The Forces That Made Housing Unaffordable In Summit Are Now At Work In Park County

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<p>Hart Van Denburg/CPR News</p>
<p>The Rev. Kenny Shaw, pastor of South Park Community Church, near Hartsel, Colorado. Shaw helps run a food bank in Fairplay, and helps folks of modest means in the nearby rural areas with food deliveries. The cost of housing and living is rising in Fairplay and South Park more widely, forcing some tough decisions on longtime residents of this once-affordable rural area.</p>

Melissa Sargeant has been on the hunt for a place to live in Fairplay, Colorado for more than a year.

Sure, she has a dog, so that limits her options somewhat. Still, if she doesn’t find somewhere she can afford soon on her school cafeteria salary, she doesn’t know what she’s going to do.

“I like the school, I like working in the kitchen. It’s a wonderful community here,” Sargeant said. “I want to stay.”

Sargeant finds herself in the midst of what Park County elected leaders say is an affordable housing crisis. The area known as “South Park” faces a combination of circumstances that puts housing pressure on residents across the socio-economic spectrum.

Sky-high living costs have long forced many of neighboring Summit County’s working class to relocate and commute from less-expensive Park County. Summit sits along the busy I-70 corridor and is home to the high-end resort community of Breckenridge. You’ll also find Arapahoe Basin, Keystone and Copper Mountain ski resorts there. Many of the county’s middle-class professionals, including firefighters and law enforcement officers, have also found themselves pushed out and needing to commute in.

It’s figured that 85 percent of the adult workforce in Park County commutes to a job outside its borders.

Sixty-seven-year-old heavy equipment operator Jerry Blickem moved to the Fairplay area from Summit County 25 years ago to buy a home. A couple of years ago, rents were about $600 a month. Blickem echoed other’s stories of local renters who are now asked to pay three times that amount or more.

“Half the people are struggling week to week,” he said.

Census data shows people moving into Fairplay from outside the county at three times the state average. Fairplay Mayor Frank Just said that upward pressure on housing is only part of the problem.

Another, somewhat ironic, problem is that even as many residents struggle to find rents they can afford, about half of the housing stock in Park County sits empty. The vacant versus occupied imbalance is even worse in Summit at 69 percent.

“These are owners that have second homes,” Just said, “that elect not to let these houses out for rent.”

The owners may live in the properties part-time and for the rest of the year list the home on sites like Airbnb. Short-term vacation rental in this part of the state is so profitable, owners can bring in a month’s worth of rent in a single week.

“That’s private enterprise, that’s their decision, that would be my decision, should it be me,” Just said.

In his effort to find housing solutions, Mayor Just has taken to asking neighbors if they would be willing to bring on extra roommates.

“It’s very important to me because I personally have friends of mine who are affected by this negatively,” Just said of Fairplay’s housing challenge.

Edith Teter Elementary School Principal, Cindy Bear, said it’s not unusual for her students to show up to school in the RVs where they live — coming in unclean and needing showers and meals.

“They come to school, especially in the winter, and they’re cold at night, because in their camper there’s not adequate heat,” she said.

Even Bear herself, a master’s educated school principal, needs to rent a home for her and her five children. She doesn’t ever expect to be able to afford a home in the area.

Park County Commissioner Richard Elsner labeled housing as a top issue for the county. However, it’s a tough one for government in this part of the state to do much about.

“We can encourage, we can cajole, we can try to come up with ideas, which is where we are now. It is a really difficult one,” Elsner said.

He said area builders don’t want to work on affordable housing projects when they can put up mansions instead. When it applies for housing grants, Park County has to compete with more prominent counties with much bigger populations.

Melissa Sargeant has until the end of the month to find a new place to live. From the living room she still gets to call her own for a couple of weeks, she gestured to her roommate and current landlord.

“She’s selling her house and I can’t believe what she’s going to be able to get for it,” she said. “I mean, look at the prices of houses here. It’s amazing.”