Amid the ongoing workforce shortage, business owners across the county are getting creative to help recruit talent, and among the most sought-after incentives is help with housing.
Summit County and its towns use various housing programs to attract and retain staff and help ensure employees live in the communities in which they work. According to Summit County Human Resource Director Molly Boyd, staffing has always been challenging and tools that help new hires find housing can make a difference.
“Recruitment and retention is one of our most challenging issues that we face here at the county — all employers in Summit County, not just government — and housing is becoming harder and harder to obtain, not that that’s a new thing,” Boyd said. “Housing in Summit County has always been more expensive than many other places … so we felt like it was important to use what tools we can to recruit, attract, retain talent. This is one of the ways we can help people find housing in the community so that they can live here and work here.”
The county has two housing assistance programs, one for all employees and one for senior management.
The first, called the down payment assistance program, started in 1998, according to previous Summit Daily reporting. Summit County Manager Scott Vargo noted that the program is typically not funded by taxes.
“There were some funds that became available to the county as part of … some sort of refinancing, and there were some dollars that were saved as a result of that, and so those funds were put into this down payment assistance program to get it started,” Vargo said.
Vargo said the cap was at $10,000 when the program started. Today, the cap is at $30,000. Both Boyd and Vargo said the program is eligible to full-time employees who have been with the county for about nine months, and Vargo said a letter of recommendation must also be submitted by the employee’s director to show the employee is in good standing with the county.
Employees are eligible for 10% of the purchase price of a home or condo, up to $30,000. For example, if the purchase price is $250,000, that employee would be eligible for $25,000. If the purchase price was $400,000, the employee would be eligible for $30,000.
Vargo reported that since the program started, the county has granted about 104 loans totaling $1.65 million.
Over time, these loans get paid off with interest, which Vargo said is currently around 3%. This interest and repayments are then funneled back into the program, which has helped grow the fund throughout the years. At times, Vargo said the fund has also been replenished through the general operating fund, which is generated by taxpayers, when demand for assistance is high.
“There absolutely has been periods of time where the demand for those loans have exhausted the balance, and so in those cases, the general fund makes a transfer into the down payment assistance loan fund to replenish it and make it available to employees continuously,” Vargo said.
Summit County Finance Director Marty Ferris said there’s about $430,300 outstanding across 17 loans within the program.
The second type of housing assistance offered by the county is for general housing assistance and is available only to senior management. Only four loans have been granted in the program’s history, Vargo said. According to previous Summit Daily reporting, these loans were granted to former County Manager Gary Martinez for $400,000; current county attorney Jeff Huntley for $215,000; former County Manager Thad Noll for $250,000; and Vargo for $250,000.
Vargo said Martinez and Noll’s loans have already been repaid, and the only outstanding senior management loans are his and Huntley’s, totaling about $440,000.
According to previous Summit Daily reporting, these loans were to recruit or retain all four employees. In 2007, the loan was granted to Huntley to keep him from potentially moving into private practice. In 2012, Vargo, who was at the time an assistant manager, was being actively recruited to Aspen to become Pitkin’s County’s manager.
Vargo said all of these loans are intended to be one-time uses. So what happens if an employee leaves the county or sells the home? Vargo said former employees have a limited window of when they must repay the loan.
“If you leave county employment, I believe it’s three years to pay it off if you still own the home,” Vargo said. “So let’s say you went from Summit County government, and you moved over to work for Vail Resorts, but you were still living in the property here in Summit County, you’d have three years to make that repayment. If you sell the house, or you refinance it, and you’re not a county employee, then at that time of the sale you have to repay it if it’s prior to the three years.”
Of the 17 down payment assistance loans that are outstanding, Ferris said five are for former employees who are no longer with the county. The total amount these five employees borrowed is nearly $89,000, and with interest, there is still $117,200 outstanding.
Vargo noted that since the real estate market boom, the price increase on single-family residential homes and condos has made it hard for county employees to take advantage of the program.
“It is and always has been a challenge for folks to find housing within Summit County, and even more so now, so we’ve seen a decrease in activity around that program because — I think in many cases — even a $30,000 assistance loan doesn’t bridge the gap that people are seeing with the current housing crisis,” Vargo said.
Other counties within the state have similar housing assistance programs including Eagle and Pitkin. Grand County also offers a down payment assistance program that is available to any resident.
Though the program is meant to be used as a talent attraction and retention tool, some residents such as Jack Taylor of Heeney believe these dollars should be spent elsewhere.
“It’s not the county’s role to be a mortgage lender for anybody and that’s what this basically comes down to,” Taylor said. “These were mortgage loans on properties, and so what the county did was take (that money) that could have easily been put toward other programs, other challenges that the country is currently dealing with, and (instead) lend it to senior staff.”
Taylor said residents of Heeney were promised by the county that Summit County Road 30 — otherwise known as Heeney Road — was supposed to get paved in 2008, but it didn’t because of budget constraints. Taylor said he felt frustrated that this service was not completed, especially when some funds are giving housing assistance to senior county management.
“We have a promise for a service delivery at the north end of the county that was basically set aside and the dollars were put to real estate loans,” Taylor said about his frustration about how the county allocates funding.