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Pandemic housing market spike forcing locals, frontline workers out of tourist towns

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Posted at 8:43 AM, Aug 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-13 11:43:36-04

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. — Families across the country are struggling to find affordable housing. In some tourist towns, both home and vacation rental prices spiked to record highs during the pandemic making it tough for the local community to afford a place to live.

A life close to nature brought Tiana and Justin Ibarra to the mountain community of Summit County, Colorado, more than a decade ago. The community is near Breckenridge and other ski towns, and it has several lakes for boating and other summertime activities.

“This has always been our home,” said Tiana Ibarra, who works managing a restaurant. “It's a gorgeous place. There's so many fun activities. It's a really beautiful community.”

The couple now has a son, and they hoped to raise him here.

“It was exactly where I wanted my son to be. Had that small-town feel, but it doesn't feel that way anymore,” she said.

Their community became a safe haven for tourists and remote workers alike during the pandemic. Places where people once spent a weekend, they could now spend months at a time.

“What it's doing is pushing out all of the people that make the wheels turn,” said Ibarra.

As more people came to this picturesque Colorado community, something happened here that’s happening in small, tourist towns across the country: real estate prices skyrocketed.

“There were people from other states making offers on homes that they've never seen--coming $200,000, $300,000, $400,000 above asking price, closing that day,” said Ibarra. “So, even people who work really hard in this community, who might have had money saved, still have no chance at those units."

The rental market provided no relief. Many properties in Summit County that local families used to rent long-term were turned into short-term vacation rentals.

“The leases were only 6 to 8 months because then they would like to use them as short-term rentals during the ski season,” said Ibarra.

The Ibarra’s lease ended this spring, and they had to find somewhere else to live. However, the search was challenging to find something appropriate for their family within their budget, despite the fact that both Ibarra and her husband work full time.

“We were between a rock and a hard place. We really didn't have a lot of options. We ended up finding this unit, which is a lock-off in a much larger home,” said Ibarra.

Their basement unit has two bedrooms and costs more than $2,000 per month, but it does not have a full-functioning kitchen. The family cooks using a hot plate and toaster oven.

The family said this was not their first choice, but they made the compromise to stay in the community they loved while waiting for a deed restricted home they won a lottery to purchase to become available next year.

Compromises they are making are common in Summit County, but for many families, the wait is just too costly.

Brianne Snow runs the Family Intercultural Resource Center, or FIRC, in Silverthorne, and she said this year has been the toughest for her organization ever.

“I have said goodbye to a lot of families over the years, but never as much in this last year. And these are people that are amazing community members. They are embedded and they're not leaving to do something better. They're leaving because they don't have a choice,” said Snow.

Snow is fighting to keep families in their homes by giving food to those in need. She said she was hoping the need for services would drop off as COVID-19 lessened in the community, but the need for services has only gone up since the start of the pandemic.

“All of our jobs pretty much are all tourist-based, and so the service industry doesn't quite pay as well as one would hope, and it's just the cost of living versus the income. There's a huge wage gap,” said Snow.

That gap is putting some families too far in debt to stay.

“I think it's heartbreaking,” said Snow.

Heartbreaking and hard. With all the people moving away, this town is now facing a worker shortage, one Snow feels firsthand.

Her center closed its thrift shop, their only source of income, aside from donations, because they needed the employees to run their food pantry.

“It's a really complicated puzzle,” said Snow.

But there is hope for this community: the local city and county governments are actively working on solutions to house the people who work in these mountain communities and have lived here a long time.

Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence worked on a project with her fellow commissioners to lease a hotel called the Alpine Inn. The hotel was unable to open because of the worker shortage, so the county leased it as affordable housing units for the workforce of Summit County.

The county is subsidizing the rent, so those who work in this community can afford to live here. Lawrence said they’ve already received inquiries about the hotel housing from teachers, medical workers, and other first responders. At least one of the units will be reserved for law enforcement.

Rent per room at the Alpine Inn is $850 per month, about half the average one-bedroom rate.

“I know that we’ll have some really essential workers living in these 38 units, and it's going to make a difference,” said Lawrence.

A difference the Ibarra hopes will keep their small community’s heart alive.

“It'll be a shame if 10 years down the road, Summit County is simply a resort town and not a local environment anymore, and that's the trajectory that we're that we're facing right now for sure,” said Ibarra.

Hunter Mortensen, the Mayor of Frisco, one of the cities in Summit County, is working with his community leaders to find solutions. He said it’s an extremely complicated balance to keep the tourist economy alive and make it affordable for the families who work here.

“We're trying to figure out how to find a balance of welcoming everybody who wants to live here year-round and be a part of our town, but not displacing the people we need to keep our town the kind of the character of what it is,” said Mayor Mortensen.

He pointed out the need for more public-private partnerships, because in Frisco specifically, there is no room to build affordable housing.

“We're a little unique here in Frisco, specifically because we're built out. We're hemmed in by public lands on all sides and Dillon to our east. So, we can't get any bigger. We can't build our way out of this problem at all. So, we really have to be creative in looking at our zoning and adding ability for people to have accessory dwelling units or small cabins put in the corner of their property and really look at how we really design a really ideal community.”

Mortensen said that he is welcoming all creative solutions from leadership, business owners, and community members to truly help those who want to live and work in his city.

Ibarra and her husband are saving all they can, so they won’t be pushed out, but this mom worries this dream is one they won’t have forever.

“I think that if the county really starts to look at this in a serious way, I think that people like us will be able to stay here,” she said.

But until those solutions are more available, she reminds herself it’s the people, not the house, that make a home.