How the passage of a Colorado bill could bring workforce housing to Dowd Junction
A state-owned piece of land inspired the first Senate bill in the 2023 legislative session
A parcel of land in Dowd Junction was the inspiration behind the first Colorado Senate bill introduced in 2023. And, if passed, the land will serve as the proof of concept for a new pathway to building affordable housing in the state.
The piece of land in question is a 3.5-acre parcel in Dowd Junction along the north side of U.S. Highway 6. While the parcel is currently owned by the State Land Board and occupied by the Colorado Department of Transportation, the state as well as Eagle County municipalities and organizations have long identified it as suitable for affordable housing.
For many years, Sen. Dylan Roberts has been involved in conversations with Eagle County commissioners, local housing advocates as well as the towns of Vail, Avon and Minturn to bring housing to the site.
“We’ve been talking about the possibility of that parcel being a great location for workforce housing development for many years,” Roberts said. “And so I brought those local concerns and went to the administration, the governor’s office and people down here at the Capitol and said, ‘How can we make this happen?’”
And the answer to that question is contained in Senate Bill 1. Roberts is a sponsor of the bill alongside Sen. Rachel Zenzinger and Reps. Shannon Bird and Meghan Lukens.
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As proposed, the bill does two primary things.
The first is that it “makes clear” in the state’s public-private partnership office’s statutes that they are “able and directed to help with affordable housing projects,” Roberts said.
This office is a Colorado agency that promotes public-private partnership opportunities, but currently, its legislative directive doesn’t include housing and land transactions.
If the bill passes, the office would then be able to “essentially be a broker between the state, who owns land, and local governments and nonprofits and private developers in our various communities that want to access that land to build affordable housing projects,” Roberts said.
“It sets that public-private partnership office as a resource for local communities who want some assistance to build more affordable housing in their communities,” he added.
The second thing the bill does is allocate $13 million from the state’s budget this year to help initiate projects of this nature. Already, $2 million of this budgeted amount has been set aside for the Dowd Junction project to get it started.
In future years, Roberts said that he or another legislator would have to advocate for funds to fill the fund from state resources if needed.
The value of land
This bill builds off of past work done in the state to identify state-owned land ripe for redevelopment for affordable housing, child care, public schools, residential mental and behavioral health care and renewable energy. In 2021, a House bill was passed that required the state to create an inventory of state-owned land and buildings.
Should the currently-proposed Senate bill pass, the public-private partnership office would start by going through this list and “determine what is suitable for workforce housing development and then talk to the local partners in that area” and gauge their interest in partnering to realize that housing, Roberts said.
At the center of what the bill aims to solve is one of the primary challenges communities face in building housing.
“Land is a huge limited resource in our state and it’s a really big constraint to building really any kind of housing, but especially anything affordable,” said Elyse Howard, the director of development for Habitat for Humanity Vail Valley.
Habitat for Humanity of Colorado — which is comprised of 25 affiliates in the state — is one of the bill’s advocates, alongside the Eagle County government and task force, town of Vail, Vail Local Housing Authority, Vail Resorts and other statewide organizations.
If passed, the bill would add a tool to communities’ toolboxes to create opportunities for housing and provide a mechanism for the state to partner with these communities, Howard added.
“There really isn’t a mechanism right now, in my understanding, for the state to have the authority to purchase, transfer, exchange, sell, lease, whatever, place an easement on their land that they own,” she said. “This bill would provide the mechanism for that.”
While land is one of the primary barriers for “affordable housing projects getting off the ground,” with this mechanism in place, the cost of acquiring land could be lowered, Roberts said.
“By freeing up this land and leasing it to these local governments at a very low cost, we are going to cut down the cost of this project significantly, which will one, help it get built faster but also help get it built at a more affordable price and hopefully those savings will be realized by the future tenants,” he added.
Proof of concept in Dowd
The site in Dowd Junction was initially identified for potential housing several years ago, according to George Ruther, the town of Vail’s housing director. At the time, the State Land Board reached out to the local towns and counties to gauge interest as well as complete a preliminary feasibility study.
There are a few reasons why the parcel in Dowd Junction is a good proof of concept for this bill and type of partnership.
First, is the location: “It is located right in the heart of where our workforce needs to live in order to be close to where they work,” Roberts said.
Second, the site itself is well suited, because, among other things, it’s flat.
“It’s hard to find a more flat site that is at the east end of the valley, close to a lot of our tourism jobs,” Howard said.
And third, Howard suggested, is that many Eagle County partners have been behind bringing housing to the site.
“There’s no magic to the Dowd Junction parcel, but I do think there’s magic in that members of the community and housing leaders have identified this parcel as an opportunity for many years,” she said.
Should the bill pass, the $2 million budgeted in the bill for the Dowd Junction land would be utilized to move the trailers currently on the site, relocate the employees to another part of Eagle County, and get the land ready for workforce development. From there, it would be up to the communities and entities involved to work out the details.
“All of (the Eagle County partners) would work to lease the land from the state — a 99-year ground lease is what I think they’re thinking — and then they would engage with a private developer to help build,” Roberts said.
Ruther said that there’s a substantial amount of work ahead for the site including further feasibility study and review as well as an evaluation of the options and opportunities.
“Most importantly, there are existing uses and homes on a portion of the site which can not be overlooked. We need to be absolutely certain the needs of CDOT and the families currently residing on the site are met,” Ruther said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a regional group including the towns, county and special districts formed to collaborate and evaluate various options for future development.”
According to the fact sheet on the bill, provided by Roberts’ office, the site has the potential to develop 80 two-bedroom units of 800-square feet each.
This, however, is an estimate, as the land would still need to go through the entitlement process to bring housing to the site. Howard suggested that there would need to be a community process “to really decide how we would want to best use that site.”
For Howard, and Habitat, creating opportunities for affordable homeownership is always top of mind.
“I’m happy to see any units built in our community. But I think with such limited land resources that we should always be thinking about: Can we get any ownership units on any site in any project?” she said. “Habitat would like to see some homeownership to be a part of as many projects as we can participate in up and down the valley, because homeownership is really the thing that will anchor people in our community and keep our critical workforce here.”
Ruther added that the site could be suitable for another Miller Ranch type of development for locals.
“Given its size and location, the EagleVail State Land Board parcel has the potential to become one of those opportunities,” he said.
Aside from the Dowd Junction land, a few other sites across the state have been identified as possible beneficiaries of this bill. This includes projects in Routt, Jefferson, Las Animas and Larimer counties as well as one in the Roaring Fork Valley, Roberts said.
The important thing for projects to be considered is not only the availability of suitable state-owned land — namely not state-owned public lands, but rather state-owned parcels that are unused or underutilized — but also interest in seeing community housing there from local governments and organizations.
“You have to be really creative and look at opportunities to work with entities —which is basically what this bill is trying to do — that might already have land. And maybe it’s underutilized land and it makes sense. It’s in a place that makes sense to build housing,” Howard said.
At the heart of the bill is the value of a partnership between various entities in solving the housing crisis.
“The community is still going to have to come together. The land is still going to have to go through the entitlement process, the community is still going to have to work on what are we building,” Howard said. “When the community is focused on something — and our community right now feels pretty focused on creating more housing for our workforce — even if we’re not directly working together, that focus helps more get done.”
Plus, in working collaboratively, local entities would not be competing for limited resources.
“When all that conversation is going on, there’s just natural ways to work together to be more efficient and to save costs. That’s the secret sauce in getting this done for our community is finding ways to work together because we also don’t want to be duplicative,” Howard said. “Land is such a resource, a precious resource, and I think we want to make sure what everybody’s doing is complementing and not repetitive.”
Looking ahead, Roberts was optimistic about the bill after it received bipartisan support in its first committee hearing.
“We’re looking forward to getting it to the governor’s office very soon,” he said. “This has been really exciting and wouldn’t have happened without the great advocates in Eagle County who have been helping me beat this drum with the state about this great opportunity in Dowd Junction. We could really put a dent in our housing needs in Eagle County if we could free up this land.”