Vail Symposium’s YIMBY Jamboree discusses opportunities, challenges to creating workforce housing |

Vail Symposium’s YIMBY Jamboree discusses opportunities, challenges to creating workforce housing

Vail Symposium Thursday hosted a 'YIMBY Jamboree'

Vail Symposium Executive Director James Kenley, right, introduces the panelists for Thursday's YIMBY Jamboree housing discussion at the Vail Interfaith Chapel. Panelists are, from left, Vail Housing Director George Ruther, Breckenridge Housing Director Laurie Best and Tucker Holland, the housing specialist for Nantucket, Massachusetts.
Scott N. Miller/Vail Daily

Workforce housing isn’t just an Eagle County problem, and solutions everywhere seem just as hard to find.

The Vail Symposium on Thursday hosted a YIMBY Jamboree panel discussion to explore what’s happening — and the doorways and obstacles to future projects — in the world of workforce housing.

What’s a YIMBY? The term is an acronym for Yes In My Backyard. It’s basically the opposite of NIMBY, or Not in My Backyard.

Panelists included Tucker Holland, the housing specialist for the town of Nantucket, Massachusetts; Laurie Best, manager of the town of Breckenridge’s housing program; and George Ruther, the town of Vail’s housing director.

Vail Valley Partnership CEO Chris Romer was the moderator for the discussion.

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Best’s description of the problems in Breckenridge could be applied to just about any mountain resort community.

Despite years of effort, “We’re still losing ground,” Best said, adding that Breckenridge’s current housing stock is just 29% resident-occupied. The goal is 35%.

Best noted that challenges to building up that stock include the community’s carrying capacity and infrastructure, as well as land costs. There are also competing priorities, including maintaining open space and Breckenridge’s small-town character.

Support, but not construction

“There’s support for workforce housing, but not the construction of it,” she added.

There’s also the matter of resources. Holland, who spent much of his youth in Nantucket, said he came into his current job with a budget of $250,000. He quickly asked for $1 million.

“It’s difficult to pull a rabbit out of your hat when you don’t have a hat,” Holland said, adding that voters have since supported more than $70 million in local funding. That money is used in many cases to leverage grants and other funding sources.

Best noted that a willingness to assume risk is a crucial first step in creating programs.

But, she added, the elected officials to whom she answers have been willing to be “as nimble as possible” when acting on initiatives.

While communities everywhere have many of the same tools available — including zoning laws — Holland noted that Massachusetts state law mandates a minimum of 10% workforce housing in all communities. If a community can’t meet that level, state law allows developers a relatively free hand, as long as 25% of a project is workforce housing.

Nantucket has made “good faith progress,” increasing its workforce housing stock from 2% to 6.7% over the course of several years.

Ruther noted that housing was one of three priorities named in Vail’s first master plan, which was approved in 1973. But action requires more than just planning.

Community leadership

Noting that Vail has engineered a 52% increase in its workforce housing stock over the past five years, Ruther said “That’s not just the housing department, but leadership in the community.”

The most prominent success has been the Vail InDEED program, a novel approach to deed restrictions that, instead of price or income caps, requires verified resident occupancy. The idea is the restricted homes will essentially remain more affordable if they’re taken out of the pool of potential second homes.

Breckenridge has adopted a version of the program, and Nantucket is set to adopt its own version.

Adopting Vail InDEED is part of “always checking in with peer communities to see what’s working,” Best said.

An audience member said zoning laws restrict workforce housing and asked the panelists what they might do with a “magic wand.”

“Zoning is not going to get it done,” Holland said. “You have to have subsidies.”

Ruther said rather than zoning, one of the major hangups to building workforce housing is the time required for a decision on a project. That time can add millions to the cost of a project, he added.

One answer, he said, is quickly getting to a decision — either positive or negative.

“Relying on (zoning) is the wrong place to work,” Ruther added. “We need out-of-the-box thinking.” That includes working closely with both the private sector and neighboring communities, he added.

Best noted that even when the world moves quickly, government doesn’t.

“We have to be nimble,” she said.

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