Renters in Eagle County find high prices
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on affordable rentals in Eagle County.
EAGLE COUNTY — The town of Vail’s new housing director, Alan Nazzaro, got a firsthand taste of the Vail Valley’s rental problems when he arrived for his post.
The town had originally put him up in a temporary town-owned rental. After searching for a month, Nazzaro ended up renting a place in Eagle, “because it was the only thing I could find,” he said.
Nazzaro knows that the search for an affordable rental gets even more difficult for lower income and seasonal workers, and it’s a problem he’s been working to tackle.
Around the valley this winter, as with many other ski resort communities, an influx of seasonal workers have arrived, and many are struggling to find places to live. The places they’re finding upvalley are often more than $1,000 for a single room — not exactly affordable for someone who makes $10-$12 per hour on the slopes or working in a hotel for the winter.
“There’s a really big gap and need in Vail for housing across a wide spectrum of income ranges,” said Nazzaro. “People took a sigh of relief for housing during the recession, when people were leaving the valley. Now we’re playing catch up because the economy is rolling and people are coming back.”
High prices and scarce inventory are nothing new in the Vail Valley. Many longtime residents and employers will tell you it has been a decades-long, cyclical problem. The combination of a rebound in the real estate market, a halt in new construction during the recession and a slew of new jobs thanks to a rebounding economy means that the local housing situation has reached levels the area hasn’t seen in nearly a decade. Add on the impact of an increase in short-term vacation rentals on sites like VRBO.com and Airbnb, and the result is a mad scurry among locals and new residents to find a place to live.
Like ‘living in New York City’
Just ask 24-year-old Joe Romano, who arrived in town mid-November for a ski instructor job. He had already been inquiring about rentals through Craigslist and classified ads all summer, with no luck. When he arrived in the valley, he was staying on a friend’s couch, thinking it’d be a matter of time before he landed a place.
He was shocked by how difficult that proved to be. Two weeks into his search, he discovered that the average price of a room was about $970, and even if he went to see the place and offered to write a check on the spot, landlords would tell him they had some other showings and he’d never hear back.
“The cheapest place I found was $500 in a 7-by-10 room with no windows, but that was gone immediately. I’ve looked as far as Leadville and State Bridge,” he said. “
“I was kind of surprised that it was the same price as living in New York City. I didn’t expect that. I’m kind of frustrated and disappointed.”
The odyssey of finding a place to live put a bit of a damper on his excitement for the ski season, he said. His original plans had been to stay for the summer as well, but now he’s wondering if that’s possible.
“Potentially I’d love to stay longer than six months, but I’m on the fence because I don’t have roots or a place to live,” he said at the end of November. “I can’t even unpack my car yet. How can I plan further out?”
Romano eventually found a spot in employee housing in early December. He estimates that since he started searching for a rental in August, he’s contacted more than 100 prospective places.
‘Out of whack’
The Eagle County housing department tracks about 1,300 rental units that are subsidized or rent controlled. Those rents have largely stayed static over the last few years and tenants must meet certain income criteria. Still, those rentals have been 99 percent full, said Eagle County Housing Director Jill Klosterman.
That means that the affordable rentals are essentially full, and those kinds of number mean that something is “out of whack.”
“A healthy percentage is around 95 percent occupancy — it means there are people moving out and people have a place to move in. Two things can happen in a 99 percent situation. You can build more units, building and land costs are a barrier to that. Or, rents could go up,” she said.
And that’s exactly what is happening in the open market. Prices across the county have jumped since 2013 to levels that are as high or surpassing prices seen right before the recession, at the height of the real estate boom.
In the Vail Daily classifieds, records show that the cost of a two-bedroom rental right before ski season in the upper valley (Edwards to Vail) averaged about $1,950 for the winter of 2008. Rents plummeted in the following years, with the average cost getting as low as $1,500 for a two-bedroom in 2010. Compare that to the 2015 average for the same kind of rental, which came in at a whopping $2,140. Across the spectrum of one to three bedroom rentals in the upper valley, Vail Daily data showed a 30 to 43 percent price increase from when the rental economy was at its lowest in 2010 and 2011. The downvalley market has followed a similar trajectory.
Klosterman and other housing experts guess that the short-term vacation rental market has had some effect on local’s housing, but they’re not sure exactly how much.
“If an owner can make more money renting the place out short-term instead of having a long-term tenant, they may be more apt to take it off the market. We think it has an affect. It may not be big, but if even a 100 homes are taken off the long-term rental market, that’s 100 households. That’s a big effect,” Klosterman said.
The only new rental construction in the works in Eagle County is the town of Vail’s Lion’s Ridge project, a remodel and expansion of the Timber Ridge employee housing complex.
“We’ve gotten some kudos from other areas because it’s the only new rental that’s been built in this area for awhile,” said Nazzaro. “That’s part of the problem — that there aren’t any new rental projects on the boards anywhere.”
Assistant Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.