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Why rising home prices could turn Colorado's mountain communities into 'modern-era ghost towns'

Frisco is considering declaring an emergency. Estes Park developers are building workforce housing, all as communities fear the effects of rising rent and mortgages.

City officials in mountain communities are worried rising home prices are pricing the workforce out of the market. 

“We’re really at risk of creating the modern era-ghost town in our mountain towns, where the lights are on and no one has a home to live in,” Hunter Mortensen, the mayor of Frisco, told 9NEWS.

In Frisco, for any residential property, the median price is $1.1 million, according to Colorado Association of Realtors (CAR) numbers from April.

“We have some great, innovative programs in Frisco and throughout the mountain communities in Summit County that already fell behind because we can’t keep up with the buying power of who’s buying real estate,” Mortensen said.

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Mortensen is discussing declaring an emergency around housing in Frisco.

“That will help us hopefully get a little more attention from the state and the federal government to say, 'this is dire,'" he said. 

Estes Park is in a tough spot, too.

“When it’s such a beautiful place, we do get people from all corners of the U.S., and they’re gobbling up things that are their second or third homes,” Estes Park resident Keaton Krell said. “There are people living up here who can’t afford [even one] home up here.”

Krell and his wife Candace just welcomed a baby and moved from his parents’ home into a rental they said they were lucky to have found.

Credit: Darlene Bushue

Keaton is a manager at the Dunraven restaurant, while his wife works remotely for a nonprofit. Combined, they make about $100,000 a year before taxes, and they have found that is not enough to afford a home in the community.

“A lot of our friends too are people who were born in Estes and were raised here and they can’t even afford to live as adults in the place where they grew up,” Candace said.

In April, the median price of any residential property in Estes clocks in around $615,000, according to CAR.

That number was $415,000 in April 2020, CAR said.

A 2016 housing assessment found more units needed to become available to accommodate about 1,500 members of a growing workforce.

Since then, the Estes Park Economic Development Corporation said only about 200 have gone up.

The Wildfire Development Project is working to add 88 more units made specifically for the Estes Park workforce.

“We have close to 50 people on a waiting list to buy one of these units,” Melissa Westover, co-owner of wildfire homes and wildfire development, told 9NEWS. “I think before we even get to our last few buildings, they’re going to be sold out before they’re even up out of the ground.”

Westover and her husband have built homes in the community for more than three decades, and they’ve seen the effects growth has had on rising home prices.

“I think where it really came into focus is when our own children came back to Estes, and they were looking for housing and it was such a hard, hard thing for them to find a place to live,” Westover said.

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Their development project is meant to supply affordable housing specifically for people who work in Estes Park to purchase for between $295,000 to $400,000.

“I want people of all abilities, all ethnicities, all backgrounds to be able to live in Colorado,” Westover said. “I’m just not sure, dealing with the metrics we’re seeing right now, if that will be a possibility.

"And that’s sad. It’s beyond sad.”

Frisco has invested in workforce housing as well.

“In the last two years, Frisco’s been able to build or purchase 32 units in town, and that’s still a drop in the bucket,” Mortensen said. “If people who are coming to visit and recreate and do everything that we depend on have terrible service, or there aren’t restaurants, or there aren’t the services they depend on because no one can afford to work here or live here, then where do we end up? We’ve got a community and an economic problem that are intertwined in a way that could be potentially really devastating.”

Frisco will have a meeting about housing on June 8 where they will discuss declaring an emergency around housing.

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