interested in swapping or buying “an acre here or there.”
“We’ve talked about looking at federal land that borders the town on the north side. You could put four duplexes on an acre — that’s eight families back in Vail,” Moffet said.
The town of Vail could also rebuild the western half of Timber Ridge employee housing, and perhaps building on the land where Lions Ridge Loop runs on the north side of town.
More attention has also been paid to sleepy parcels of land that belong to the State Land Board. Such land, like the square mile that runs west from the Minturn Interstate 70 exit, usually isn’t sold, but it could be leased.
“Let’s put it this way. The State Land Board owns a square mile in Eagle-Vail. They’re not in the business of selling land, but they’re in the business of making money,” said Moffet. “These are some of the nontraditional solutions that we need to look at. We need to deal with entities we don’t normally deal with, and we’re going to have to think more expansively than governments usually think.”
Employers stepping up
Like the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, which allowed Kirsch to become a homeowner, other employers are realizing they need to be part of the solution, too. Some have even shown interest in being part of expansive, multi-jurisdictional projects. Vail Resorts recently announced a $30 million commitment to develop new employee housing projects in the communities where it operates its mountain resorts. The money will be spent in partnership with local resort communities, cities and counties, and with other businesses. Company officials say it’s too early to say what those partnerships and projects might be.
Vail Resorts has felt the housing crunch as much as any employer. As reported by the Summit Daily, affordable rental housing is so scarce in Summit County that the ski resort company had to ask some employees in its housing projects to double up with additional roommates.
Johannes Faessler, owner of the Sonnenalp Resort in Vail, has a decades-old employee-housing program — and he wishes he had even more beds for workers. He said the housing problem is one that employers need to have a major part in solving.
“Everybody likes to kick that can down the road and hope the town or some public entity will solve that problem for us,” he said. “I don’t believe it will happen and if it does, businesses must be a part of it. If you don’t take that leap, the problem won’t go away. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.”
Assistant Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.