Brown Ranch aims to serve as new model for affordable housing options
Steamboat Pilot & Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — On Oct. 6, the Yampa Valley Housing Authority presented what it has learned from its extensive work on purchasing and planning the Brown Ranch.
The presentation gave the community the most complete view yet of what could be Steamboat’s best chance to address affordable housing.
The process began in earnest just before the Fourth of July in 2021, with a simple meeting request that Yampa Valley Housing Authority Director Jason Peasley said was about affordable housing.
“That was basically all I knew,” he said. However, the meeting proved to be a turning point for Steamboat’s housing future.
In 2017, the housing authority pledged to address Steamboat’s decades-old housing woes with 600 new units by 2030. After closing on a deal to build Anglers 400 in November 2020, the housing authority was nearly halfway there with 285.
But, a discussion Peasley called a “triage of all the land” revealed a problem. Steamboat Springs was running out of land for the housing authority’s large-scale developments. It had become easier for Peasley to find a developer than the land for development.
One of the few parcels on the list was known as Steamboat 700. The land had been planned for extensive housing projects twice before, but the projects failed both times.
Complicating matters, the vast meadow wasn’t in the city and was well out of the housing authority’s price range. When Peasley walked into the summer 2021 meeting, it was much more dream than reality.
“We had no way of purchasing it at the time we were talking about it; we were just like, ‘That’s the crown jewel … that’s the one,’” he said. “Then before we knew it, it was ours.”
In the July 2021 meeting, he learned an anonymous donor was prepared to give the housing authority the money it needed to buy the parcel.
In the last 15 months, the housing authority has engaged roughly a quarter of Steamboat residents about what they want the Brown Ranch to become.
“It provides hope that we can maintain the real town character of Steamboat,” Peasley said. “If this town changes to look a lot more like Vail and Aspen, I don’t think a lot of people who live here now are going to say that this is a community they want to live in.
“We’re fighting for the preservation of that character as a real town,” he continued.
The money behind Brown Ranch
The Brown Ranch sold to the housing authority for $24 million, a million more than the initial offer. The money came from a donor who has remained anonymous. Only a small group knows the person’s identity.
The donor wanted to meet with Peasley to know that if the donor funded a deal, would the housing authority be the right organization to develop the project.
“The answer is definitely yes,” Peasley said. “That’s a big yes. It was a moment where you kind of take a big leap — you’ve been entrusted with this amazing gift.”
While the money came from a donor, the housing authority is the sole owner of the Brown Ranch. The Yampa Valley Community Foundation facilitated the transaction, and Peasley said the terms are essentially, “housing authority, do your thing.”
Peasley said the donation comes from a person with a deep love for Steamboat Springs and the community it has maintained.
“They care a lot about Steamboat,” he said of the donor. “They spend a lot of time here, had the resources to make a difference and decided now’s the time.”
Planning out the Brown Ranch started almost immediately. By the middle of September 2021, 20 locals had been named to a steering committee to guide the process.
Sheila Henderson, a past executive director of the local nonprofit Integrated Community, former housing authority board member and longtime local, was brought on to lead the outreach effort.
While at Integrated Community, she said multiple families squeezing into one unit became a significant problem. She represented the Human Resources Coalition on a 2016 group that studied the supply and demand for local housing, as well as barriers and potential solutions.
“Most importantly, (the group researched) what are the consequences of not building housing,” she said. “The consequences for lower income and entry level housing is doubled up households.”
She said they have worked hard to listen to people living in these precarious situations in their outreach. They held Spanish-language meetings that reached more than 300 non-English speakers locally. A partnership with Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs reached another 100 people in their 20s, another particularly hard group to reach.
They’ve met with dozens of small businesses, several mid-sized businesses and a few of the area’s largest employers. Generally, they reported staff shortages between 20% and 40%, she said.
There have been meetings with the Steamboat Springs Chamber, various Rotary Clubs, lodging advocates, environmental groups and even the local arts community.
“Everyone has a story of somebody they know (who has) left in the last few months because they can’t find housing,” Henderson said. “We hear it all the time: ‘I’m just trying to hang on until you start building out there.’”
Even the housing authority board has lost two of its members in recent months, each leaving because housing was no longer sustainable for them in Steamboat.
Locally, there is a crunch for entry-level housing, Henderson said, where people are paying too much of their income toward rent, and, no matter their income, there are few places for them to move up.
“You’re stuck. You can’t go up or down,” she said. “For those of us (who) are older, there’s no supply to downsize to, and, for those who are younger and starting families, there’s no supply to move up to.”
Through the planning process, she said, they have worked with the Colorado Futures Center to look at Routt County’s workforce, which showed that next to Telluride, Steamboat has the fastest declining workforce in Colorado.
People between ages 25 and 44 years old are leaving the fastest, and a third of the local workforce is over the age of 65.
“We know right now that we are missing 1,400 homes,” Henderson said. “That demand for 1,400 covers the current needs of people working here right now.”
The Brown Ranch will be restricted to local workers. The steering committee defined workforce as “someone who works for an employer physically located in Routt County,” or someone who “is retired from the Routt County workforce.”
Short-term rentals will not be allowed.
Henderson said that, as the Brown Ranch starts to develop, housing officials want to track indicators like the local workforce, those in doubled-up living situations and the number of households that are cost-burdened by housing, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income keeping a roof over their head.
“People are choosing to live in their cars or double or triple or quadruple up in one mobile home,” Peasley said. “Those are the situations we are trying to alleviate in the immediate term.”
‘Keeping that hope’
The housing authority has already said the Brown Ranch will include units for rent and for purchase, with a variety of housing types that target everyone in the local income spectrum. It also will have public transportation and conveniently located services, and Peasley said park space would be just a two-block stroll from most of the housing units.
The first phase of the Brown Ranch plans to build 1,200 units and be finished by 2030. Another 1,100 units would be built the decade after that, according to current planning. There’s space for a new school, fire station, medical services, child care and lots of open space.
The plan draws on aspects of downtown and Old Town Steamboat with a gridded street network, lots of connectivity and a broad mix of housing and other land uses. Dozens of experts have been working to turn the vast community comments into a final plan for the Brown Ranch.
After Thursday’s presentation, Peasley said, they will ask attendee’s three questions: What about this is inspiring to you? What concerns do you have? Do you want to live at the Brown Ranch?
“We’re hopeful that this is inspiring because we find it inspiring,” he said.
At a steering committee meeting in May, he shared some of the first estimated costs for the Brown Ranch infrastructure, with $220 million on-site and another $180 million off-site. Success at the Brown Ranch won’t come at the hands of another anonymous donation.
There are millions available for housing from the state and federal government, and officials at both levels have signaled the Brown Ranch would be a strong candidate for this funding.
But, this alone will not build Steamboat’s housing future, as the Brown Ranch will require a significant investment from the community it hopes to preserve.
“Keeping that hope for people struggling to stay in Steamboat is really important,” Peasley said. “Being able to deliver on that hope is the huge challenge that we take on.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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