Similar issues drive shortages
Our picturesque mountain valley’s housing and worker shortages are not unique among picturesque mountain valleys.
Skyrocketing housing costs and low real estate and rental inventories are a problem facing many communities in the country and in the state. However, resort communities tend to look alike.
The Mountain Migration Report, published this year, is based on the experiences of six Colorado mountain resort communities during the COVID-19 pandemic and organized by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments and the Colorado Association of Ski Towns. The introduction may as well have been written about the Methow Valley.
“Residents of these communities observed that their communities were busier — and consistently so, breaking the typical patterns of high and low visitation,” the report reads. “But was the in-migration real? And what did we know about the people coming to these places who appeared more like residents than visitors? Was it only a COVID-driven wave that would recede? How would it impact known community challenges such as workforce retention, affordable housing, rental stock and that mountain community holy grail that is quality of life?”
Colorado counties included in the Mountain Migration Report include Eagle, Grand, Pitkin, Routt, San Miguel and Summit. While they include towns like Aspen and Telluride, which may be larger or more established than the Methow as resort destinations, the demographics and situations are similar.
“Those are the pressures places where people want to be are facing,” said Ward Hauenstein, mayor pro tem of Aspen.
As in the Methow, newcomers with higher incomes have won bidding wars for increasingly scarce housing units while rents increased between 20% and 40%. Housing on the market is at historic lows and it’s getting harder for people who work in Colorado resort towns to live there.
The report’s introduction goes on to ask if mountain destinations will reach a tipping point when they can no longer fill jobs necessary to sustain their tourist economy — another question familiar to Methow Valley residents.
“Will some communities become fully commoditized and lose their soul?” the report asks.
Through a survey, the Mountain Migration Report found that 44% of new residents who responded did not spend time in their new mountain county
location regularly prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey also reported that a fifth of part-time residents spent more time in the communities in 2020, but another fifth spent less time in the communities.
“When stays are increased and extended over longer periods of time, as occurred during COVID, the stress on the community and infrastructure is felt by all,” the report reads.
For example, in fall 2020, what the Methow would consider the slower shoulder season, Telluride, Colorado, had a total population of twice its full time resident population of 4,145 people. In the locations included in the Mountain Migration, about 50% of housing units are not occupied by full-time residents.
Meanwhile, local workers are busing to their jobs.
“We have a regional bus service that people will ride well over an hour from down valley to come to work in Aspen and, anecdotally, I’ve talked to lodge general managers and people are scalping each other’s employees on the bus,” Hauenstein said.
The Methow Valley’s housing shortage has only come to a head in the past few years, but resort towns in Colorado have been dealing with it for some time.
“In Aspen we’ve had a housing program for about 40 years where we … build workforce housing,” Hauenstein said.
Aspen, working with the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority, has built about 3,100 housing units for its workforce, divided into purchasable units and rentals, he said, but housing is still a struggle for the same workers who bring visitors to the community.
“Just last night we had a presentation from our arts community and their biggest problem for getting artists … is housing,” Hauenstein said during an interview earlier this year. “Our lodges can’t get enough … front-line workers. … They’re unable to fill all of their positions.”
When it comes to taking action, the Mountain Migration Report first suggests that local governments work together to change federal and state laws to allow more public action on housing — another effort being pursued by the Methow Valley’s Housing Solutions Network.
Particularly, they suggest increasing Area Median Income limits for housing assistance, taxing short-term rentals at a higher rate and using real estate transfer taxes to fund housing programs.
Hauenstein said Aspen has two real estate transfer taxes. The city’s housing programs have been funded by a 1.5% tax on every real estate sale.
That’s what we’ve funded our workforce housing with,” he said. “You’re putting the burden to build workforce housing on the people who are creating the (problem).”
Hauenstein said land banking is also a good place to start. One of the Methow Valley Housing Solutions Network’s next steps, recently identified by the group, is to pursue identifying and purchasing land that could be used for affordable housing in the future.
“There’s going to get to a point where there’s no land to build,” he said.
Aspen has also regulated short-term rentals, such as Airbnbs.
“The first step that we did is we made everybody that rents out a unit has to buy a lodging permit, and that’s free, but they have to buy a business license,” he said.
But after 40 years of workforce housing projects and the persistent lack of affordable housing, Hauenstein said he believes wages ultimately need to increase for the full time residents working to support his town’s tourism industry.
“I don’t think we can build enough housing. I don’t think you can build yourself out of it so we’re all struggling to find what the next step is,” he said. “I want to make sure the workers in Aspen have a livable wage.”