The need for housing in the Estes Valley has been a topic of discussion for several decades. A 1968 article in the Trail Gazette stated ‘newcomers are challenged to find suitable, winterized apartments or homes that could be rented year-round.’ That same article touched on the availability of housing in the winter and the need to vacate before summer when rental prices jumped and/or owners moved-in for the summer. Today the conversation about housing needs with respect to both scarcity and affordability occurs at many tables across Colorado and nationwide. It is regularly discussed by legislators and decision makers at the federal and state level, and has made its way into various bills, grants and agendas. Nevertheless, as the COVID-19 Pandemic etched its way through our communities, issues related to housing have only worsened. ’Crisis’ has become a common phrase used to describe the housing situation in newspapers across the nation.
A lack of available housing and affordable options results in a lack of essential workers for communities, and the cascading effects this has on the livability and sustainability of communities. This is a particular problem for the Estes Valley due to our relative isolation from other communities. In the Town’s 2021 Community Survey, 70 percent of respondents rated the availability of affordable housing “Poor” and 60 percent rated the variety of housing options “Poor.” And to think, these respondents only represent people who live here already – not those who couldn’t move here in the first place due to lack of housing.
Here in our valley, housing needs have been formally assessed four times. The first in 1990, then 1999, 2008, and most recently 2016. The first three assessments identified an average need of 800 housing units. Between 1990 and 2007, development of housing in the community kept up and even exceeded the stated need. However, since that time, development of housing has been stifled, in part by the economic recession following the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the 2013 flood. The 2016 Estes Park Area Housing Needs Assessment revealed that the need had doubled to around 1,600 housing units.
In addition to outlining the need, the 2016 assessment also provided some recommended strategies to address the situation. One of the recommendations was to “Utilize Town-Owned Land for Workforce Housing.” Underscoring this were nearly 60 percent of our Community Survey respondents who asked the Town to increase its investment in workforce housing, to include land, funding and code revisions.
Utilizing publicly owned property in order to meet housing needs is a very common strategy employed by local governments. Sometimes, when sufficient funds are available, a government might finance construction of new housing on its own and also manage it (often referred to as “public housing”). Sometimes property is sold and the proceeds are used to fund construction of housing on another site. Another option is for a government to retain ownership of its property and enter into a public-private partnership where a third-party developer builds housing on publicly-owned land. If done properly, this latter tactic can be a win-win-win for the jurisdiction that is able to leverage its property for a higher and better use, the community members in need of housing, and the third-party entity that stands to profit from the project.
Enter the Town’s “Fish Hatchery property,” a 68-acre parcel off of Fall River Road in the northwest side of Town of which 48 total acres are developable. The property is currently home to the Town’s Historic Fall River Hydroplant museum, four aging single-family residences used as rentals for Town staff, and a few storage buildings. The Town has considered building housing on this property for several years.
Earlier this year, the Town sought and selected a partner to plan for and construct a workforce housing development on the Fish Hatchery site. The selected firm is AmericaWest Housing Solutions, a Colorado non-profit chartered for the specific purpose of developing affordable housing projects. In a previous effort to evaluate this site for housing development, challenges were identified with topography and limitations of the existing utilities. This time, initial plans are to build only on the north side of the Fall River and limit the size of the development to avoid those challenges. Utilizing this portion of the property, we aim to build around 190 apartments (along with other amenities like a space for childcare) that will be used to house the local, year-round workforce. While this does not come close to meeting the identified need, it would represent the largest single effort to help close the gap.
We are still very early in the process but expect that things will be ramping up soon. The Town is currently working with the developer to plan for community engagement and draft a Development Agreement for the Town Board’s consideration. The Development Agreement will outline the obligations and commitments of both the Town and the developer and specify various elements of the development for the term of the agreement. Community engagement will involve educating area residents about the need for workforce housing and preliminary plans for the site, and soliciting feedback used to help plan for what the project will ultimately entail.
As stakeholders and owners in this project, we hope residents will participate in the community engagement process. Please stay tuned for opportunities beginning in mid-January to engage with the project in its first phase. In the meantime, you can access resources about the project as they become available at www.estes.org/fishhatchery.
If you have questions about the Town’s Fish Hatchery Workforce Housing project, please contact Assistant Town Administrator Jason Damweber at firstname.lastname@example.org.