Does Eagle County have the political will to create more workforce housing?
Suggestions include regulatory reform, more public-private partnerships
Housing has been a local problem as long as anyone can remember. The situation today is perhaps worse than ever. But are we really serious about attacking the problem?
Bobby Lipnick has his doubts. Lipnick is a founding member of the Eagle County Housing Task Force, an all-volunteer group dedicated to helping find ways to create more workforce housing in the valley. That group, made up of members of both the public and private sectors, evaluates the housing situation and tries to craft ways for local governments, banks and developers to work together.
Lipnick said over the past year he’s seen a dropoff in progress in building new workforce units, and says “a lack of political will” is one reason.
In Lipnick’s view, candidates for local office run on the promise that housing is their top priority. The story changes after those candidates are elected, Lipnick said, adding he believes those candidates fall under the influence of “Not In My Back Yard,” or NIMBY, residents.
Lipnick cited the often-heated public debate over the Edwards RiverPark project as an example of neighbors opposing a project that would include workforce housing.
Another instance was a proposed apartment project just west of Vail’s Cascade Village. That project was shelved after just one March meeting with the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission. Lipnick maintains the demise of that project was in large part due to lack of political will.
Lipnick lives in the area where the project was to be built, and said he fully supported it. But, he added, it seems the “not in my back yard” types held sway.
“It seems (opponents) have more influence on decision makers,” he added.
Will isn’t everything
Vail Town Council member Kim Langmaid disagreed.
“We really do take housing seriously,” Langmaid said, adding that she and her fellow council members have the needed will to get things done.
“The challenge is finding an appropriate location,” Langmaid said, adding that the Cascade proposal to make financial sense probably put too much density on its 2.2-acre location adjacent to Gore Creek.
Given Vail’s lack of developable land, Langmaid said that any future projects, large or small, will require partnerships such as the one for the Residences at Main Vail. In that project, the town provided land for Triumph Development to build rental housing at a site just north of the main Vail Interstate 70 interchange.
Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry noted that the county and other local governments “need to be much bolder” in creating workforce housing. That means bringing more public money to the table.
“The only way to move ahead is investment in the (land),” Chandler-Henry said.
The county owns a roughly 10-acre site just behind Corky’s gas station along Grand Avenue. Chandler-Henry said the town of Eagle could perhaps bring water and sewer to the site. The site could be bungalows for seniors, as well as entry-level homes for local families.
Chandler-Henry said the county could see some housing funding coming from state and federal sources. The federal American Rescue Plan has directed $3.8 billion to Colorado.
Depending on how the new funds are distributed, Chandler-Henry said the county could buy deed restrictions to buy down the cost of homes occupied by local residents. The idea would be similar to the Vail InDeed program, Chandler-Henry said.
How about regulatory relief?
Beyond land and subsidies, developers could also benefit from regulatory relief.
Patrick Scanlon of Fortius Capital said developers could use relief, from impact fees for projects.
“There’s not that big a difference between (fees for) a Bachelor Gulch home and workforce housing,” Scanlon said. Either waiving fees or delaying their collection until a unit is sold could be a big step toward creating more workforce housing.
“There needs to be a total paradigm shift,” Scanlon said.
Conversations need to focus on what the county, its residents, governments and developers are doing to incentivize workforce housing, Scanlon added.
Developers also need to take on less risk on projects, Scanlon said.
Vail Housing Director George Ruther said studies show that just the government review, approval and entitlement process can represent roughly 30% of a development’s cost.
“Municipalities can do a far better job of streamlining the review process,” Ruther said.
In the case of the Residences at Main Vail, the town put up both the land and $690,000 to move the project through the review process.
A private developer that put that much up-front money into a project would control only when the paperwork is submitted, Ruther said. After that, “It’s out of their hands, with no expectations of what (the final product) is going to look like,” Ruther added.
Ruther said he’s spoken with counterparts in other areas where workforce housing development proposals have sat for between four and six months.
“That doesn’t sound like a housing crisis,” he said, adding that local governments need to do a better job of prioritizing workforce housing applications.
“It’s not rubber-stamping, but make it a priority,” Ruther said.
Chandler-Henry said local governments and residents need to “start thinking of workforce housing as infrastructure … we won’t have a workforce if we don’t.”
$1.3 million: Average Eagle County real estate transaction price, April, 2021.
$397,000: Average Gypsum real estate transaction price, April, 2021.
$973,000: Average Edwards real estate transaction price, April, 2021.
$1.1 million: Average Vail real estate transaction price for the Intermountain and Matterhorn neighborhoods, April, 2021.
Source: Land Title Guarantee Company.