Nathan Bilow/Courtesy of Karen Hoskin
Karen Hoskin, founder and owner of Montanya Distillers in Crested Butte, Colorado, had an especially difficult time hiring this year. She's dealt with worsening labor and housing shortages by spending an estimated $13,000 or more on securing places for her staff to live.

Can resort towns be worker-friendly? Colorado hopes so.

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Affordable housing in Colorado resort towns has been in short supply for a long time, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. In order to hire workers, employers have helped find apartments and even paid for them.

“Mountain migration,” aided by new remote-work capabilities, is partly to blame. But an ongoing problem is the location itself, with towns surrounded by national forests and rocky peaks.

Why We Wrote This

With the pandemic exacerbating the housing crunch in Mountain West resort areas, Colorado towns are redoubling efforts to preserve an inclusive sense of community.

“The very assets that everybody wants, all the mountains and the woods ... those are impediments, actually, to solutions. Because you can’t build a neighborhood on them,” says Melanie Rees, a longtime housing consultant.

One solution would be to increase the number of units with deed restrictions, which limit occupancy to local workers. That would not only help with hiring but also shape a more inclusive community. “We always say a resort community that doesn’t house its workforce isn’t a community. It’s just a resort,” says Laurie Best, a housing program manager in Breckenridge.

Queen-size bed. Television. Dresser, shelf, and bedside lamps. Karen Hoskin spent one May weekend in Crested Butte loading secondhand furniture into her Toyota pickup. Not for herself – for employees. 

This spring she offered an elaborate hiring incentive. The founder and owner of Montanya Distillers for 13 years says recruiting has never been this hard. “I would put the word out that we were hiring, and there was dead silence,” says Ms. Hoskin, who was so short-staffed on the Fourth of July that she bussed tables herself.

Potential hires couldn’t find – much less afford – a place to live. And since she couldn’t afford to lose them, Ms. Hoskin pivoted. “My job advertisements began to say, ‘Housing offered.’” 

Why We Wrote This

With the pandemic exacerbating the housing crunch in Mountain West resort areas, Colorado towns are redoubling efforts to preserve an inclusive sense of community.

It worked. Since spring she has hired 11 workers and helped six of them secure housing. Ms. Hoskin says she’s backed four leases, paid two security deposits, and covered some staff rent. Three employees live in her garage. Including the furniture, her housing efforts have cost her over $13,000, she estimates.

That help made all the difference for Sophie Bolles, who recently moved with her partner from Denver to Crested Butte to work as a business manager for Ms. Hoskin. Without her boss finding their lodging and paying a security deposit plus first month’s rent, she says, “we wouldn’t be able to work for her.”

Affordable-housing shortages in Colorado mountain towns have long complicated workers’ search for stability, but rising housing costs and pandemic-spurred “mountain migration” have cued a new level of desperation this year. It’s driving officials and employers like Ms. Hoskin to pursue emergency stopgaps as towns debate longer-term solutions.

To Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula, the most important part isn’t necessarily economic. 

“It is about living in a community where the people that work here, live here,” says Mr. Mamula, who owns a restaurant and rents to local workers. “A lot of us moved here because, when you go to a coffee shop in the morning, you know everybody.”

Pandemic exacerbates existing housing crunch

While a lack of affordable housing in ski towns dates back decades, so do solutions. It’s common for high-country resorts and other employers to subsidize worker housing as an incentive. 

The Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority emerged in the late 1970s to address labor shortages, a model that other Colorado counties have replicated. Considered the first mountain resort housing program in the country, it oversees more than 3,000 deed-restricted housing units – reserved for people employed in the county. But that’s not enough to meet demand, says deputy director Cindy Christensen. And while there are new housing developments on the horizon, that’s no help now.

“We’re usually 100% full,” she says, adding that 50 to 60 people recently expressed interest in one rental property.  

Rising home and rental prices collided with a pandemic influx of residents and visitors, resulting in the current urgency. Mountain migration aided by new remote-work capabilities is partly to blame, as incoming location-neutral workers occupy more inventory. That’s one finding of a report from the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments and Colorado Association of Ski Towns, which surveyed six mountain resort counties about the pandemic’s legacy. The report found that market rents in these areas increased by an “unprecedented” 20% to 40% in 2020. 

Maddie Davis, who lives with two roommates in a double-wide trailer, says she’ll likely have to move out of Steamboat Springs at the end of the year, even though it’s the friendliest place she’s ever lived. Ms. Davis says she recently learned her rent will increase from around $1,800 to $2,500 a month. She’s not willing to pay that, in part because it would make her goal of eventually buying her own home harder to attain.

“I was pretty devastated, because it’s impossible – nearly impossible – to find somewhere to live here,” says Ms. Davis, who works two restaurant jobs and teaches snowboarding in the winter.

Courtesy of Maddie Davis
Steamboat Springs, Colorado, resident Maddie Davis hikes near town with her dog Hank in July 2021. She says she recently learned that her rent will increase from around $1,800 to $2,500 a month, which is making her consider moving out of town.

Paradox of paradise

When it comes to solutions, several high-country housing experts agree it’s impossible to “build your way out.” Expense aside, these resort destinations are surrounded by national forests and rocky peaks.

“The very assets that everybody wants, all the mountains and the woods ... those are impediments, actually, to solutions. Because you can’t build a neighborhood on them,” says Melanie Rees, who’s worked as a housing consultant for three decades and helped produce the recent survey of pandemic impacts on ski towns. Commuting into mountain towns is undesirable for a variety of reasons, she adds, from cost to increased air pollution.

Some areas have embraced emergency actions. Summit County, which includes Breckenridge, proclaimed a workforce housing crisis in June, the same month Crested Butte declared an affordable-housing emergency. The town had one available rental apartment but over 110 job openings, says community development director Troy Russ.

The declaration allowed Crested Butte to expedite certain actions, like bypassing zoning requirements to allow the town to purchase a bed-and-breakfast meant to house up to seven local workers. Workers are also allowed to camp on private property through mid-October. 

“We’re in a very rare moment in time where we literally have nothing available, and we have a number of folks out here” looking for housing, says Mr. Russ. 

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
A storefront in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, displays one of several help-wanted signs seen on Lincoln Avenue on July 17, 2021. Resort towns are grappling with how affordable-housing shortages are limiting options for local workers.

The town is also developing roughly 90 units it hopes will be ready to rent or sell by 2023. The median income for a three-person household in Gunnison County is $71,200, while the average local housing price is around $1.3 million, according to Crested Butte real estate data. The town plans to price the new units between 40% and 200% of the area’s median income.

One strategy recommended by the report would be to increase the number of units with deed restrictions, which limit occupancy to local workers. In Crested Butte, around 25% of housing stock is currently deed-restricted, and around 10% in the Breckenridge area. Breckenridge housing program manager Laurie Best says the town is currently developing a new initiative that would identify additional inventory – even single rooms – available for workers to lease.

“We always say a resort community that doesn’t house its workforce isn’t a community. It’s just a resort,” she says.

Some communities are also pushing back on short-term rentals. On July 19 the Crested Butte Town Council voted for a 12-month moratorium on new licenses for non-primary-residence vacation rentals. Steamboat Springs City Council passed a 90-day pause on new applications for vacation home rentals in June, which it recently extended. Locals in at least two other mountain towns have circulated related petitions.

Supporters of the Steamboat Springs suspension see it as progress toward protecting more units for unhoused locals. Critics say unregulated rentals – the majority of short-term rental stock – deserve more scrutiny. The moratorium is “damaging to our tourism, and it’s damaging to our vacation rental businesses, but we are trying to work through this,” says Robin Craigen, CEO and co-founder of Moving Mountains, a luxury vacation rental management company.

Regardless of the number of vacation rentals, housing consultant Ms. Rees would like to see locals band together to effect state-level changes that would allow for increased taxation of short- and mid-term rental properties. And additional funding will better equip communities in their pursuit of solutions, she says.

“We’ve rarely seen the demand for large, expensive homes get soft in these mountain towns. ... [Affordable housing has] got to be subsidized,” says Ms. Rees. 

Some support may be on the way. In addition to state funding, Colorado plans to direct $500 million of the incoming American Rescue Plan funding toward affordable-housing initiatives, according to Colorado's Department of Local Affairs. For some, setting that priority is progress in and of itself.

At least recognition of the housing crisis has become widespread, says Ms. Rees: “The part-time residents get it; the newcomers understand it’s a problem. ... I’m encouraged that that may also mean that support for solutions will be more widespread than in the past.”

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