By Jamie Leary

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – If you’ve ever wanted to live the camp life, Summit County is considering a program where you can do just that. It’s one of many near-term solutions county and city officials are exploring to help ease the workforce housing crisis.

“We are looking at any hotel that we might be able to buy and retrofit. We’re certainly having lots of conversations about short-term rentals and what we may be able to do to incentivize those properties back into our long-term market. We’re looking at some unconventional approaches, like winter camping. A lot of folks choose to live out of their van, how do we create a safe place for them to do that if that’s what they want to do,” said Tamara Pogue, Summit County Commissioner.

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Prompted by local communities, the county recently made an emergency proclamation related to housing. While it’s not your typical disaster declaration, it is a true emergency.

The town of Frisco was among the first to explore how the proclamation could help with the issue. According to the town’s mayor, there’s no other word to better describe what’s happening.

“We have reached a time where the discussion around housing can’t be one sided. With prices going up exponentially, critical workforce leaving or not being able to come back, the ‘work from anywhere demographic’ growing, and the ever-growing cost of living our town’s character, sustainability, and economy are at risk. To me that is the definition of an emergency, and we need to have that conversation,” said Mayor Hunter Mortensen.

“The state is committed to somewhere between $400 million and $500 million to housing out of their stimulus funds and certainly Summit County, out of our funds, we will also be contributing a significant amount to housing as well, but there are lots of different solutions that different communities need to really move the needle on this.”

The stimulus money will likely be available next legislative session, but Pogue says the county intends to roll out a phased plant address the issues by mid-June.

“For us, the number one strategy needs to be how do we take our existing housing stock and repurpose it to be long-term housing for our workforce, and so those are the types of strategies that we hope the state will support as they move forward with their conversation around the stimulus funds,” said Pogue.

The loss of workforce and the mental strain has already taken a toll. While the issues are nothing new to mountain communities, the pandemic has added a sense of urgency like never before.

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The Family and Intercultural Resource Center, a nonprofit in Summit County aimed at helping families through times of crisis, is struggling to keep employees.

“This has become a crisis,” said Brianne Snow, Executive Director of FIRC. “It’s become a crisis for our workforce. Us personally, we had to close our nonprofit thrift store because we don’t have enough employees. People are forced out of this community, and we don’t have anybody to work here. People are forced out of this community and then we don’t have anybody to work here and now people can’t go in and get summer clothes for their kids at a low cost.”

(credit: CBS)

On most days, the food bank line at FIRC is packed with people. Snow says it’s a good way to stretch a budget for people who want to continue living in Summit County.

“Not only can they not afford housing now, but they just can’t find it, so that has become a huge difficulty and has really impacted our workforce,” she said. “People who have lived here for years and years who are raising their family here who have kids in school here, they have been renting for you know five, seven, 10 years, and all of a sudden their homeowners are deciding to sell or to move to short-term and there’s just nowhere to go… there truly is nowhere to go.”

The stories are harrowing. Snow recounted a recent incident where a woman sold her wedding ring so she could afford to stay and avoid uprooting her family. There are also more cases of people living in cars or on couches.

The majority of housing in Summit County comprises of short-term rentals and vacation homes. Many of which are vacant most of the year. While the short-term rental market is a huge boon for the economy, the workforce is the bread and butter.

“One of the most important things that I would encourage folks to think about is that if you own a house in Summit County, and we know many people in the Front Range do, think about how you use it when you’re not there,” Pogue said. “If there are ways we can make it feasible for that property owner to rent long-term, say it’s a three-month rental, say it’s a six-month rental so that you can use it in the winter but not in the summer, you know, think about that because you contribution back to Summit County’s economy in that way is invaluable.”

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If you would like help to fund some of the ideas or volunteer your time, you can reach out to the Summit Foundation for more information.

Jamie Leary