Real Estate

Are Tiny Homes the Solution to Our Housing Crisis?

Workforce housing is becoming an endangered species in Eagle County. Tiny homes could be a solution.

By Tom Winter November 21, 2016

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Small homes like this one in Olympia, Wash., might provide one solution when it comes to providing workforce housing for the Vail area.

When Mason Davey, co-owner of Minturn-based Weston Snowboards, decided to ditch the brand's historic bricks-and-mortar Main Street storefront for a towed 300-square-foot mobile showroom inspired by Tiny House Nation, one of his first considerations was employee housing.

“In our initial thought process of the tiny house showroom, it was the idea of a having someone live in the space and run a shop out of it,” says Davey, who partnered with Leo Tsuo to purchase the business from Barry Weston Clark after the brand's founder decided to relocate his family to California. “We were thinking that we could provide a job with housing to employees, but it turns out there are a lot of stipulations when something is considered a livable space.”

“In every town survey, every partnership survey of businesses, every survey of employers and employees housing issues keep coming up as the number one problem.” - Town of Vail Housing Director Alan Nazzaro

Therein lies the dilemma for many Vail Valley employers as housing prices remain out of reach for most local wage earners in a market where single-family home values increased from an average of $494 per square foot in 2014 to $592 in 2015 (condos and townhomes jumped from $399 to $465 in the same period). Rental cost increases were worse for tenants, according to real estate site Trulia, with median monthly rental costs in Vail increasing by nearly $1,000 from August 2015 to July 2016. The result? Employers are struggling to fill positions not because they can't find qualified applicants, but because said applicants have no place to live.  

This is hardly surprising to anyone who has spent any time at all in Vail recently. Stories abound of resort employees sleeping four or six to a room designed for a single occupant, and renters have been known to convert walk-in closets to bedrooms. Meanwhile, Vail Resorts and the Town of Vail have been scrambling to obtain housing units for employees and long term residents via purchase, deed restrictions or other programs. But with real estate prices on the rise and land for new homes (affordable or otherwise) unavailable, there doesn’t seem to be a solution in sight. The latest Eagle County Housing Needs Assessment tallies a shortage of 12,506 affordable units, yet a ballot measure seeking to fund affordable housing construction in Eagle County with a tax increase failed by a wide margin in November .

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As the housing crisis intensifies in Eagle County, many seasonal and year-round residents are having to resort to non-traditional options, including living in vehicles, to remain in the area.

Image: Tom Winter

Tiny houses could be the answer. Or, according to some, part of the answer.

“We are considering everything that comes our way,” says Town of Vail Housing Director Alan Nazzaro. “No one has brought a [tiny house] proposal to us yet and under our current zoning it wouldn’t be allowed. But we are in the process of revamping our housing strategic plan, and looking at how we can develop and maintaining the stock of employee housing.”

Already the town has approved a plan to deed-restrict the sale of 1,000 existing homes and apartments for local buyers and renters; the council also appropriated $10,000 to study the feasibility of using adjacent Forest Service land for workforce housing. In a scramble for a solution, nothing is off the table, including tiny houses.

“For the millennial generation, they are looking for less and less square footage,” says Nazzaro. “It may be an idea whose time has come. If it is done right is an issue for us. We are looking at density, and increased density for employee or affordable housing. We have a bunch of dark neighborhoods, approximately 66-percent of our units are second homes and that doesn’t make for good community.”

Vail isn't the only community in the valley kicking the tires on tiny homes.

“We are actually for tiny homes,” adds Minturn planning director Janet Hawkinson.

Hawkinson concedes that such homes are, as Davey discovered, not currently allowed under Minturn zoning regulations, as in Vail. But that’s not the only issue. The other is cost, and with lots in Minturn selling for just under $500,000, the problem becomes “finding the land that someone can afford and making the numbers work.”

One idea Hawkinson and other have floated: revamping existing trailer parks in Avon and Edwards into tiny home enclaves.

It remains to be seen if tiny homes are part of the valley's affordable housing solution, but one thing that local officials and planners like Hawkinson and Nazzaro agree on is that something needs to be done, and soon.

“I am optimistic in the sense that Vail has a very forward thinking town council and they are very interested in this problem,” says Nazzaro. “In every town survey, every partnership survey of businesses, every survey of employers and employees housing issues keep coming up as the number one problem.”


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