Steamboat Springs’ Challenging Effort to House Everyone

THe asked the question, as it has always done, right as Jason Peasley had finished making his case to Brown Ranch. Brown Ranch would double the area of the town and offer affordable housing. The development, as Peasley pitched it to the room of residents gathered under thick wooden beams in the local community center, would use density to solve the housing problem—mainly by building apartments and attached homes.

“What about single family homes?” a woman standing in the back of the meeting room asked. “Because I would like to buy one someday.”

Steamboat Springs, Colo.—where Peasley serves as the head of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority, providing affordable housing to all of Routt County—is a mountain town that draws people for its wide open vistas and outdoor space. It was a strange idea to live in an apartment in a building on rolling green hills. People saw their neighbours accumulate hundreds of thousands in equity by only owning one family home.

“Personally, I would take a very, very small house,” another resident said.

“So would I,” the woman in the back said quickly, so as not to be left out.

Peasley took a deep breath. Nine months ago, he’d been given an opportunity that most urban planners dream of—an anonymous donation of 536 acres of land to build long-term affordable housing for people who live and work in Steamboat Springs. But it’s difficult to get buy-in to use hundreds of acres to build multifamily homes in Steamboat, which currently has 1,400 fewer housing units than are currently needed. Although density is supported in theory by some residents, they truly want a single-family home.

The Steamboat solution could prove to be an inspiration for those communities that face affordability challenges as their population grows. The past two years have seen home prices rise in Phoenix, Austin, and Sun Valley as well. Because these areas have natural limits like mountains and the oceans which prevent developers from expanding, adding dense housing units could help to keep costs down. But proposals like Peasley’s are usually thwarted by neighbors who complain about their views being blocked or their parking becoming limited or their beloved town—which they themselves moved to years or decades before—getting too crowded.

Steamboat and many other communities are at breaking point. This was a situation where the demand for additional housing was clear long before the pandemic. As investors transformed condos and apartments which had previously provided housing for workers, into Airbnb cash cows, it became apparent that there is a great need. Steamboat became a popular destination for remote workers in 2020. For all the urban planners proclaiming density to be the solution to America’s housing needs, the majority of Americans still dreamed of a single-family home, with a yard, a tree, and room to grow, and the pandemic only whetted that appetite as families spent more time at home and looked for private outdoor space and extra rooms to double as offices. Steamboat’s average listing price is $829,000. This represents a significant increase from the $529,000 it was in 2019. A one-bedroom apartment rent is approximately $2,100. That’s about one third higher than the national median.

By July of 2021, 60 percent of Americans said they’d prefer to live in a place where the homes are large and farther apart, even if schools, stores, and restaurants were a few miles away, up from 53 percent before the pandemic, according to a Pew Research Center survey. 39% preferred to live in a small community with close neighbors, but were within walking distance of schools, shops, and restaurants. This is down from 47% in 2019.

That’s even though half of Americans say that affordable housing is a major problem in their community. Peasley repeatedly explains that affordability and density are interrelated. It is more costly to construct single family homes than apartments or attached houses. Additionally, they require more work and space to maintain. According to Mithun’s projections, seven detached homes could be built by Steamboat for what it costs to build one single family home.

“We have an opportunity that maybe no other community has to really thoughtfully address our housing issues in one massive development,” Peasley, a tall redheaded urban planning guru who could be mistaken for an Olympic skateboarder, told me recently. “This could really be a template for our 21st century live, work, and play.”

Peasley’s unique skills make him the ideal person to convert Steamboat into a pro-density community. Peasley was the Steamboat Springs’ city planner for five years, before he took over Yampa Valley Housing Authority 10 years ago. His tenure resulted in hundreds of affordable housing units. An anonymous donor gave Peasley the funds to buy Brown Ranch, and to construct more. His successes in obtaining tax credits for affordable Steamboat housing was what motivated him to expand his efforts. Brown Ranch will be home to 2,300 new units, according to Peasley’s plans. This would allow for an adequate supply of housing in the future.

Peasley may explain it all many times to Steamboat, but the reality is that even the most well-aware residents have difficulty letting go of the dream of having their own home and backyard. “The disconnect we’re having is that everyone wants the American dream—a single-family home—and economists tell us it’s not possible,” Peasley says. The surest way to wealth in America has long been to stake claim to a plot of land and a home, but places like Steamboat are discovering that if they are dedicated to welcoming everyone who wants to live there, they’re going to have to pioneer another way.

Space is always more expensive.

In 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau declared the American frontier closed, meaning there was no land that settlers hadn’t claimed, nowhere further west to expand. People have moved west to seek better weather and a new life. The growing population is competing for limited homes, roads, water, and other necessities.

Since the turn of the 20th century, the American West—which is roughly the states from Colorado west, defined by the Census Bureau—has added 73 million people. Today, nearly one-quarter of the nation’s population lives in the 13 western states, up from just 7% in 1900. If new residents lived in the west the same way they lived in cities like New York and Philadelphia—in tall buildings with apartments stacked on top of one another—there might not be a housing affordability problem today. Americans seized as much land as possible during the westward expansion. Sometimes, the federal government would even give it to them for free if they wanted to grow it. West grew rather than up.

“There’s a certain independence that Westerners have, where folks don’t want to be regulated, they value independence and wide open spaces, and that manifests itself in the housing choices people make,” says Robert Parker, director of strategy at the University of Oregon’s Institute for Policy Research & Engagement, where he studies housing density.

Some cities began to establish urban growth limits in order to limit development beyond a specific area, fearing that it would lead the city to sprawl. While the boundaries protected open space, they also reduced housing production. Today, in Steamboat Springs, development outside the urban growth boundary is restricted to one unit every 35 acres—or less. That puts even more pressure on building density where it is allowed; Brown Ranch is the largest plot of undeveloped land inside Steamboat’s urban growth boundary.

Federal government encourages families to expand when there was no land available. The federal government subsidized roads so wealthy families could get to the city center from the suburbs. It also provided tax incentives for homeownership.

But Americans’ preference for single-family homes has also contributed to the housing undersupply that has sent prices soaring over the last two years. Census data shows that 52 million American single-family homes have been built from 1970 to 2020. They account for 37% of the total housing construction in America between 1970-2020. The population increased by 128 millions during the same period. The median home price in the United States has more than doubled since then, even after inflation was taken into account.

It is happening across the American West. Colorado’s population doubled between 1980 and 2020, adding 2.8 million people, but the state only built 1.4 million units over the same period, 70% of them single-family homes. In 2020, the median home price was $434,000. Today, it’s around $600,000.

As they await a resolution, families who are committed to remaining in their homes will be crowded into houses. About one-quarter of all children now live in “doubled-up” households, where a nuclear family lives with additional family members. In places like Steamboat, doubled-up households are often in the smallest homes, which are trailers in the town’s handful of trailer parks. Irene Avitia works at Integrated Communities in Steamboat, a nonprofit working with Latino communities. She says that doubled-up households have higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse.

Local economies are also affected by the housing crisis. Banks are reducing their hours, and restaurants are closing a few days a week because they can’t find enough workers, because staff can’t afford to live nearby in Steamboat. Ski area closed night services because they were short of staff. Local medical centers have trouble recruiting nurses and doctors because they hear that it’s difficult to find housing for them. David Hughes, a bartender told me the rent for his one-bedroom in a four-bedroom house cost $1,500. This was an increase of $900. I was sure he would have to leave.

“We can’t continue to exist here if employees don’t have secure housing,” says Andrew Beckler, the founder and CEO of Grass Sticks, a company that makes bamboo paddles and ski poles.

The fact that the population has grown faster than the supply of single-family houses is a boon for those who bought them over the past few decades. The Federal Reserve reports that homeowners now own $29 billion of equity in their real estate, which is more than they had twenty years ago.

Investing in a home and making a big sum to retire on has become such an American rite of passage that it’s hard to ask Steamboat residents like Avitia, who lives in a trailer park with her husband and two daughters, to give up on the same dream. “I would love to own a single-family home in Steamboat, and Brown Ranch has created that hope for my family,” she says.

Even people who live in apartments in Steamboat now say they’d prefer a single-family home.

Lizzy Konen (33), grew up in San Diego in a single family home that her parents couldn’t afford. The owner of the Steamboat home she rents wants it to be demolished and rebuilt for a profit. Konen knows she’ll probably have to move to Oak Creek or Hayden, smaller towns that are 30-45 minutes away, because she can’t afford to buy a house or pay $2,100/month for an apartment. But when asked what her vision for Brown Ranch, she says:“I would love to own a single family home and have pets and children running around. Apartment buildings are not something I want to live in. It doesn’t feel as homey.”

Apartments for sale

The big challenge for Peasley is balancing the wants of people like Avitia and Konen with the larger community’s need for affordable housing. He’s trying to learn from past missteps, like in 2010 when developers committed to building thousands of condos, the city council approved it, and then enraged voters worried about overcrowding put the project on the ballot and it was soundly defeated. Peasley wants residents to be involved before major decisions are made. There have been 200 community meetings held by Brown Ranch housing authorities where residents discussed their desires for Brown Ranch.

Peasley says more community engagement is what’s going to get people closer to accepting that how Brown Ranch will look will be different than their ideal vision. For example, attendees of Brown Ranch meetings often mention that they want the development to be Net Zero, which provides an opportunity for YVHA staff to explain that density is very sustainable—apartments or attached units require fewer resources to build and maintain than single-family homes.

“By doing this transparent process, and having the community discuss it, we hope that while they might not agree, they at least understand,” says Cole Hewitt, the president of the board of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority. “Maybe there aren’t as many people that show up and say, ‘Well, I didn’t know this was going on.’ They can stand up and say, ‘I’m a part of it. It’s all clear to me. I get where you’re coming from. I still disagree with it.’ But that’s a lot better discussion than, ‘No, don’t do it.’”

The community meetings have served to jump start a discussion about how Steamboat’s hopes and dreams match up with reality. “Everyone wants to live in a single family 5000 square foot mansion next to an ocean with a view of the mountains and is across the street from a school and within walking distance from the bar. That doesn’t exist,” Michael Fitz, a 29-year old local who owns a 600-square foot home in a trailer park, told Steamboat residents gathered to talk about the urban design of Brown Ranch.

The opposition to past developments seems to have gained support from the people that opposed them. Tim Rowse was the leader of the 2009 campaign to stop Brown Ranch development. He told me that he believes the housing authority plans the development in the most efficient way and that he supports the project wholeheartedly. He said this while sitting in his home on thousands of acres of land just outside Steamboat.

Sheila Henderson, the Brown Ranch project manager who headed a local nonprofit for nearly a decade, says she recently had a good talk with a woman who wanted her own “cute little cottage” on Brown Ranch. Although Henderson suggested that such homes might be too close to families living in unsanitary conditions, Henderson was able to convince the woman she’d be willing for her home to become a multi-family residence.

Brown Ranch’s fate will depend on Peasley’s persuasive skills, an optimist and sometimes city coach. He says he wants to change people’s vision of what a vibrant American community can look like—it doesn’t have to have driveways and parking lots, for instance. “The only way we fail is to stop trying,” he said at a recent meeting. He says that Steamboat is where many people have left behind their creature comforts for a better life. It might have been about adjusting to the May snowfall or giving up plumbing; it may now be acceptable to live in a home that is shared with another neighbor.

Reality of the reality behind population growth

Peasley is still far from achieving Brown Ranch, even though he convinces Steamboat to accept density. The infrastructure costs for Brown Ranch will be around $400million, according to consultants. That includes the improvements to the road, the water treatment plant and the sewer system. Once that’s complete, the housing authority can start building homes. The city isn’t even sure how it will affordably house all the workers who are going to be flocking to Steamboat to build this affordable housing. An idea would be to let construction workers stay in an older barn.

Steamboat’s infrastructure is already straining under the weight of population growth. There’s only one main road through town, Highway 40, and at rush hour, long lines of pickup trucks get stuck at traffic lights as they make their way across town. After wildfire damage and rains created landslide dangers on Interstate 70, Colorado’s major east-west highway, traffic was rerouted onto Highway 40, causing more headaches for Steamboat residents. Brown Ranch is the only place where the electricity cooperative is able to serve its customers. Water is also in limited supply in most of the American West.

Brown Ranch, however, will add to the strain. Peasley estimates that Brown Ranch will eventually have nearly 1,000 apartments for rent, 400 for sale, 218 single-family-attached houses for rent, 266 for purchase and 98 single-family homes for lease. It will include K-8 schools, childcare centers, offices, retail space, and a grocery shop.

It’s enough to make old-timers argue against population growth in Steamboat. “Everybody’s moving here—I have to tell you, it would be nice if they wouldn’t,” Cindy Clark, a resident since 1988, told me, outside the crowded grocery store parking lot.

As the Steamboat double-ups can attest to, America has not been able stop people from moving west. Popular communities like Steamboat can get the residents who arrived first to allow them to create more housing. Residents can also declare their towns and cities closed to any new construction or new living arrangements.

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