CNCounty News

Housing shortage bedevils public lands counties, employers, feds

Nina Waters, a Summit County, Colo. commissioner, discusses her county's work with the U.S. Forest Service to expand housing. Photo by Charlie Ban

Key Takeaways


The U.S. Forest Service is having trouble recruiting employees because of the housing shortage in rural counties, so much that it’s the most pressing issue applicants ask about while being recruited.

“If they find something that’s available, it’s not affordable, and if they find something that is affordable it may be one or two hours away so it’s not convenient,” Shimiki Ross, the Forest Service’s national housing project manager told the Public Lands Steering Committee Saturday. “It’s a revolving circle of frustration for our Forest Service district rangers, our supervisor and recruiting staff.”

The Forest Service owns more than 3,000 housing units that would be available for lease, but those units are deteriorating and the agency is facing a $360 million-maintenance shortfall. Though the federal government cannot subsidize housing or provide financial incentives to employees for housing, the Forest Service has gotten creative to help provide housing that’s affordable to both its employees and others.

The Dillon Work Center is a public-private partnership among the agency, Summit County, Colo. and the town of Dillon. A third-party developer will design, finance, construct and manage the development, which will include a 162-unit facility that will have housing, with 30 beds provided for seasonal Forest Service employees and 10 units for permanent employees, along with a community center, connections to transit and a recreation path.

. The agreement, the first of its kind, was reached using a leasing authority the agency hopes to include in the next farm bill to allow for similar developments — the leasing authority for the 2018 farm bill expired days after the Dillon agreement was signed. 

Counties with large amounts of publicly managed land have also deployed strategies to encourage the development of housing that will be affordable. Summit and Eagle counties in Colorado not only deal with those restrictions that limit real estate development, but their resort communities skew the area median income, the amount of the housing stock that function as second homes and growing numbers of short-term rental properties. 

Eagle County has deployed a variety of strategies, including a deed restriction program that offers up to 15% of a home’s purchase price, down payment assistance for up to 5% of the purchase price, loans of up to $100,000 to help homeowners add accessory dwelling units on their properties and a lease-to-locals program (adapted from a similar program in Nevada County, Calif.,). The county also pays property owners a $12,000 one-time payment to forgo short-term rental properties and instead sign local residents to long-term leases.

“What we’re finding … is that once people get tired of the short-term rat race, they find a good long-term local who is there with stable employment and it is worth it to them to make that conversion,” said Kathy Chandler-Henry, an Eagle County commissioner. 


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