Oxbow Bend, Snake River

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

View of mountain town from nearby peak

The Future of Workforce Housing

Matt Moore

A few months ago, a friend of mine who commutes an hour each way to a medical center in a notoriously expensive mountain town shared a story with me. His employer had recently conducted a lengthy search for a new cardiac surgeon. After a drawn-out screening and interview process, they finally offered a position to their top candidate, who accepted. However, within a few weeks, the candidate had to back out of the offer. The reason? They couldn’t afford any of the available housing in the community.

The issue of housing affordability touches nearly every corner of our country and includes workers in every industry. It’s a fundamental and unavoidable reality: if a person working full-time can’t afford to live where they work, then they cannot afford to remain in that job, and they will eventually have to find a new job or go somewhere else. The larger the group these circumstances affect, the larger the impact on the community. And when people can’t find anywhere that they can afford to work and live, then far greater consequences, such as housing/food instability, homelessness, and societal unrest, will result. Those who are able to retain their housing are affected as well, as strain on local workforces eventually limits the availability of local services, and neighbors and community stakeholders are increasingly driven out and replaced by investors and short-term renters.

This is a problem that is unlikely to go away anytime soon, and for many towns, the pendulum may have already swung too far to reverse course and minimize the impact on the local workforce and the services they provide. But in many communities, individuals and entities are actively taking steps to address affordable workforce housing which provides a hopeful glimpse into how this challenge may be addressed in the years to come.

Public / Philanthropic Partnerships

In Routt County Colorado, home of Steamboat Springs, the Yampa Valley Housing Authority is working to develop a 536-acre parcel that was purchased and gifted to the housing authority in 2021. They are working with a steering committee comprised of 20 locals with differing backgrounds to create affordable housing solutions to maintain their community as a place where anyone with a job can find a way to stay put and contribute. The future development will include 2,300 rental units, a public bus service, and access to the multi-use Yampa River Core Trail. This kind of outcome relies heavily on the generosity and the hard work of individuals who are dedicated to the cause of protecting opportunities for everyone in their community, but when it is completed, this project will have created a solid, long-term foundation upon which to build an inclusive, attainable future for everyone in their community.

Business Investment in Workforce Housing

In the world of CoolWorks jobs, employers providing staff housing and meals is nothing new. We were born in Yellowstone National Park, and many of the employers using our site are similarly located in remote, undeveloped areas where the only option for workforce housing is on company property. However, private employers in areas where housing inventory is available are increasingly buying houses or building multi-unit rentals exclusively for housing their staff in order to protect some local inventory from being scooped up by investors. This approach is not without its drawbacks – having year-round housing connected with employment places staff in a potentially vulnerable position of dependence on their employer and can create instability and conflict – but it does demonstrate how businesses are recognizing the imperative need for affordable housing in their communities in order to be able to remain staffed and viable, and are actively meeting that need through direct investment.

Non-profit & Stakeholder Driven Solutions

In Moab, UT, and Gunnison, CO, Community Rebuilds utilizes the USDA Mutual Self Help Housing program to work with locals in lower income brackets, helping them qualify for USDA Rural Development Loans and other financing options, and, upon approval, working together to construct energy-efficient, affordable workforce housing. In this way, local workers are able to obtain low-cost financing, as well as education and assistance in building their own affordable, energy-efficient housing. This creates opportunities for people to feel confident in investing their time and energy into a place that is actively taking steps to make it possible for them to make a home and a life there.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the affordable housing crisis, but these examples illustrate that whether it be New York’s Hudson Valley or the rural Southwest, there is a solution that fits every community. It might require philanthropic gifts, regulations limiting short-term rentals and protecting housing inventory with income caps, the ingenuity, and dedication of local NGOs, and in many cases, all of the above. Regardless of the solution that works best, the more involvement, collaboration, and support each community receives from as wide a range of stakeholders as possible – local workers, businesses, property owners, non-profits, local government, etc. – the better chance those communities will have to successfully identify and implement solutions to secure their future survival. If you have the interest and the ability to offer your time and thoughts, look for ways to contribute your voice in working towards solutions. It takes a village to keep a village.