Housing done right: Some employers are meeting Vail Valley’s housing challenges, and most started years ago
Sonnenalp, water district are among the groups who got it right
- No vacancy: Deed restrictions are governments' weapon of choice in the fight against empty homes
- A little help: Down payment loan programs are helping locals get into the market
Editor’s note: This story is the third part in a five-day series focused on housing issues in the Vail Valley. To view the entire series as it unfolds, visit vaildaily.com/news/home-economics.
VAIL — The valley’s housing woes are not new. It started in 1962 when Vail did.
“Housing has always been a problem. It was probably worse that first year,” Vail pioneer Rod Slifer said smiling. “It was like camping. It was pretty primitive. But we had a good time!”
In the 1960s Avon barely existed, so people had to live in Minturn or farther down the valley in Eagle and Gypsum. Interstate 70 did not exist, either, so the commute along Highway 6 could be an adventure.
“That first summer I lived in a trailer — 8 feet by 32 feet — with Pete Seibert and Morrie Shepard,” Slifer said.
They had a bed in one room where Pete slept. Shepard and Slifer slept in what passed for the living room, on cots 2 feet apart. The bathroom was a 4-foot square.
“The good thing is that you could do everything in the bathroom at once,” Slifer said laughing.
A few who do it right
Everyone sees the valley’s housing problem. A few, though, did something about it.
The Sonnenalp Hotel’s Faessler family got it right on two continents.
“We had an employee housing problem decades ago. It has never gone away. Sometimes it’s less urgent, but it’s always there,” Johannes Faessler said. “We recruit from overseas. There is virtually no way to recruit people from another place or another country and expect them to find housing in Vail.”
Their Sonnenalp resort in Germany opened as a bed and breakfast in the early 20th century. Because it’s well away from any town, they’ve provided staff housing for decades.
“It was always part of the need to have people housed there. That was part of our DNA,” Faessler said.
They opened the Sonnenalp in Vail 40 years ago in Dec. 1979. It became apparent quickly that they needed somewhere for their staff to live.
“As we grew, the housing piece had to grow with us,” Faessler said.
In the 1980s the Faessler family and the Sonnenalp partnered with Pepi and Sheika Gramshammer to buy the 25-unit Bighorn Lodge in East Vail. They still own it.
They rebuilt their Solar Vail apartment building to go with the Bighorn Lodge and a six-unit building in West Vail.
They also lease other apartments and houses around town. Between their Sonnenalp golf course in Edwards and the Vail hotels and depending on the season, the Sonnenalp employs around 400 people.
Water workers everywhere
“There is a time when people face a decision. They can either try to settle down here or they can go somewhere they can afford to live,” said Linn Brooks, the executive director of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. “Our housing program helps people make that decision. They can stay here and put down roots. It reduces turnover by helping people see it as more than a job. They can see it as a career.”
The water district’s housing program includes rental assistance, down payment assistance and the outright purchase of properties that are sold to employees at below-market rates with deed restrictions. Property value increases are restricted to 3% a year. If a staffer leaves the job or sells the house for other reasons, the water district has the first right to buy it back.
“We want them back because we want them for the next employee,” Brooks said.
The water district’s housing program started in 1998 with one unit in Vail’s Pitkin Creek townhomes where staffers could stay when they were on call. They need people who have the training and a firm understanding of their systems, Brooks said.
“We could not provide the service we needed to (without them). It’s a specialized skill,” Brooks said.
Last summer the water district opened Stillwater, a 21-unit workforce housing development in Edwards. Those 21 units bring the water district’s employee housing units up to 56. The water district can house more than half of its workforce.
“Maybe we could buy up more places that are available, but that makes it tougher for everyone else,” the water district’s Amy Vogt said.
The Stillwater project cost the water district $14 million, cash it had on hand in its reserve fund. Lease payments will cover ongoing costs.
“Vail Health also has a robust housing program. West Vail Liquor Mart, Beaver Liquors, Venture Sports, Wyndham, Four Seasons, town of Vail also have housing programs or own employee housing units,” the Vail Valley Partnership’s Chris Romer said.
We’re an island
“You cannot outbuild it. Not here you can’t. Essentially, we live on an island,” said Jon Stavney, the executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. “I don’t know of a single community in our region that believes — from staff to electeds, to business owners to employees — that they have enough housing at the right price and variety to house the workforce they would like to have.”
Former Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon was among the first to point out that, essentially, the valley is an island.
“Our available land is limited by the surrounding national forest. For all practical purposes, we are an island unto ourselves,” Runyon said in a 2008 Vail Daily column.
In Colorado’s mountain resort communities, you can make your island bigger. In Summit County, Dillon is working with the Forest Service to acquire land for affordable housing.
The 2018 Farm Bill, signed into law by President Trump a year ago, gives the Forest Service the green light to lease land if you promise to improve it. In Dillon, that means affordable housing.
It’s a big problem that calls for big solutions, Stavney said.
“I like the big property deals with public-private partnerships — Lake Creek Village (270 units), Miller Ranch (283 units), Vail’s Chamonix, Avon’s projects, the upcoming USFS exchange deal in Summit County,” Stavney said.