Romer: Let’s define what we mean by ‘workforce housing’ | VailDaily.com

Romer: Let’s define what we mean by ‘workforce housing’

Terms such as “workforce housing” and “affordable housing” are thrown around a lot, but what exactly is workforce housing, and why is it important?

Workforce housing is generally used to refer to properties that are designed to be attainable to members of the local workforce. Housing is generally considered to be affordable when the monthly payment (rent or mortgage) is equal to no more than 30% of a household’s gross income. This isn’t a local definition — this standard is commonly applied by federal and state housing programs, local housing initiatives, mortgage lenders and rental leasing agents.

We are fortunate that there are local developers looking to build housing to accommodate our workforce. Our community is dependent upon increased workforce housing to maintain our social and economic sustainability.  

As noted in the Eagle County Housing Needs Assessment, since 2011 jobs and population have been growing much more rapidly than housing inventory. That has created many challenges, including frustration for employees seeking housing; employers facing unfilled positions, high turnover, higher training costs and lost productivity; rapid increases in home prices well beyond the means of most local residents; and extremely low vacancy rates, resulting in limited choices and rising costs for renters.

If forecasts prove accurate, these tensions are poised to increase, with about 7,150 new jobs coming to the Eagle River Valley by 2025. The middle of the valley is anticipated to have the most new jobs, but the upper valley is not far behind. If the economy remains strong and no new housing is created, these growth pressures will translate into higher numbers of unfilled jobs and continued rapid escalation of housing prices.

Another approach is to create new housing for the additional employees and their families who fill these jobs. According to Colorado Office of State Demography projections, these new households are anticipated to live more often in midvalley and downvalley markets, adding to the eastbound morning commute pattern. These assumptions align with recent growth patterns and future opportunities, and policymakers are poised to make decisions that can influence the course of future housing growth.

The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments and Colorado Association of Ski Towns recently published a comprehensive report on workforce housing initiatives around our region. There are a few key themes in the report that are insightful in helping define workforce housing. Our communities need to be places where you can live, work, raise a family, start a business and retire. Preserving livability requires housing to stay affordable for as many as possible.

Housing near jobs is also environmentally friendly, yet some embrace the outdated notion that being an environmentalist means protecting the mountains and rivers but rejecting infill housing — which means people have to live further away and commute to jobs, thereby contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Being focused on sustainability requires an emphasis on economic and social sustainability as well as environmental sustainability. Resident-occupied housing is a key component to true sustainability.

There have been several housing needs assessments and studies completed over the years, throughout the mountain region. Findings are very consistent; extremely low vacancy rates result in limited choices and rising costs for renters.

Rental rates are high in Eagle County because we don’t build enough housing and we don’t build enough apartments to equalize the supply and demand equation. Yet we don’t build enough apartments because homeowner groups have prevented them from being built. Local governments need to support housing as our communities need to be places where you can live, work, raise a family, start a business and retire.

Chris Romer is president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, the regional chamber of commerce. Learn more at http://www.vailvalleypartnership.com.