Can Vail find room for its workers?

by Grace Lichtenstein

When suspicious fires swept through a mountaintop restaurant and several chairlifts in October 1998, the resort village of Vail realized it had problems — and not just with the "ecoterrorists" of the Earth Liberation Front, who claimed responsibility for the blazes (HCN, 11/9/98). The assistant fire chief and other key personnel could not get to the fires immediately because most of them lived more than 30 miles down valley. They had to give orders over their cell phones as they sped toward the scene.

Sybil Navas, a former Vail town council member, recalls another crisis: On New Year’s Eve several years ago, a water main burst in an upscale neighborhood. By the time the water district official who knew how to shut off the system arrived on the scene from his home in Gypsum, an hour away, the streets had frozen into a glacier. Vail realized, says Navas, "Hey, we need to have people a little closer here."

After years of debate, Vail employers and government agencies, such as the Water and Sanitation District, finally built some subsidized housing for firefighters, police, emergency services workers, and, eventually, other locals. The houses were moderately priced, had strict restrictions on who could purchase them, and included a cap on the profit the owners could make if they sold them.

But while Vail has made some progress, there is still no agreement on whether government should be in the housing business at all, nor on how many affordable units are still needed. Indeed, such is Vail’s reputation as a platinum-card kind of place that "you go to housing conferences and you say you’re working on affordable housing in Vail — and people laugh at you," says Nina Timm, Vail’s housing coordinator.

Residents of Vail, however, are not laughing.

"Cabrini-Green" in the mountains?

Vail’s latest affordable housing project, Middle Creek, should be completed shortly. The eight-story apartment building, on the opposite side of Interstate 70 from the central highway entrance to Vail Village, cost $23 million and will have a total of 142 studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom rental units plus underground parking.

The project has elicited howls from the Vail Village Homeowners Association, a group of second-home owners who organized in 1991 to fight against noisy delivery trucks disrupting residential areas, and other gripes. Its full-time executive secretary and lobbyist, Jim Lamont, a former Vail planning chief, refers to Middle Creek as "socialized housing," which would "warehouse" employees and their families in an enormous facility far too dense for the town it will serve.

"It’s the Cabrini-Green of the future," he says, referring to the notorious Chicago public housing project, now in the process of being torn down and redeveloped.

Lamont and Alan Kosloff, the homeowners’ association president, attribute Middle Creek’s construction to "local politicos" who hope the project will increase the number of full-time Vail residents and thus "offset the influence" of part-time residents. The Eagle Valley corridor has a glut of housing, Lamont says.

Timm says whether or not more employee housing is needed is "up for debate." However, she, like many Vail public officials, cannot afford to live in Vail proper, where one local paper refers to "entry-level" housing as homes or condos costing $500,000 or less.

Timm’s story will sound familiar to mountain resort residents. A Minnesotan, she arrived in Vail in 1992, to ski. At first, she lived in town, but once she got married, she and her husband, who runs a fitness center, moved down-valley to Avon. After they had children, they moved farther away, to Edwards.

Recently, while their house was being remodeled, they relocated for five weeks to Vail itself, "and wound up looking at everything that was for sale. But it wasn’t in the budget," she sighs.

Workers become part-timers too

Meanwhile, a few exits down the interstate in Eagle, the county seat, another flurry of second-home construction has public officials worried that wealthy second-home buyers will displace the workers who moved here when they were priced out of Vail.

Whether those newcomers spend a week or three months a year in their new homes is not the issue, says Eagle County Senior Planner Rebecca Leonard. Rather, their homes "create the need for employees; employees need a place to live; so they’re competing for land to put houses for themselves with their employers." These vacation homes sit on large lots that swallow space available for worker housing, she says, and "that’s where the affordable housing issue really starts to come to a boiling point."

The trouble is, the county has nothing on the stove in terms of requirements from second-home developers for employee housing. At the moment, it simply requests that developers include some employee units in their plans.

And while Vail frets about weaving part-time residents into the community fabric, Leonard is more concerned with workers — who, thanks to their long commutes, have become part-time residents themselves. "How do people build some ownership in their communities" when they work "half their day away?" she asks. She also worries about other issues that loom on a planner’s horizon: "What are the other indicators of social stress? Families would be impacted by these long workdays and commuting patterns. Where do you put (your children) in day care?"

Leonard says one answer is to recategorize second homes as "commercial" rather than "residential" land use, since they are the county’s biggest employment generator. Then, the county can plan for the impacts of second-home development the way other places might plan for the impact of a factory, a mine or a business park. But even that notion, she acknowledges, is fraught with difficulties. Besides, the county is so fragmented it can’t even come up with any hard affordable-housing numbers.

© High Country News