STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — On October 6, the Yampa Valley Housing Authority presented what it learned from its extensive work on the Brown Ranch purchase and planning.
The presentation gave the community the most comprehensive view yet of what might be Steamboat’s best chance at addressing the affordable housing issue.
The process began in earnest just before July 4, 2021, with a simple meeting request that Yampa Valley Housing Authority Director Jason Peasley said was about affordable housing.
“That was basically all I knew,” he said. However, the meeting proved to be a turning point for the future of Steamboat’s accommodation.
In 2017, the housing authority pledged to solve Steamboat’s decades-old housing problems with 600 new units by 2030. After the close an agreement to build Anglers 400 in November 2020, the housing authority was almost halfway with 285.
But, a discussion that Peasley called an “all land triage” revealed a problem. Steamboat Springs lacked land for large-scale housing authority developments. It had become easier for Peasley to find a developer than land to develop.
One of the few plots on the list was known as Steamboat 700. The land had already been slated for large housing projects twice, but the projects failed both times.
To complicate matters, the vast meadow was not in the city and was well outside the housing authority’s price range. When Peasley walked into the summer 2021 reunion, it was much more of a dream than a reality.
“We had no way of buying it when we were talking about it; we were just like, ‘This is the crown jewel…this is the one,'” he said. “So before we knew it, it was up to us.”
At the July 2021 meeting, he learned that an anonymous donor was willing to give the housing authority the money they needed to buy the plot.
Over the past 15 months, the Housing Authority has surveyed about a quarter of Steamboat residents about what they want Brown Ranch to become.
“It gives hope that we can maintain the true character of the town of Steamboat,” Peasley said. “If this city changes to be a lot more like Vail and Aspen, I don’t think a lot of people who live here now will say this is a community they want to live in.
“We are fighting for the preservation of this character as a real city,” he continued.
The Money Behind Brown Ranch
The Brown Ranch was sold to the housing authority for $24 million, a million more than the original offer. The money came from a donor who remained anonymous. Only a small group knows the identity of the person.
The donor wanted to meet with Peasley to find out that if the donor funded a deal, would the housing authority be the right organization to develop the project.
“The answer is definitely yes,” Peasley said. “It’s a big yes. It was a moment where you kind of took a big leap – you were entrusted with this amazing gift.
Although the money comes from a donor, the housing authority is the sole owner of the Brown Ranch. The Yampa Valley Community Foundation facilitated the transaction, and Peasley said the terms were basically “housing authority, do your thing.”
Peasley said the donation came from someone who deeply loved Steamboat Springs and the community it nurtured.
“They care a lot about Steamboat,” he said of the donor. “They spend a lot of time here, had the resources to make a difference and decided now was the time.”
Planning for Brown Ranch began almost immediately. Mid-September 2021, 20 locals had been appointed to a steering committee to guide the process.
Sheila Henderson, former executive director of the local non-profit Integrated Community, former housing authority board member and longtime local, has been brought in to lead the outreach effort.
While at Integrated Community, she said multiple families squeezing into one unit became a significant issue. She represented the Human Resources Coalition in a 2016 panel that studied local housing supply and demand, as well as barriers and potential solutions.
“More importantly, (the group researched) what are the consequences of not building housing,” she said. “The consequences for low-income and entry-level housing is to double households.”
She said they have worked hard to listen to people living in these precarious situations in their outreach work. They held meetings in Spanish that reached over 300 local non-English speakers. A partnership with Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs reached another 100 people in their twenties, another particularly hard-to-reach group.
They met with dozens of small businesses, several medium-sized businesses and some of the region’s largest employers. Typically, they’ve reported staffing shortages between 20% and 40%, she said.
There were meetings with the Steamboat Springs Chamber, various Rotary clubs, lodging advocates, environmental groups, and even the local arts community.
“Everyone has a story of someone they know[who has]left in the last few months because they can’t find housing,” Henderson said. “We hear it all the time, ‘I’m just trying to hang on until you start building there.'”
Even the housing authority board has lost two of its members in recent months, each leaving because housing was no longer sustainable for them in Steamboat.
Locally, there is a shortage of entry-level housing, Henderson said, where people are paying too much of their income for rent and, regardless of their income, there are few places where they can go up.
“You’re stuck. You can’t go up or down,” she said. “For those of us (who) are older, there’s no offer to cut, and, for those who are younger and starting a family, there is no offer to pass to.”
Throughout the planning process, she said, they worked with the Colorado Futures Center to examine Routt County’s workforce, which showed that next to Telluride, Steamboat has the fastest declining workforce in Colorado.
People between the ages of 25 and 44 are leaving the fastest and a third of the local workforce is over 65.
“We know right now that we’re 1,400 homes short,” Henderson said. “This request for 1,400 covers the current needs of the people working here at the moment.”
The Brown Ranch will be for local workers only. The steering committee defined the workforce as “someone who works for an employer physically located in Routt County” or someone who “is retired from the Routt County workforce.”
Short term rentals will not be permitted.
Henderson said that as the Brown Ranch begins to grow, housing officials want to track metrics such as the local workforce, people living in double living conditions and the number of households that are burdened with housing costs, meaning they spend over 30% of their income keeping a roof over their heads.
“People choose to live in their car or double, triple or quadruple in a mobile home,” Peasley said. “Those are the situations that we are trying to mitigate in the immediate term.”
“Keep That Hope”
The housing authority has previously said Brown Ranch will include units for rent and buy, with a variety of housing types that target everyone in the local income range. It will also have well-located public transportation and services, and Peasley said the park space will only be two blocks from most housing.
The first phase of Brown Ranch plans to build 1,200 units and be completed by 2030. Another 1,100 units would be built the following decade, according to current planning. There is room for a new school, fire station, medical services, day care and lots of open space.
The plan builds on aspects of downtown and Old Town Steamboat with a gridded street network, lots of connectivity, and a wide range of housing and other land uses. Dozens of experts worked to turn the extensive community feedback into a final plan for Brown Ranch.
After Thursday’s presentation, Peasley said, they’ll be asking the attendees’ three questions: What inspires you? What concerns do you have? Do you want to live at Brown Ranch?
“We hope it’s inspiring because we find it inspiring,” he said.
At a steering committee meeting in May, he shared some of the first estimated costs for Brown Ranch’s infrastructure, with $220 million onsite and an additional $180 million offsite. Success at Brown Ranch will not depend on another anonymous donation.
There are millions available for state and federal housing, and officials at both levels have signaled that the Brown Ranch would be a strong candidate for that funding.
But that won’t be enough to build Steamboat’s housing future, as the Brown Ranch will require significant investment from the community it hopes to preserve.
“Having that hope for people struggling to stay in Steamboat is really important,” Peasley said. “Being able to realize this hope is the huge challenge we face.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email [email protected].