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Last month as I was reporting out a story for Colorado Politics on how Colorado’s affordable housing crunch is impacting the state’s dysfunctional health care system (and vice versa), I was talking to former Vail Town Council member and current state Sen. Kerry Donovan, who, without being asked, brought up the issue of short-term rentals.
If you’ve been living in a cave and never once dialed up a VRBO or Airbnb place, then allow me to explain that when a house is no longer owner-occupied and is taken out of the long-term rental pool, it is essentially being run like a private, unregulated hotel. That STR dynamic has all sorts of repercussions for resort communities like ours that are desperate for workforce housing to keep businesses functioning properly or even open at all.
I’m reposting a section of my health care and housing story that ran last month in Colorado Politics, and if you skim to the end you can read what Donovan had to say about the subject. But first I want to call attention to an excellent guest column in the Vail Daily posted by fellow EagleVail resident and freelance writer Madeleine Berenson.
I posted the following comment via Facebook after the online version of her column:
“Short-term rentals are a huge reason for the severe workforce and middle-income housing shortage in Eagle County and around the state. I recently spoke to state Sen. Kerry Donovan about possible statewide legislation this coming session. Eagle County, very quick to approve dorm-style housing at our main entrance, needs to take up this issue as well. We have a unit that is fairly well managed across the street from us on Deer Run but once in a while things get a little out of hand, like over this past Fourth of July weekend when the renters had five or six cars parked all over, stayed up late and loud on work nights for the rest of us and left the home for hours at a time with small dogs yapping incessantly inside. The current [EagleVail Property Owners Association] will never address this issue so the county needs to step in and take some responsibility for this critical housing issue.”
All of us are tolerant to some degree of transient worker or seasonal renter shenanigans from younger members of our community who come here to ride snow, work and party hard. After all, that’s who we were (and may still be, to some degree) when we first came here.
But there comes a time when you’re raising kids and getting later into your working life when you deserve some degree of separation from ski-town party life. It’s would be like the Vegas strip spilling into surrounding suburbia. Idiotic, drunken tourist behavior is even starting to have an impact on places like Prague and Rome, where city officials are cracking down.
I previously re-posted part of the story focused on wages and affordability. Now here’s that promised re-post of yet another section of my Colorado Politics story — this one dealing with possible affordable housing solutions:
Finding creative solutions
Clark Anderson grew up in Vail and now lives in Glenwood Springs, where he runs an organization called Community Builders that focuses on transportation, planning, housing and economic development in communities across the West. Walkability of mountain towns is a big buzzword for his nonprofit.
“You guys have got to stand up and recognize that if we want to have community, if we want to have mountains towns that have people in them, that have a real soul, and we want to address climate and the environment, we can’t keep going the way we have been,” Anderson told the CampSight “unconference” in Vail last spring.
“We’ve got to advocate for housing that is affordable, we’ve got to advocate for infill and redevelopment, we’ve got to advocate for density in the right places, and that’s a hard sell. It’s harder and harder to do that because this is an increasingly divisive time and we don’t agree with each other. Politics are ugly, but the cool thing is at the local level is where you can actually get things done,” said Anderson, who adds that healthy communities translate to healthy residents.
In a recent workforce survey (pdf) conducted by the Vail Valley Partnership – the chamber of commerce for the greater Eagle County area – two-thirds of businesses felt their employee had a negative opinion of the availability of affordable health care. The same survey found that “frustration with housing continues to be a major issue …”
“When my dad [Chuck Anderson] was on city council in Vail in the early 80s, affordable housing was his number one priority,” Anderson said. “He died serving on council in 1984, and I know he would be so disappointed despite all the work that has happened … he’d be so disappointed and amazed how much work there still is to do, and it’s because of the politics of it.”
Developer and East West Partners founder Harry Frampton acknowledged that Not in My Backyard syndrome (NIMBYism) makes it difficult to get all the various types of affordable housing built in Colorado communities – from temporary workforce rental units to for-sale middle-income housing for young families. But that doesn’t mean communities should stop trying.
“I think as a general rule we people who’ve kind of made it, we kind of figure workforce housing is the bad people. BS. We all started in workforce housing, did we not?” Frampton said. “At some point in time, we all did. We’re talking about people who are good people. They’re our future leaders.”
State Sen. Kerry Donovan also grew up in Vail. She now ranches nearby and her family owns and operates the Honeywagon waste disposal company. She and her parents all served in local government at various times. Two of Donovan’s greatest areas of emphasis this past legislative session were bringing down health care costs and finding money to seed affordable housing.
“We’re asking people to make choices between things they shouldn’t have to choose, like getting an annual exam, paying for a maintenance medication,” Donovan said of the high cost of both housing and health care. Stability is key, she said, citing her longtime Vail Valley doctor.
“I’ve had the same doctor basically my entire life because I had a grounding home, right?” Donovan said. “A home does relate to long-term health outcomes that are better, and we know that long-term health outcomes are one of the places where we can really point to savings for the entire system — where you’re not seeing someone when they’re in an acute state, when you’re catching it early and building healthy practices throughout life.”
Donovan said she’s weighing more legislation next session to help the state deal with the housing shortage.
“They’re all intertwined [housing and health care], but certainly affordable housing will continue to be a conversation down at the Capitol,” Donovan said.
The Vail Valley Partnership workforce survey also noted that 38% of Eagle County’s housing stock is classified as “vacant, primarily second homes” – a factor that exacerbates the crisis. And the proliferation of Airbnb and VRBO business rentals, catering exclusively to tourists, has taken even more rental housing out of the rotation for workers.
“It’s probably time for the state to take a look at Airbnb units and start to look at how that particular platform has evolved and if we should be treating [differently], for example, people who use it as a business versus owners who rent out some space while they’re gone,” Donovan said.
“Nearly every community that’s experienced … population growth … is seeing issues with this short-term rental market,” Donovan said. “When all these units are being taken off the market to rent for a couple of days out of a week, there’s less rental ability for employees.”
It’s up to governments to make tough decisions to safeguard a sense of community, Donovan said. In Vail, that could mean square footage restrictions or enforcing rules for caretaker units.
“There are a lot of solutions that sometimes people aren’t willing to take because they’re harder, but sometimes there isn’t the will to do some of those harder things,” Donovan said, adding that’s often what it takes to protect the health of a community and therefore the health of its residents. “With a home comes a neighborhood, with a neighborhood comes a community and all those things gives you someone who helps you, someone who cooks you that plate of lasagna when you’re having an issue, or the stability to go to a regular doctor.”