School District makes strides to increase housing affordability for its employees
Anticipating a tight hiring year, district is moving quickly on several affordable housing projects
Across every industry, Eagle County businesses face numerous hurdles when it comes to hiring and retaining employees. But perhaps no hurdle is larger to overcome than the obstacle that is affordable housing. This is something that one of the county’s largest employers — Eagle County Schools — is seeking to amend with its housing master plan.
“It’s going to be a challenge to hire people for this fall, people are feeling it all over the Western Slope. Anything that’s hourly will be hard to employ until after September when the unemployment benefits change. And hiring teachers is quite hard because the applicant pool is shrinking,” said Philip Qualman, superintendent of Eagle County Schools, at the May 13 Board of Education meeting. “Our housing master plan is one of the most important things that we can be doing right now to ensure that we can attract quality educators to our community and keep them here.”
Recently, the district, which launched its master plan in April 2020, has made significant strides toward its goal of building 120 units of workforce housing in the next decade.
“We’re going to have to keep our foot on the gas pedal on these projects,” Qualman said. “I think it will be one of our tightest hiring years.”
Collaboration with Habitat for Humanity
Recently, Habitat for Humanity Vail Valley presented to the board regarding a possible partnership for the development of staff housing at the 3rd Street Campus in Eagle. This presentation was the outcome of discussions between the district’s Land Resource Committee and Habitat.
The district has had a relationship with Habitat for several years, according to Dan Dougherty, chief communications officer for the district. “Their business model has resulted in many support staff-level employees securing housing that would have been otherwise unavailable to them in this market,” he said.
This relationship has evolved in recent years as Habitat increased its income threshold so teachers would qualify for their homes.
“Previously, teachers earned just enough to not qualify for their program, yet still not enough to qualify for homes on the open market,” Dougherty said. “In our housing plan, we have multiple tiers. The Habitat model helps our lowest earners and first-time home buyers access to home ownership.”
This project refers to a 1.1-acre parcel of land identified in the housing master plan, located at the southwest end of the 3rd Street Campus. According to Dougherty, this development will be modeled off of the development near Red Hill Elementary and Gypsum Creek Middle School.
On April 28, Habitat presented the board with multiple options for how units could be allocated between the school district and Habitat. The board gave direction that the site could be developed so that 75% of the units would be made available to district employees and 25% be made available to Habitat’s general applicant pool.
Breaking this down, this means that nine units would be available for district staff that fall within the 80% to 100% average median income range for qualification. The remaining three units would be allocated to the general Habitat pool, which are applicants that fall below 80% AMI. Eagle County School staff would still be eligible for these remaining units, but only if they qualify.
Currently, Habitat is working with Sandra Mutchler, chief operating officer for the district, to finalize a memorandum of understanding for the project. After completed, the memorandum will go before the board for approval.
Battle Mountain Parcel
At the May 12 Board of Education meeting, the board selected 2757 design + build co. out of Carbondale as the architect for the design and construction of employee housing Battle Mountain Housing parcel.
The approved contract estimates that the completion of the Battle Mountain site will cost approximately $424,595. “Potentially, we would not spend all of those dollars, but we do have the money set aside in the employee housing fund to support the work that needs to be done,” Mutchler said at the board meeting.
Mutchler was careful to note at the meeting that the district will be working with the architect to continue to evaluate the project to get to a certain level of feasibility and affordability. “If we can’t meet that, then we stop,” she said, “It’s just a step further and closer to getting employee housing at a level that we can afford it, which makes it difficult.”
The site, which was designated as part of the housing master plan and is already owned by the district, is located just east of Battle Mountain High School. Currently, the site is used for facilities storage. The district has estimated that the site can house between 30 and 48 affordable housing units. According to Mutchler at the board meeting, there’s a potential the district could exceed this estimate, “which helps bring the cost down.”
Per the housing master plan, the district has targeted that this will be completed in the first quarter of 2022.
Recently, the district secured seven master leases at Piedmont Apartments, a new housing development in Avon. These leases will help hold the district over as it works to complete its new employee housing facilities in Edwards and Eagle.
“Those seven master leases will be a part of our corpus of employee housing that we’re able to rent out to our new staff.” Qualman said. “It’s a piece of what we need, but it’s not nearly enough.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.