A serious shortage of worker housing turns apartment hunting into a joke.
The problem with Summit County is that there isn’t enough of it. With no fewer than five world-class resorts within county limits, ski bums pay a lot and endure a lot to live a reasonable distance from where they work. But this off-season may have been the worst ever for workers searching for in-county short-term rentals. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Joy Klein, program director for the Summit Combined Housing Authority, whose recent rental survey elicited a zero percent vacancy rate. “Yeah, zero,” says Klein. “It’s sad.”
Sad, but also kind of funny. After a summer job at a rafting company in Alaska, Nicole Lluellas eyed a move to Summit. She lived on Craigslist. Pretty regularly, she’d snap screen shots or ads that illustrated how ridiculous the rental scene was. There was an ad for an outdoor shed—collapsing, pocked by bullet holes, and missing a wall on one side—for $600 a month. There was an old, broken-down Jeep in a backyard offered as a home for $350. And a “Room Under the Stairs”—for $900! “Harry Potter!” she told her friends.
Yes, the local rental market is a joke—and so were those ads. The under-the-stairs room and the broken-down Jeep were fakes posted by Avran LeFeber, a 10-year veteran of the affordable housing search. He says the fake ads were small exaggerations of the truth: he’s known people who’ve lived in storage lockers, slept in tents all winter, and paid $500 a month to sleep in a sauna. He’s not the only frustrated prankster. The fake ad for the falling-down shed was posted by Steve Wilchek, who says he once slept in a kitchen on a loft bed with his nose inches from the ceiling fan. The fact that those ridiculous ads seemed plausible to Lluellas illustrates how inhospitable the Summit County housing situation was—and how frustrated locals were.
Local governments are trying to address the shortage. Summit County has collected $13 million since it increased its local sales tax by .125 percent in 2006 to fund the development of affordable housing. The town of Breckenridge sets the pace, bringing in about $700,000 each year from the tax and carving $1.5 million more out of its budget annually. “We’re trying to make sure we stay a real town,” says Breckenridge town planner Laurie Best. “You have resorts that are composed entirely of second-homeowners, and that affects the character of the town.”
Having built aggressively for decades, the town now manages 838 affordable units. And Breck’s building more, including Pinewood Two, 45 below-market-rate apartments smack in the middle of town that should be ready for leasing in the summer, and Huron Landing, 26 apartments on two acres just north of town, a $7 million project expected to break ground in the spring.
Still, for workers stymied by market forces, desperation sometimes sets in. Emma Maylor, 18, who was leaving the Air Force Academy to start anew in Breck, couldn’t find a spot to sleep closer than Park County. Bryan Stephens, 50, a webmaster who can telecommute, was reduced to sleeping in a tent near Turquoise Lake outside of Leadville; as November approached, he contemplated decamping to frostbite-free Arizona. And then there’s Kyle Tyburski, a liftie who summers in central Massachusetts. While searching for a room for two months, he, too, found Mother Nature a welcoming landlord, until Mother Nature turned off the heat in October. So Tyburski, lucky enough to have a girlfriend, slid under her queen-size sheets.
The catch? His girlfriend shared a room with another girl. And that girl also had a boyfriend, and that guy was also homeless. And so that guy also slid under his girlfriend’s queen-size sheets. “It’s a nightmare,” says Tyburski, who’s spending sleepless nights dreaming of affordable housing ... and pulling the covers up over his head.