By Jon Nicholas
President/CEO, Estes Park EDC
Last week I wrote about the problem of workforce housing, and some readers wondered if anyone is pursuing any solutions. One suggested solution is that more workers simply commute from the Front Range. But a Denver Post story recently revealed that seven Front Range counties rank among the twelve least affordable for housing nationwide—including both Boulder and Larimer counties. In fact, the Denver Post reports that “Nowhere else in the country has home affordability gotten so out of whack than along the northern Front Range, according to a housing report…” with a headline that described Northern Colorado as the “epicenter” of housing unaffordability.
The Housing Needs Assessment for Estes Park contains a list of suggested solutions, noting that there is no one silver bullet that will solve such a large problem. One suggestion was to address development code barriers that make housing unaffordable for many. A density bonus for projects that address either affordable or workforce housing has already been adopted. Many Estes area residents probably read a news article last month about increasing the height limit in Multi-family Residential (RM) zoning areas in the Estes Valley.
The proposal is to address a single zoning area—not the entire valley. RM zoning represents a tiny fraction of our total Estes Valley land area. In 2014, the Community Development Department produced a couple of memos that address the status of commercially zoned property in the Estes Valley, and the potential role of the Town in fostering workforce housing. The 2014 inventory of land zoning in the Estes Valley Development area revealed that Multifamily Residential (RM-1) zoning represents just under 1.5 percent of the total land mass in the valley. As of 2014, there were 294 acres zoned RM for apartments, and 65 acres zoned as two-family (RM-2), for a total of 1.8 percent of the land mass. The estimated future buildout forecast that the RM zoning areas would provide 2,255 units (at a bit less than 8 units per acre). This would constitute 18.8 percent of our estimated future housing stock of 12,019 units. Thus, nearly 20 percent of our housing stock is forecast to be on just 2 percent of our land.
Concentrating housing units in the RM zones is a reasonable solution. Three-story construction makes a substantial difference in costs. Increasing the height limit will allow construction of three-story apartment buildings that incorporate sloped roof lines and architectural elements that are consistent with our existing residential construction.
As Community Director Randy Hunt informed the Planning Commission at a recent meeting, our options are to build up (allow three-story apartment buildings) or build out—spread greater density within more residential zoning areas. I think few residents would favor sub-dividing large lots in outlying areas as the better solution for workforce housing. Another option already considered was allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) for workforce and caregiver housing. The Town Board has already rejected ADUs as part of the solution to workforce housing. Residential neighborhoods did not want greater density in low-density parts of the Valley as a workforce housing solution.
Rejecting greater density valley-wide can be seen as a reasonable decision. But failing to provide an alternative that facilitates construction of three-story apartments would result in the third alternative—do nothing. Doing nothing (or too little) would allow the workforce housing problem to continue to grow, and would ultimately undermine the quality of life that local residents have come to expect.
When every resident feels the absence of working age families, it will be even more difficult to find solutions. If we care about being a multi-generational community, let’s take positive action now. If we do not act, we risk becoming the very type of resort that many residents profess they do not want us to become.