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Vacation rentals making housing unaffordable for frontline workers in tourist towns

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Posted at 10:19 AM, Dec 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-02 13:19:22-05

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. — Affordable housing is already tough to find, and for those who live in tourist destinations, vacation rentals can push housing prices even higher. As many ski towns enter the busiest season of the year, many of the workers have nowhere affordable to live.

In Summit County, Colorado, about an hour and a half outside of Denver and home to popular ski resorts like Breckinridge, there are solutions helping frontline workers.

“They need workers, but they can’t pay people enough to live,” said Matthew Briggs, a seasonal worker who comes every winter to work at the ski resorts.

This avid snowboarder started coming out to the Rockies for a few months out of the year three years ago, and he is hoping to make a permanent move. The housing crisis has been a huge obstacle to making that dream happen.

Briggs works two jobs, but still, he says affordable housing is out of reach. During the busy winter months, finding housing options becomes even more expensive. He said it’s hard to secure anywhere to stay unless you look months and months in advance.

“It’s definitely tougher because this is when everyone wants to find housing,” said Briggs of finding a place to stay through the ski season.

Whether it’s tourists or remote workers, more people are moving to Summit County, and it’s pushing housing prices to record highs.

“If you want to live by yourself in a studio apartment, you’re going to have to put down $1,500 at least to be competitive,” said Briggs.

The prices are forcing some people to consider places they never otherwise would. “There’s a place in Leadville I know that is just a bed, no kitchen no bathroom you have to go to the county store next door just to go to the bathroom,” said Briggs.

Briggs said the ski resorts do offer employee housing, but it is not an ideal situation for him.

“Employee housing gets rough, just because like, a lot of people are out here just to have a good time,” said Briggs. “Kind of like Spring Breakers, I'd say. It'll be one in the morning, and you'll hear screaming and partying, and so you can't really get a good night's sleep there.”

But this year, Briggs doesn’t have to live in resort employee housing. He was able to get a room in the Alpine Inn: a county-leased hotel that subsidizes rent for frontline workers of all kinds.

Within one week of opening applications for the 38 rooms in the hotel, the county had more than 200 applications. The rent at the hotel is about half of what it would cost to live anywhere else.

“This place is great for me because I can afford it,” said Briggs. “I have a full bedroom to walk around, all my clothes fits, all my snowboard gear, they have a waxing stations. I can make sure my boards are up to tune.”

Frontline workers and their families lease the rooms for several months at a time, and if they find a permanent housing solution that they can afford, they can vacate the lease at any time, without penalty.

County housing director Jason Dietz worries the impact the pandemic made on the housing market will never go away. That’s why he is so excited about the relief the Alpine Inn can provide.

“Ever since the “zoom town” effect of COVID hit the mountain towns and the rest of the country as well, the frontline workers, police firefighters, doctors, are having the same issues as ski resort workers in finding housing, it is all across the board,” said Dietz.

Dietz said affordable housing is the biggest issue in his community today. “We needed about 2,000 more units in the next three years to maintain, and kind of hit an equilibrium,” said Dietz of the need for housing pre-pandemic. Now, the need is much greater. “It’s probably gone up by at least 50% where we need at least 3,000 or more units.”

While the Alpine Inn only has 38 rooms, it is the beginning of a swath of affordable housing solutions the county is working on. “This is an investment in the community, it’s an investment in the people of the community. Housing is infrastructure,” said Dietz.

Dietz said there is no easy fix for the housing crisis his community is in. There is little land that can be easily developed, and construction costs in the mountains are high.

He knows every room the county leases for a subsidized rate is helping house the backbone of his community.

“If we didn’t have the Alpine Inn here, the people who are here would be commuting long distances. They may be in overcrowded situations with family and friends, staying in their cars. The Alpine Inn is really providing a place for transitional housing, to avoid homelessness.”

“It was great relief,” said Briggs of when he found out he and his friend’s application was accepted for the Alpine Inn. “I wake up and look out the door, and I'm like, ‘I really live in the most beautiful place in the world.’ So, I'm very grateful.”

For places across the country as beautiful as this one, Dietz said it’s going to take a community effort to keep them running.

“Without housing, the community services don’t work,” said Dietz.

But this snowboarder sees how a community can get to work if they have a place to call home.

“This is great. This was a great example of what they should be doing,” said Briggs.

He’s hoping living at the Alpine Inn is his first step in helping him find a place to live year-round in the mountains he loves most.