Don Cohen: Eagle County’s housing reality
The economic health of Eagle County is of concern to all of us. And in this election, the subject of workforce housing is a topic that all the candidates are talking about. The contrast between candidate positions is pretty clear.
Some say that county and local governments should be involved in workforce housing, others say that it should be left to the private sector.
Outside of the bigger philosophical debate there are some gross inaccuracies that have emerged that need to be challenged and clarified.
Candidate Dick Gustafson appears to have little understanding of the regional breadth of the housing problem and the hard work and cooperation that’s occurring between our towns, the county and private sector employers.
Mr. Gustafson also seems disconnected from the negative effect our housing crisis is having on our teachers, small business owners, bus drivers and all the critical job holders who make our valley economy run.
Any candidate who chants the private-sector-will-solve-it-all mantra is out of touch with our local reality. In fact, 83 percent of the businesses in Eagle County have fewer than 10 employees. Most of these businesses are not in a financial position to double or triple salaries or buy a few condos for employee housing.
Eagle County’s locals are worried about their future housing opportunities. In an in-depth study on housing preferences recently completed by the Economic Council, many respondents of the survey were very pointed in their comments, “Even though I was fortunate enough to purchase a home seven years ago, I worry tremendously about what it will do to the quality of education for the public schools. How on earth could a teacher making less than $40K a year live here?”
Another added, “I work for a nonprofit and have difficulty finding housing for our clients. I can’t find affordable housing for myself either.”
Many worried that tough housing economics is making it hard on small businesses, “The high cost of housing makes it difficult for people to settle down in this valley.
It also drives up the cost of employers seeking help as they have to pay more or settle for less qualified help.”
Gustafson also has claimed that these initiatives are a product of “special interests.” Not true. Here’s who’s supporting one of the county’s leading initiatives, the Valley Home Store: Vail, Minturn, Red Cliff, Avon, Eagle, Gypsum, Eagle County, Eagle County School District, Habitat for Humanity, Vail Resorts, Beaver Creek Resort Company, Polar Star Development, First Bank, CenturyTel and The Vail Board of Realtors. The only “special interests” here is the entire Eagle Valley community.
Eagle County is a critical participant in The Valley Home Store, but it is spending no taxpayer dollars to do so. The county is simply rolling its existing housing staff and programs into the store and, with additional financial contributions from the towns and private sector, the Home Store will be able to expand and improve housing services to all county residents.
For a fraction of the cost of developing their own housing departments, the towns will receive better housing management services through cooperative participation.
We need to stop this gross economic imbalance of housing affordability before serious economic damage happens in our local economy.
The free market, alone, is not well positioned to provide housing affordable to our workforce and our seniors. Land and construction costs remain too high for the private sector to build rental or for-sale housing stock in the numbers required over the next 10 years.
This is why towns are developing thoughtful new policies on land use, and why all the towns, the county government, banks and businesses are underwriting collaborative housing efforts such as The Valley Home Store.
The cooperation, collaboration and innovation of The Valley Home Store signals a bold step forward for Eagle County. If candidates are looking for examples of government boondoggles, they won’t find any here.
Don Cohen is the executive director of the Economic Council of Eagle County. E-mail comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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