Hope for housing: Brown Ranch could be a game-changer in Steamboat’s affordable housing crisis
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
For Heather Fattig and her partner, housing in Steamboat Springs has been an annual headache. A local server and bartender and the parent of a 2-year-old daughter, Fattig is preparing to move yet again.
The family will soon take up residence in a two-bedroom home, a step down from their current three-bedroom rented house.
“It’s going to cost us more to live there than it does to live in this house, which is insane to me,” Fattig said.
Fattig’s experience, and that of other Steamboat residents, is driving a push by community leaders to expand the city’s affordable housing supply on the expansive Brown Ranch parcel west of town.
That plot, which the Yampa Valley Housing Authority purchased with the help of an anonymous $24 million donation, must first be annexed into the city before a planned public-private partnership can develop it with thousands of new homes for rent and to purchase.
Steamboat City Council is expected to discuss annexation at another meeting next week, following months of meetings led by a small group of local politicians, the city manager and housing authority representatives aimed at hammering out the details.
If annexation happens, Steamboat Springs’ housing stock can be expected to grow during the next several decades by thousands of units.
The problem: A paucity of homes
Fattig’s experience is not unique in the Yampa Valley.
Data gathered by the Steamboat Group, a local realty company, indicates that the inventory of for-sale homes in Steamboat has fallen from more than 500 in 2017 to less than 125 as of July. Two-thirds of the single-family detached homes sold in the city in 2022 drew a purchase price of more than $1 million.
This is the first part in a three-part series in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. This article examines how a developed Brown Ranch could change the city’s landscape. In the next two parts of the series, we’ll look at the costs for the 534-acre project and how the city expects to pay for it.
Zillow.com pegs the current median home price in Steamboat at over $1.1 million, while Realtor.com has it at more than $1.2 million. And interest rates in the mortgage market are now higher than at any time since 2002, meaning that mortgages have been more difficult to afford.
Homes are less expensive in Hayden and Oak Creek, with median home sale prices of $515,000 and $650,000, respectively, according to Redfin.com. But those prices are still out of reach for many Yampa Valley residents. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income of a family in Steamboat Springs was $80,660 and was $119,900 in Routt County during 2020.
Affording a home in the Yampa Valley on that income is difficult, at best. The average home prices in the area exceed the maximum price that a person with area median income can generally be expected to pay. And rent, too, can be very hard to afford. Rents in the area are more than twice as high as the state average.
One obvious way to reduce these high prices, which are limiting housing affordability in the community, is to increase supply.
The Yampa Valley Housing Authority, relying on the real estate consulting firm RCLCO, said in a Brown Ranch Community Development Plan finalized in May that Steamboat Springs is now about 1,400 units short of the number needed to house the local workforce. That number is expected to grow to about 1,960 units by 2030 and about 2,300 additional units by 2040.
The YVHA has also explained that two components of the population most in need of additional housing are those who are considered “low income,” meaning they earn 60% or less of the Routt County annual median income, and those who hope to upgrade their housing. Most Steamboat Springs residents fit in those categories and, if they cannot meet their housing needs in the community, they may not stay here.
For City Council member Michael Buccino, that alone is why Steamboat Springs cannot afford to lose the opportunity Brown Ranch presents.
“I’ve got to tell you, we have a problem with any new employers coming to Steamboat and opening anything new when housing is so astronomical,” Buccino said. “How can a company move to Steamboat Springs and have the quality employees if they want to open any business at all? Their only hope is to use the workforce we have. We have got to increase housing for our workforce or we will never grow economically.”
Dakotah McGinlay, Buccino’s colleague on the council, pointed to another imperative: wellness and family stability. Noting that some Steamboat Springs residents are “having to move every three to six months,” she described the situation as “really dire.”
“It would hopefully change the stress levels of individuals who are housing insecure and who live paycheck to paycheck and wonder when they need to make the call to move out of the community,” said McGinlay, referring to the development of Brown Ranch.
Fattig said she and her partner may eventually have to make that decision.
She explained that her family is happy in Steamboat and that both she and her partner would like to stay. They fear it is just too expensive to do so and that a move out of the Yampa Valley may be unavoidable.
“We can’t be moving every year when she’s older,” she explained. “Right now she’s young enough to not notice. As soon as day care and school comes into play it’s going to be a different ballgame.”
A vision of Brown Ranch
At buildout, Brown Ranch will be the site of 2,264 units, if RCLCO recommendations pan out, with about 30% of the units made available to the lowest income members of the community — those earning a gross income of about $71,940 per year or less — and about 43% sold or rented to those who earn between 60.01% and 128% of the Steamboat Springs AMI, or up to about $149,875 per year.
The remaining quarter or so will be subject to purchase or rent by those who earn between 128.01% and 258% of the Steamboat Springs AMI, which means that families earning an annual income of up to about $309,342 would be eligible to buy or rent at Brown Ranch.
When completed, Brown Ranch will be a dense community and most homes may not end up occupied by one family on a long-term basis. Nearly two-thirds of the housing units will be multifamily, with another 21.5% single-family attached homes, such as duplexes. Most will be for rent, with only about 42% of the total units available for purchase. The 1,302 rental units that YVHA plans will include 1,035 multi-family apartments, 218 single-family attached homes and 49 single-family detached homes.
Officials at the housing authority believe that a predominance of rental properties is unavoidable. They explained in the community development plan that home ownership is not practical for many housing-challenged area residents.
“Typically, for-sale housing units have cost premiums that range from 10-20%,” according to the plan. “Given severe cost challenges, housing that serves households with under 60% AMI will remain predominantly for-rent, with opportunities to grow into ownership at Brown Ranch.”
Buccino agreed that the tilt toward rental properties is economically necessary.
“Interest rates are too high,” he opined. “People will not be able to afford a house to buy on their own. They just need a good place to stay.”
That view is controversial, with some observers arguing that the real problem is municipal failure to allow developers enough land on which to build. Routt County, like others on the Western Slope, significantly limits density outside of city limits.
“Adding 564 acres to the Steamboat Springs housing supply is a good thing, but it would be far better to just open up the entire county (less public lands) to housing development,” said Randal O’Toole, a research fellow at the Golden-based Independence Institute and author of the anti-urban planning opus “The Best Laid Plans,” in an email message. “Developers could then build the kind of housing people want where they want it.”
O’Toole acknowledged that developers will build more expensive homes if they are artificially constrained in where they can build, but asserted that providing more land for development would lessen that impulse.
“Regardless of cost, I suspect private developers would build more homes and more single-family homes than the Brown Ranch CDP calls for,” he said, referring to the community development plan prepared by the housing authority. “By increasing the supply of the kind of housing people want, this would do more to relieve overall housing prices even if the prices for the new homes were higher than the YVHA-subsidized homes are likely to cost.”
Numerous studies indicate that home ownership correlates with a variety of favorable community outcomes, including less crime, higher property values, better maintenance of structures, a larger number of residents who are civically involved, and better educated children who are more likely to be well-adjusted.
Not all academics agree that these studies definitely tie positive social outcomes to home ownership, and Buccino thinks that, in any event, renters in Steamboat Springs are different.
“They’re invested in this community,” he said. “To get here you have to travel two and a half hours. Those who choose to live here make the most of their residence.”
The councilman’s perspective may be supported by recent research that shows that home ownership is likely to become much more expensive than renting. A May 2023 projection by RenoFi, a fintech company that works with mortgage lenders, suggests that Colorado will have the fourth-most expensive housing market of all states by 2030, with average prices reaching more than $763,000 by September of that year.
YVHA has contracted with the Michaels Organization, an Irving, Texas-based developer, to serve as landlord at Brown Ranch. That company will profit from its work there, a situation that Buccino thinks is acceptable to the city, given that the company may not need or be eligible for federal low income tax credits. Those so-called LITEC benefits are often a magnet for private sector entities to participate in affordable housing projects.
“As far as the profitability, I have no problem with a company making a profit building for affordable housing,” Buccino said. On the other hand, he continued, “they should not be able to raise the rent without having that determined through the housing authority. If they keep raising the rents too high, then obviously that wouldn’t work.”
Getting into the details
Four neighborhoods will make up the community. The first, which will stretch for nine blocks, will contain 400-480 homes; the second, 10 blocks in size, 330-360 homes; the third, which will include 25 blocks, 1,030-1,070 homes; and the fourth, to include 12 blocks, 480-510 homes.
The first of the neighborhoods will be built close to U.S. Highway 40 and will be next to a small park. This neighborhood will primarily serve the lowest income residents of Brown Ranch and will include a variety of residential and other features.
“The neighborhood includes a vibrant community core with mostly mixed-use buildings that contain commercial or community amenities on the ground floor and housing above,” according to the community development plan.
The second neighborhood will include mostly “Pine” blocks, which YVHA defines as those with more than half of the residences being single-family detached homes and only 10-20% being multi-family residential structures.
This neighborhood will have a “small community” feel, according to YVHA. “It is the smallest of the neighborhoods, with just a small amount of retail and a transit stop at its modest core, but is in close proximity to the mixed-use cores of neighborhoods A and C,” the plan states, referring to neighborhoods by letter code. “It looks over the riparian corridor of Slate Creek and is connected to the rest of Brown Ranch by the trail network through the park.”
Neighborhood three will contain mostly “Oak” blocks, which will be characterized by a plurality of multi-family residential facilities and at least 50% single-family homes, both attached and detached. “It is the largest neighborhood at Brown Ranch and accordingly includes a robust mixed-use core and the proposed school site,” stated the plan.
Exactly what that school will be — an elementary school, a middle school, a high school, or some combination of those — has apparently not yet been determined. Laura Milius, a spokesperson for the Steamboat Springs School District, said that no study of future educational needs at Brown Ranch, based on projections of either planned included residences or the area’s expected population at buildout or before, has been conducted.
“The growth in the number of enrolled students and the expected increase in expenses remains uncertain,” Milius said. “Therefore, at this time, we do not know the distribution of new students as a result of a Brown Ranch buildout or what kind of facilities will be needed to accommodate the community.”
Jason Peasley, YVHA’s executive director, explained that the location of a future school at Brown Ranch is not an urgent priority.
“The good news is that Sleeping Giant School has quite a bit of capacity, so we don’t have to figure that out yet,” he said. “And on the west side of Brown Ranch, the school district owns 22 acres. It’s really not a question of ‘Do we have space to put a school?’ We’ve got time to figure that out.”
Milius explained that, once the need for a school at Brown Ranch is determined, the school district will seek permission to issue a bond to build it.
The fourth neighborhood will be closest to County Road 42 and have parks on two sides of it. This area, built on a hillside, will allow residents views of the Yampa River and include a trail to the Sleeping Giant School. The community development plan does not include details about the mix of residential properties that are expected to be included in this sector of the development.
Brown Ranch will also include commercial development.
“Non-residential uses will be an important component in achieving urban design and sustainability goals,” according to the community development plan. “By 2030, the population will support an unsubsidized, mid-sized grocer of about (30,000 square feet), several supporting restaurants and shops, and a couple (of) neighborhood offices. By 2040, a full community commercial core is possible, with a ‘downtown’ feel and up to about (170,000 square feet) of space.”
Parks and other services
YVHA contemplates that a food cooperative or “similar community food program,” rather than a corporate retail store, will be the Brown Ranch area’s principal grocery source. “There are likely other sites in West Steamboat that are better suited to accommodate (a) large-format grocery store,” according to the development plan.
The plan does not discuss details relating to other potential commercial development, though it mentions the likelihood that medical offices will be located at Brown Ranch.
City staff have insisted on more than 60 acres of parks in the planned development, including a regional park.
While no final decision has been made about where that regional park will be located, two possibilities have been identified: one, a 46-acre site, extends north of the urban growth boundary and is therefore partially on land owned by Routt County while the second, a smaller parcel of around 24 acres, is adjacent to the shooting range.
The regional park will be used for team sports and include athletic fields.
“Howelsen Hill is used by so many people,” Buccino said. “What we’re looking for is another one of those, that size, that has different activities with some ball fields so we can spread out the parking and spread out the population.”
To take advantage of the former, especially for athletic fields, Steamboat Springs may have to obtain county permission.
“Non-commercial park and recreation lands are currently a use-by right in our current county zoning regulations,” said County Manager Jay Harrington in an email. “By contrast, those that include athletic fields require a conditional use permit.”
Harrington also pointed out that, as a general principle, “higher intensity” parks and recreation facilities should be built within the urban growth boundary. “These uses would be more compatible and secure in an area that is annexed, managed and regulated by the city,” he explained.
Buccino said he favors the smaller parcel, mostly because he thinks that taking nearly four dozen acres away from developable land is unnecessary.
“I don’t care that it’s smaller,” he said. “I think 46 acres is too big a grab as it is.”
Council President Robin Crossan, on the other hand, said it’s too soon to know how the debate between the two locations will turn out.
“Everybody’s working through that,” she said. “Nothing’s easy.”
Brown Ranch will also have one combined emergency response station that will house both the Steamboat Springs Fire Department and the police department.
As for water and sewage treatment, the city appears well-prepared for those two foundational needs at the new development.
“The city did a great job in the ’90s of securing more water rights from Steamboat Lake, so we can do this development,” McGinlay said.
Buccino explained that even current water and wastewater infrastructure will accommodate at least the first phase of the planned development.
“Our current water system and sewer system and treatment plan is sufficient for our community for up to probably another 1,100 homes in its entirety,” Buccino said.
Brown Ranch, he said, will lead to activation of a new Elk River treatment plant.
“Once that gets online, we’ll have water for a very, very long time and enough for well more than Brown Ranch.”
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