This is the second in a six-part series for The Colorado Dream: Housing Wanted. The stories in this series are part of the KUNC podcast The Colorado Dream, airing on Fridays beginning October 6. The podcast is available for download wherever you may listen to podcasts and on KUNC.org.
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — When Anne Lowe moved to Breckenridge from Northern California — a region with its own affordable housing issues — in 2016, she was used to looking for a home under challenging conditions.
“I was ready to tackle this problem,” Lowe, the open space and trails manager for the town of Breckenridge, said. “I really set about searching for housing as soon as I got here.”
Lowe stayed in temporary housing for about three months before finding a deed-restricted townhome in Wellington, Breckenridge’s oldest workforce housing neighborhood. The two-bedroom duplex worked for her. She filled her home with plants and was glad to have a small fenced yard for her golden retriever to play in.
But then came John and his two kids—and a renewed search for housing.
“Fast forward several years later when I met my husband, and he had a place in Frisco. My townhome was too small, (but) his place didn't allow dogs,” she said. “So we were looking for a home together.”
A $50 Million workforce housing plan
Over the past two decades, single family home prices in Breckenridge have increased by almost 300 percent. The town, like the rest of Summit County, has a dire lack of housing for the local workforce. A recent survey taken by residents found the county will need over 2,500 rental and for-sale units, at all price points, to meet the housing demand.
“With housing, we have certain goals,” said Laurie Best, who manages housing and child care programs for the town of Breckenridge.“We would like a certain percentage of the units in Breckenridge to be occupied by locals as opposed to vacation homes."
Residents have been clamoring for an end to this housing crisis for nearly two decades. Since 2006, local voters have twice approved a sales tax and impact fees to support the town’s housing fund. The most recent vote in 2016 generates about $2 million a year that goes towards housing projects.
“I think the voters realized that there needs to be some public intervention, because the private sector is not going to come in and just build housing that's affordable to our workforce. It’s not gonna happen,” Best said.
In 2022, Breckenridge committed $50 million to fund an ambitious five-year workforce housing plan that will create almost 1,000 new units. The town’s housing fund also gets money from a short-term rental fee that requires owners to pay a set amount for each bedroom they are renting.
Local leaders hope to significantly increase this initial investment through partnerships and projects with private developers and existing homeowners. The goal is for nearly half of the town’s workforce to live in Breck and reserve a little over a third of the housing inventory for locals.
“We're trying to measure our success on how well we're remaining a viable community that has a diversity of housing types and a variety of densities,” Best said.
A big part of the town’s housing plan is to build new rental and for sale units that will work for singles, couples and families. But like the rest of Summit County, Breckenridge is surrounded by national forest, so it’s hard to find enough land to build on.
“There's just not the capacity to add that much more new development,” she said. “That's why we can't build our way out of it.”
The town is employing another strategy through home preservation. Preservation is the greenest and most cost-effective way to maintain the existing housing supply and increase the number of deed-restricted homes, according to Best.
“We actually think the preservation of existing units is probably as important—or even maybe more important—than new construction,” she said.
Housing Helps is one of Breckenridge’s preservation programs, approved by the town council in 2019. Housing Helps pays current homeowners, new buyers, and local businesses who want to provide housing for their employees 15% to 30% of a home’s value. In exchange, recipients must add deed restrictions to their properties to help increase affordable and workforce housing supply in the area. Homeowners can use the money received from Housing Helps for home repairs, special assessments, or a down payment.
The smaller the percentage of a home's value an owner opts to receive through the program, however, the more equity their home can accrue in the future. For example, if a person receives more than 20% of a home's value through the program, there is in turn a cap on the home resale price. Annual appreciation is also then capped at 2% a year.
Preserving homes to preserve local workforce
Locals Anne Lowe and her husband, John, decided to give the Housing Helps initiative a try.
Their search for a home in Summit County began in 2019, and it was a daunting task. Housing inventory was limited and homes were expensive. Most were selling for over a million dollars. Then they heard about Breckenridge's Housing Helps programs and decided to try it.
“They were basically looking for guinea pigs for the program, which is awesome,” she said.
That December, the Lowes bought a three-bedroom, two-bath house that sits on a hillside facing the Tenmile Range. They received 15% of the purchase price from the Housing Helps program, which they put toward the down payment. Then they used their savings to convert an illegal, lower level apartment into another bedroom and bath.
Housing Helps has a catch, though. The Lowes and other program recipients can only sell their homes to locals who work in Summit County.
John Lowe, who is a nurse, has benefited from the county’s housing initiatives for decades. He thinks this restriction is beneficial.
“This house will always be like a local's house. You feel like you're doing the right thing,” he said. “It's like just recycling or something.”
As of September 2023, 64 housing units in Breckenridge have been preserved through the program. The town modeled Housing Helps after a program started in Vail, Colorado, to address theirworkforce housing issues. There are similar programs in mountain resort towns like Park City, Utah, and Jackson, Wyoming.
A rental with a million dollar view
Patrick McFarlane and his wife Silvana Vazquez have an amazing view of the slopes at Breckenridge Ski Resort from their balcony.
“It's a $1 million view,” McFarlane said. “You see the houses next door? They actually paid that or more.”
Patrick McFarlane and Silvana Vazquez have a view of Breckenridge Ski Resort from the balcony of their rental apartment. They have considered participating in Breckenridge's workforce housing initiatives, but never did so. (Stephanie Daniel/KUNC)
Nestled among the million-dollar homes on this block is the two-story apartment building where McFarlane, a plumber, and Vasquez, who works for the town, rent an upstairs unit. They often lounge on their west-facing balcony.
“I just love this place,” Vasquez said. “We are just sit here, sit (on) the deck in the summer and just enjoy dinner there.”
When McFarlane moved to Breckenridge in the early '90s, the town was very different. There was no four-lane highway, tumbleweeds blew across streets, and the summers were quiet.
Housing, he said, was more accessible back then.
“(It was) easy peasy, cheap, rustic. You know, a little dank,” he said. “It was underdeveloped here, but very, very easy to get a place to live.”
Times have changed. Breckenridge is now a year round tourist destination. As housing has gotten more expensive, the town has been very proactive, building workforce housing and incentivizing residents to add a deed restriction to their properties.
McFarlane and Vasquez, however, haven’t taken advantage of these opportunities yet. They’re a bit skeptical of buying a deed restricted home that caps yearly equity amounts at 2% or 3%, especially in 2023 when interest rates have risen over 7 percent.
They've also taken their ages into consideration. Both are over 40, and might not hold onto a home long enough for it to make financial sense.
“If we were maybe 20 years younger, we will not have to analyze so much,” Vasquez said.
Housing stability for essential workers
WhileMcFarlane and Vasquez have only considered participating in Breckenridge's workforce housing initiatives, longtime resident Greta Shackleford is well-versed in what the town has to offer.
Shackelford is the executive director of Little Red Schoolhouse, a local Montessori-based preschool and early learning center. She’s headed up the school since 2010 and has lived in the county for two decades.
“I'm kind of a poster child for what the town has done as far as deed-restricted housing,” she said.
Thirteen years ago, Shackelford and her husband, Jayme, bought a deed-restricted condo. They didn’t make any money on the condo when they sold it seven years later, but the mortgage was so low they were able to save enough to buy a small, market-rate A-frame house on nearly an acre of land.
“It was really the deed-restricted condo that kept us here those seven years,” she said. “We were young, we were getting married, having children, and we couldn't really afford to live here.”
Two kids and a dog later, the Shackelfords outgrew the 900 square foot A-frame home. Her husband, a general contractor, built a new house on the property. They live there now, and rent the original A-frame to one of the teachers at her preschool.
Shackelford recently had another teacher leave Little Red Schoolhouse and move back with their parents out of town because they couldn’t find housing. The struggle facing teachers, she said, has been tough to watch.
One of the reasons finding affordable housing has become so challenging is the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic led to an influx of remote workers and short-term renters in mountain resort towns like Breckenridge. Shackelford acknowledged tourism is necessary and drives the local economy, but said these longer-term visitors are hurting the community.
“Managing your life with the tourist population is one thing, and we all expect that. We moved to a tourist town. But watching very wealthy people come in and buy up houses that I know could go to teachers, or could go to firefighters or all the workforce that I am very close with, it's just really hard to see,” she said. “We've been overrun by it since COVID.”
Little Red Schoolhouse Executive Director Greta Shackleford interacts with students on the playground on September 27, 2023. She serves on the town of Breckenridge’s child care committee. (Jennifer Coombes/KUNC)
Housing and child care are intertwined, Shackleford said, and are the two biggest issues for locals trying to live and work in Breckenridge. She is passionate about finding solutions and serves on the town’s child care committee, which was formed to address capacity issues and find a sustainable business model for child care.
“Housing for teachers is one side of the issue, and housing for families is another side of that issue,” she said. “If they can’t find child care or they can’t find housing, they can’t stay here.”
Traditionally, child care is a high-turnover, low-pay industry. Given that reality, Breckenridge has been helping support its preschools for years. In 2005, Little Red Schoolhouse built a new facility with funding assistance from the town, which then paid off the school's mortgage two years later. Breckenridge also provides tuition assistance to families. Plus, last year Little Red Schoolhouse and two other large local child care centers committed to paying full-time teachers $50,000 a year.
"Which still in this community is not enough," Shackleford said. "(But) it's something, and it really has seemed to make an impactful difference for our staff."
In 2022, Breckenridge built a workforce housing complex right next to the Blue River called Ullr. One building with nine apartments was reserved for early education teachers working in the local preschools. Three of the units went to Little Red teachers, including Kristen Rowley.
In 2017, Rowley moved to Summit County from South Carolina. She started her teaching career three years ago at Little Red Schoolhouse. Before that she was hustling, often working three or four jobs at a time. It was hectic and her living situation was too.
“Any house that I've ever lived in, you kind of want to make it as cheap as you possibly can, because it's just so absurd, like $1,100 for one bedroom,” she said. “I shared a bedroom with another girl for six months just to cut the cost.”
Over the past six years, Rowley has lived in nine different places. She looked into the county’s workforce apartments but didn’t want to deal with the long waitlists because, despite her constant moving, she has always managed to find some type of housing on her own.
Toward the end of 2022, though, there was a sewage issue at the place she was living in, so she needed to leave. Luckily, she was able to move into an Ullr apartment.
Since February, Rowley and her partner have lived in a spacious one-bedroom unit that has a deck and allows dogs. She’s saving money now and can finally enjoy all the high country has to offer. It’s why she moved to Summit County.
“I get to go on weekend trips and go on hikes and, you know, like, play instead of just like get another job and work all day, everyday,” she said. “It is such a weight off of my shoulders.”
We head to the city of Steamboat Springs where the local housing authority has a big solution for the workforce housing crisis there.
The Colorado Dream: “Housing Wanted” is a production from KUNC News and a member of the NPR Podcast Network. It’s hosted by Stephanie Daniel with reporting by Stephanie Daniel and editing by Sean Corcoran. The theme song was composed by Jason Paton. Michelle Redo sound designed and mixed the episode. Digital editing and social promotion by Jennifer Coombes and Natalie Skowlund. Photos by Stephanie Daniel and Jennifer Coombes. Artwork by Ashley Jefcoat and Jennifer Coombes. Music from Epidemic Sound.
Special thanks to Rae Solomon, Scott Franz, Robyn Vincent, Robert Leja, Mike Arnold and Tammy Terwelp, KUNC’s president and CEO.