Sara Wilson

(Colorado Newsline) Colorado state lawmakers visited Summit County on Monday to learn how local officials are working to develop affordable workforce housing, ahead of a 2024 legislative session that will likely see housing policy as a top priority once again.

The group, which included lawmakers from mountain communities, the Eastern Plains, the Denver metro area and Fort Collins, toured various developments in the county that highlight how local governments have approached an affordable housing crisis in recent years.

“Trying to find the right solution for the housing challenges we face is certainly community-specific. But the way we can share ideas and share in problem solving helps us with that bigger, broader statewide approach,” said House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat.

“We often hear the cliché that one size doesn’t fit all. That doesn’t mean the state should stop there. Maybe what our job is to be a convener, to bring leaders together,” she said.

The tour included, among other points, an in-progress modular housing development, a site that officials hope will house accessory dwelling units based on pre-approved design plans, a hotel conversion into rental units, various affordable rental housing projects, and a parcel of land the county purchased from the U.S. Forest Service for the purpose of housing but has yet to develop due to infrastructure issues.

Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue spoke about the role that the county and local municipalities have played when it comes to increasing both housing stock and the utilization of existing units — things like imposing deed restrictions on properties, establishing a “lending library” of pre-approved ADU plans for fast-tracked development, banking land through acquisition, and capping short-term rentals.

It’s also a role she said counties and cities need to play together.

“Some of the most successful projects in Summit County are built because you have good municipal and county partnerships,” she said.

In the modular housing project known colloquially as the Justice Center, for example, the county donated the 1.8-acre parcel of land while Breckenridge donated water and sewer. When that project is done, at least half of the 52 units will be affordable to people who earn at or below 80% of the area median income.

The big picture: It’s going to take public intervention to get people into workforce housing and fill the gap of housing available for middle-income earners.

At the same time, the housing crisis in Summit County is far from solved. The average sale price for a single family home is over $2 million, and while there are technically a near-equal number of housing units and residents, almost 60% of units are second homes or short-term rentals and not occupied full time.

An affordable housing project in Breckenridge known as Alta Verde has a waitlist in the hundreds. There is tension between the county and homeowners who resist new developments and higher density, a dynamic Pogue said is one where both sides are necessarily going to concede some of what they want.

One county project originally planned for 22 units on about two acres. After pushback from the neighbors, who wanted two units per acre, the project was reduced to 17 units.

“We go into the conversation with that neighborhood with the lens that we’re all going to have to give something up for this to work,” she said.

While the tour was partially intended to showcase which strategies are working in Summit County for other counties and municipalities to take inspiration from, it could also be read as a declaration by the hosts that when local governments are empowered and trusted to tackle their own problems, they can succeed.

“A lot of the projects we saw today are happening because of empowerment, because of financial incentives from the state, because of red tape being cut by local governments,” said Sen. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat.

There are some areas the state could intervene to make affordable development easier, Republican Sen. Byron Pelton of Sterling said. That could include reining in electrification requirements for new development and picking up construction-defects reform. Current Colorado law holds construction professionals liable for defects in construction with the unintended consequence of slowing condo construction in the state, Pelton said.

“I want to make sure we look at all avenues of fixing the housing crisis. I completely disagree with taking over land use,” he said. “I think the best people that can solve this issue are the locals. If we give them the tools to do so, then it will happen.”

Learning from the land use fight

The idea for a day of education centered on Summit County came about as the Legislature considered Senate Bill 23-213 earlier this year.

That bill, in its original iteration, would have overhauled the state’s land use code and required a minimum amount of upzoning across the board to allow for greater housing density. Additionally, it prescribed rules for development around transit corridors, blocked occupancy limit ordinances and stripped parking requirements in major cities. The policy was a major initiative from Democratic Gov. Jared Polis to address the state’s housing crisis.

It faced intense, sustained opposition from local governments who argued that the bill usurped local control and was a universal solution for a complex problem that looks different across the state, as well as from lawmakers who said they had not been part of any conversations with the governor’s office before the bill’s introduction.

Some local officials, including those in so-called rural resort job centers like those in Summit County, argued that they were already making gains in increasing affordable housing and didn’t need the heavy hand of the state.

“This legislative session highlighted for me, and I think other rural legislators, how different our life is from the Front Range and urban corridor,” McCluskie said. “We had talked mid-session about the need for deeper, better opportunities for learning. At the same time, (Breckenridge Mayor) Eric Mamula called me and said ‘We’re trying so hard to help people understand why components of 213 don’t work for us. We want to invite folks up here.’”

A few dozen local officials and state lawmakers showed up Monday — enough to fill two electric-powered public buses.

Roberts was key to securing some carve-outs for rural resort communities in SB-213 and was reluctant to support the bill as it moved through the Legislature. He said he hopes Monday was educational for his colleagues as they consider housing policy in the future.

“We got some criticism in the last legislative session about having rural resort areas in their own category. I hope that my colleagues can see now why that was actually the reality. The challenges of building here are just different. We have higher land costs. We don’t have as much land. The ways to finance a project are just a little bit different,” he said.

After being gutted in the Senate and partially restored in the House, the bill died on the last day of the legislative session. McCluskie and Roberts both voted in favor of the version of the bill that landed on their chamber’s floor.

Some kind of major housing policy, whether it is a second attempt at sweeping land use reform or a package of smaller bills, will likely be a major focus of lawmakers when they return to the Capitol in January.

Representatives from the governor’s office did not offer specifics on what a potential Land Use 2.0 could look like next year. They did say, during a discussion following the tour, that they would involve lawmakers in the conversation before or during the session.

“Before!” Roberts shouted from the crowd.