Vail Daily column: Keeping locals local
Affordability: It’s the issue of the day. The rising costs of housing, child care and health care are making it harder for residents to live here. Your board of county commissioners is listening and working on all three issues to help keep locals local.
I moved here from Denver in 2004, to take the job as Eagle County public health manager. The Miller Ranch neighborhood was my entree into the community. As a previous homeowner, I wasn’t interested in renting long-term, but as a single person, I could not afford to buy on the free housing market. I have lived in my deed-restricted home ever since, although now I have a husband and child. Deed restriction means that the purchase price is affordable, the occupants are local and the increase in value is capped, based on the county’s annual wage increase.
From my porch, I can throw a rock and practically hit the homes of a school principal, a plumber, a firefighter, a chef, a bike shop manager, many teachers and a sheriff’s deputy. Miller Ranch is the perfect microcosm of our workforce. The housing is affordable because Eagle County donated the land. I often hear that we need more “locals” neighborhoods like Miller Ranch. However, the county only owns a few small parcels worth developing and doesn’t have a way to fund land banking.
The county is taking action where possible, with 20 affordable housing units planned for construction. However, these do not begin to address the 4,466 units needed to house today’s workforce. Available rental units in large complexes are 97 percent occupied. In a recent workforce survey by Vail Valley Partnership, 69 percent of respondents said the lack of affordable housing negatively affects their ability to hire employees.
For those who already live here, 51 percent of homeowners with a mortgage and 47 percent of renters are paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing, the HUD standard for being “cost burdened.” I hear longtime locals talk about the sacrifices they have made to stay here, and they have! The cost of living has been high in Eagle County for decades, driven by a second-home market that makes land, infrastructure and construction expensive. But it’s different today. Wages have not kept up with home prices. In the 1990s, a household earning the area median income could afford a median priced home. Currently, the same household can afford about $200,000 less than the median, which was $575,000 in 2015.
The lack of affordability is causing a “brain drain.” Figures from the state demographer show a dramatic outmigration of people beginning at age 32. Young families are the most vulnerable. Just as they put down roots, many cannot make the financial transition to home ownership and child care. Licensed child care is 53 percent higher in Eagle County than the median across all school districts in Colorado, at an average $13,000 per year.
And then there is health care. According to a recent Colorado Department of Insurance report, Eagle County’s health care rating area continues to be the most costly in the state; in fact 36 percent higher than Boulder, the lowest cost area. Residents are bracing for another year of premium increases, as more health insurance companies leave the area.
County residents are known for their creative ways of making it work, but there is an affordability breaking point that is tearing at the fabric of our community. To address this issue, the Board of Commissioners has held community meetings, completed needs assessments, lobbied the Legislature, considered what other counties are doing and developed strategic plans.
One meaningful strategy is to collect a sales tax for affordable housing (three cents on a $10 purchase). This is the model used by Aspen, Boulder, Telluride and Summit County. It received positive support by residents in a recent poll. Such a tax would spread the cost of growth among locals, visitors and second-home owners. Funding could go toward Miller Ranch-type neighborhoods, priced-capped rentals, unit buy downs, land banking and down-payment assistance. The Board of County Commissioners just voted to put this sales tax question on the ballot, and now we will let the voters decide.
Jill Ryan is an Eagle County commissioner.
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