Summit County Middle Class Feels The Squeeze Of Attainable Housing

Oct 22, 2014

Summit County has distinct advantages like sprawling mountain vistas and world class ski resorts, making it a prime vacation spot. But for the county's educated middle class, living there full-time, there are disadvantages to calling the county home.

Making ends meet, and buying a home here, is harder than it looks.

Matt Powers, a local Realtor, lives in what he knows is very coveted real estate. His home is in the Wellington neighborhood, high above the east side of Breckenridge. The "million dollar" views of the ski resort alone would normally push most of the properties well out of the range of a typical middle class buyer. There's a catch though, nearly all of the houses in this neighborhood are deed restricted, placing them more within reach.

"We were just looking at sales statistics," Powers said. "So the average single family home in Breckenridge, average sale price last year, was just over $900,000."

In the Wellington neighborhood, the price of a similar home would be around half that, still not cheap. But Powers said it's attainable enough.

"We are a resort town, that's our big business, that's why we're here," Powers said. "If you don't have the people to support the services that the visitors expect, you know, the town goes away."

With such a high priced real estate market and a tight supply of attainable housing units, many middle class residents are simply priced out of the area. Frisco Town Manager Bill Efting noted that in the mountain communities, probably 80 percent of the workforce doesn't work where they live. There are lots of commuters found here.

Take first responders as an example.

"A lot of cops and firemen live on the Front Range because their schedules are flexible enough where they can work a 48-hour shift," Efting said.

Meaning they are on for 48 hours, then off 96, allowing them to live in the more affordable suburbs surrounding Denver, or in neighboring counties.

For Frisco's Efting it's a critical problem, for Jay Nelson, the deputy chief of the Red, White and Blue Fire District headquartered in Breckenridge, it essentially divides up his staff.

A playground just outside the Wellington neighborhood, Breckenridge, Colorado.
Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC

"A third of our staff lives along the Front Range, a third of our staff lives somewhere within Summit County, and a third of our staff lives in a neighboring county; Park County, Lake County, Grand County," Nelson said.

Having a far flung staff creates concerns around callbacks and getting to emergencies. Department Chief Jay Keating adds they continually plan for emergency scenarios where all firefighters would be utilized, including a closed Interstate that would prevent a third of his workforce from reaching the emergency.

"…We are really very aware that if we have a wildfire situation, and having over a third of our agency living along the Front Range, that you're looking, on a good day, a two-hour travel time to get up here," Keating said.

It's why his department is so adamant about recruiting strong candidates that are able, and willing, to live in the community.

To help address the issue of attainable housing, voters in the county approved the Summit Combined Housing Authority in 2006. President – and county commissioner – Thomas C. Davidson said its goal is not to provide housing to seasonal temporary workers. That's left to the local businesses and ski areas.

"What we're really focused on primarily is housing for our middle class. That is, the educated middle class. Whether it's teachers, or whether it's law enforcement or whether it's managers in stores."

Davidson said a number of attainable housing projects have been constructed in the eight years following the formation of the Housing Authority, including Peak 1 in Frisco, Sierra Madre in Silverthorne and Valley Brook in Breckenridge.

They're all deed restricted, so they typically require a buyer to work at least a minimum of 30 hours a week in the county. In addition, the home cannot appreciate by more than 3 percent to 5 percent a year, in terms of a resale price.

They're not for a buyer, say, looking for a second vacation home.

"Our real estate market is very, very high demand and very, very low supply and people not just from all over Colorado, and all over the United States, but, quite frankly, all over the world want to come here and own a home," Davidson said.

Despite more attainable housing, Matt Powers of the Wellington neighborhood said it still takes a certain type of person to make living in the county work.

"You know, I certainly have a lot of friends that scramble. Some people have two jobs, some people work really hard in the summer so they don't have to work as hard in the winter. You know, there's a lot of different ways that people make it work," he said. "I'm not sure that any one [of those ways are] perfect. But if you're willing to go to work, and keep moving forward, you know, I think people can find a way to make it work for sure."