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America Needs to End Its Love Affair With Single-Family Homes. One Town Is Discovering It’s a Tough Sell

16 minute read

The question came, as it always did, just as Jason Peasley finished making his case for Brown Ranch, a development that would grow the size of his city by one-third and finally provide some affordable housing for the hundreds of people doubled up in trailer parks and hotel rooms in the ski town. The development, as Peasley pitched it to the room of residents gathered under thick wooden beams in the local community center, would use density to solve the housing problem—mainly by building apartments and attached homes.

“What about single family homes?” a woman standing in the back of the meeting room asked. “Because I would like to buy one someday.”

Steamboat Springs, Colo.—where Peasley serves as the head of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority, providing affordable housing to all of Routt County—is a mountain town that draws people for its wide open vistas and outdoor space. The idea of living in an apartment on what is now green rolling hills jarred people with visions of their own porches and yards, who had seen their neighbors amass hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity just by owning a single family home during the pandemic.

“Personally, I would take a very, very small house,” another resident said.

“So would I,” the woman in the back said quickly, so as not to be left out.

Peasley sighed. Nine months ago, he’d been given an opportunity that most urban planners dream of—an anonymous donation of 536 acres of land to build long-term affordable housing for people who live and work in Steamboat Springs. But it’s difficult to get buy-in to use hundreds of acres to build multifamily homes in Steamboat, which currently has 1,400 fewer housing units than are currently needed. Residents might support density in theory, but what they really want is a single-family home to call their own.

How Steamboat solves this conundrum could have implications for communities across the country that are struggling with affordability as their populations grow. Home prices have soared in the past two years in cities like Austin and Phoenix as well as in ski towns like Truckee and Sun Valley. Adding more dense housing units would help keep prices affordable, because many of these places have natural boundaries like mountains or oceans that prevent developers from sprawling out. But proposals like Peasley’s are usually thwarted by neighbors who complain about their views being blocked or their parking becoming limited or their beloved town—which they themselves moved to years or decades before—getting too crowded.

Jason Peasley, Exectutive Director of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority, stands on Brown Ranch
Jason Peasley, Exectutive Director of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority, stands on Brown Ranch just west of the city of Steamboat Springs, Colorado on May 16, 2022.David Williams for TIME

Many communities like Steamboat are reaching a breaking point. Here, the need for more housing had been abundantly clear even before the pandemic, as investors turned condos and apartments that had once provided workforce housing into cash cows on Airbnb. Then, in 2020, remote workers flocked to Steamboat. For all the urban planners proclaiming density to be the solution to America’s housing needs, the majority of Americans still dreamed of a single-family home, with a yard, a tree, and room to grow, and the pandemic only whetted that appetite as families spent more time at home and looked for private outdoor space and extra rooms to double as offices. The median listing price of a single family home in Steamboat is now $829,000, up from $529,000 in 2019. Rents for a one-bedroom apartment are hovering around $2,100, about one-third higher than the national average.

By July of 2021, 60 percent of Americans said they’d prefer to live in a place where the homes are large and farther apart, even if schools, stores, and restaurants were a few miles away, up from 53 percent before the pandemic, according to a Pew Research Center survey. In contrast, 39 percent preferred a community where homes are small and close to each other but where schools, stores, and restaurants were in walking distance, down from 47 percent in 2019.

That’s even though half of Americans say that affordable housing is a major problem in their community. As Peasley has tried to explain time and again, affordability and density go hand in hand. Single family homes are much more expensive to build than attached homes or apartments, and they take up more room, and need more resources to maintain. Steamboat could build seven attached homes for the amount it would cost to build one single-family detached home, according to projections by Mithun, a consulting group helping with the project.

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“We have an opportunity that maybe no other community has to really thoughtfully address our housing issues in one massive development,” Peasley, a tall redheaded urban planning guru who could be mistaken for an Olympic skateboarder, told me recently. “This could really be a template for our 21st century live, work, and play.”

Peasley is uniquely suited to helping convert Steamboat to pro-density. He was a city planner for Steamboat Springs for five years before taking over the Yampa Valley Housing Authority a decade ago; his tenure has created hundreds of units of affordable housing. His success in getting tax credits to build some affordable housing in Steamboat is what motivated anonymous donors to give him the money to buy Brown Ranch and build even more. Peasley hopes to build 2,300 units at Brown Ranch, which would meet the demand projected for the next two decades.

But no matter how many times Peasley explains this all to the community, even the most self-aware residents of Steamboat are having a hard time letting go of their vision of a home and yard to call their own. “The disconnect we’re having is that everyone wants the American dream—a single-family home—and economists tell us it’s not possible,” Peasley says. The surest way to wealth in America has long been to stake claim to a plot of land and a home, but places like Steamboat are discovering that if they are dedicated to welcoming everyone who wants to live there, they’re going to have to pioneer another way.

The problem with seeking more space

In 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau declared the American frontier closed, meaning there was no land that settlers hadn’t claimed, nowhere further west to expand. Yet people have continued to move west, seeking better weather, more land, a different life, the growing population all competing for a limited set of homes, roads, and water.

Since the turn of the 20th century, the American West—which is roughly the states from Colorado west, defined by the Census Bureau—has added 73 million people. Today, nearly one-quarter of the nation’s population lives in the 13 western states, up from just 7% in 1900. If new residents lived in the west the same way they lived in cities like New York and Philadelphia—in tall buildings with apartments stacked on top of one another—there might not be a housing affordability problem today. But in the westward expansion, Americans grabbed as much space as they could, sometimes given it for free by the federal government if they were willing to farm it. The West grew out rather than up.

“There’s a certain independence that Westerners have, where folks don’t want to be regulated, they value independence and wide open spaces, and that manifests itself in the housing choices people make,” says Robert Parker, director of strategy at the University of Oregon’s Institute for Policy Research & Engagement, where he studies housing density.

Brown Ranch, a 536-acre property on the west side of Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Brown Ranch, a 536-acre property on the west side of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, which was gifted to the Yampa Valley Housing Authority in mid-August 2021 by an anonymous donor.David Williams for TIME

Worried about sprawl, some cities started establishing urban growth boundaries in the 1950s, limiting development outside a certain area. The boundaries preserved the open space that drew people west, but also limited housing production. Today, in Steamboat Springs, development outside the urban growth boundary is restricted to one unit every 35 acres—or less. That puts even more pressure on building density where it is allowed; Brown Ranch is the largest plot of undeveloped land inside Steamboat’s urban growth boundary.

When land seemed endless and cheap, the federal government encouraged families to spread out. It subsidized highways so that wealthier families could easily get between city centers and the suburbs, and provided tax incentives for home ownership.

But Americans’ preference for single-family homes has also contributed to the housing undersupply that has sent prices soaring over the last two years. Between 1970 and 2020, 52 million single-family homes were built in America, accounting for three-quarters of all the housing built over that time, according to Census data. Over the same time, the population grew by 128 million. As a result, the median price of a home in the U.S. more than doubled over that time, even when adjusted for inflation.

This is playing out across states in the American West. Colorado’s population doubled between 1980 and 2020, adding 2.8 million people, but the state only built 1.4 million units over the same period, 70% of them single-family homes. The median price for a single family home in 2020 was $434,000. Today, it’s around $600,000.

The families committed to staying are crowding into housing as they wait for a solution. About one-quarter of all children now live in “doubled-up” households, where a nuclear family lives with additional family members. In places like Steamboat, doubled-up households are often in the smallest homes, which are trailers in the town’s handful of trailer parks. In doubled-up households, the use of drugs and alcohol rises, as does domestic violence, because the situation is so stressful, says Irene Avitia, who works with families at Integrated Communities, a Steamboat nonprofit that works with the Latino community.

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The housing troubles are also bad for the local economy. Banks are reducing their hours, and restaurants are closing a few days a week because they can’t find enough workers, because staff can’t afford to live nearby in Steamboat. The ski area cut off night service because it was so short-staffed. The local medical center struggles to recruit doctors and nurses because candidates hear about how hard it will be to find housing if they move there. One bartender, David Hughes, told me his rent for one room in a four bedroom house was going up to $1,500 per person, from $900, and he was probably going to have to leave town.

“We can’t continue to exist here if employees don’t have secure housing,” says Andrew Beckler, the founder and CEO of Grass Sticks, a company that makes bamboo paddles and ski poles.

That population growth outpaced the supply of single-family homes has been very good for the pocketbooks of people who have bought them in the last few decades. Homeowners collectively have $29 billion in real estate equity, three times what they did 20 years ago, according to the Federal Reserve.

Investing in a home and making a big sum to retire on has become such an American rite of passage that it’s hard to ask Steamboat residents like Avitia, who lives in a trailer park with her husband and two daughters, to give up on the same dream. “I would love to own a single-family home in Steamboat, and Brown Ranch has created that hope for my family,” she says.

Even people who live in apartments in Steamboat now say they’d prefer a single-family home.

Lizzy Konen, 33, grew up in a single-family home in San Diego that she says her parents would never be able to afford today. She moved to Steamboat 12 years ago and wants to stay there, but the lease on the one-bedroom she rents is up in July, and the owner wants to demolish the building and construct a multimillion dollar home that he can sell for profit. Konen knows she’ll probably have to move to Oak Creek or Hayden, smaller towns that are 30-45 minutes away, because she can’t afford to buy a house or pay $2,100/month for an apartment. But when asked what her vision for Brown Ranch, she says: “I would love to own a single family home and have pets and children running around. I would rather not be in an apartment building. It doesn’t feel as homey.”

Traffic passes through the downtown area of Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Traffic passes through the downtown area of Steamboat Springs, Colorado on May 16, 2022.David Williams for TIME

Selling people on apartments

The big challenge for Peasley is balancing the wants of people like Avitia and Konen with the larger community’s need for affordable housing. He’s trying to learn from past missteps, like in 2010 when developers committed to building thousands of condos, the city council approved it, and then enraged voters worried about overcrowding put the project on the ballot and it was soundly defeated. This time around, Peasley is trying to get residents as involved as possible before any major decisions are made. The housing authority has held 200 community meetings where residents have spoken about what they want from Brown Ranch, and their suggestions include roof gardens, hiking trails, community composting, greenhouses, a school, a grocery store, a coffee shop, a walkable commercial area, and, of course, single-family homes.

Peasley says more community engagement is what’s going to get people closer to accepting that how Brown Ranch will look will be different than their ideal vision. For example, attendees of Brown Ranch meetings often mention that they want the development to be Net Zero, which provides an opportunity for YVHA staff to explain that density is very sustainable—apartments or attached units require fewer resources to build and maintain than single-family homes.

“By doing this transparent process, and having the community discuss it, we hope that while they might not agree, they at least understand,” says Cole Hewitt, the president of the board of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority. “Maybe there aren’t as many people that show up and say, ‘Well, I didn’t know this was going on.’ They can stand up and say, ‘I’m a part of it. I understand it. I get where you’re coming from. I still disagree with it.’ But that’s a lot better discussion than, ‘No, don’t do it.’”

The community meetings have served to jump start a discussion about how Steamboat’s hopes and dreams match up with reality. “Everyone wants to live in a single family 5000 square foot mansion next to an ocean with a view of the mountains and is across the street from a school and within walking distance from the bar. That doesn’t exist,” Michael Fitz, a 29-year old local who owns a 600-square foot home in a trailer park, told Steamboat residents gathered to talk about the urban design of Brown Ranch.

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The people who led the opposition to the past development seem to be getting on board. Tim Rowse, who led the campaign that stopped development on Brown Ranch in 2009, told me recently that he thinks the housing authority is planning the development in the best possible way, and he supports it wholeheartedly. (He told me this from his mansion perched on acres of virgin land outside Steamboat.)

Sheila Henderson, the Brown Ranch project manager who headed a local nonprofit for nearly a decade, says she recently had a good talk with a woman who wanted her own “cute little cottage” on Brown Ranch. When Henderson explained that such a home might take away space from families who were living in unsafe conditions, though, the woman relented and said she would be open to living in a multifamily home.

Whether or not Brown Ranch gets built will likely depend on the persuasion powers of Peasley, an unabashed optimist who sometimes takes on the role of city coach. He says he wants to change people’s vision of what a vibrant American community can look like—it doesn’t have to have driveways and parking lots, for instance. “The only way we fail is to stop trying,” he said at a recent meeting. Besides, he says, for more than a century, people have given up creature comforts to move to Steamboat for the access to mountains and a life of beauty. That might have meant giving up plumbing or getting used to snow in May in the past; now, it might mean being OK living in a house that shares a wall with a neighbor.

The reality of population growth

Even if he does convince Steamboat to embrace density, Peasley still has a long road ahead to make Brown Ranch a reality. Consultants have estimated that infrastructure on the site will cost around $400 million, which includes improvements to the local highway, water treatment plant, and sewer system, and roads, and trails in the development. Once that’s complete, the housing authority can start building homes. The city isn’t even sure how it will affordably house all the workers who are going to be flocking to Steamboat to build this affordable housing. One idea is to have construction workers live in an old barn.

Steamboat’s infrastructure is already straining under the weight of population growth. There’s only one main road through town, Highway 40, and at rush hour, long lines of pickup trucks get stuck at traffic lights as they make their way across town. After wildfire damage and rains created landslide dangers on Interstate 70, Colorado’s major east-west highway, traffic was rerouted onto Highway 40, causing more headaches for Steamboat residents. The electricity cooperative can only serve 15 homes at Brown Ranch before it runs out of capacity, and water is in short supply, as it is just about everywhere in the American West.

Brown Ranch will, of course, add further strain. Peasley estimated that by the time Brown Ranch is finished, it will have almost 1,000 rental apartments and 400 to own, 218 single family-attached homes for rent and 266 to purchase, and 98 single-family detached homes for rent and 300 to purchase. The development will also include a K-8 school, a childcare center, office space, retail, and a grocery store.

It’s enough to make old-timers argue against population growth in Steamboat. “Everybody’s moving here—I have to tell you, it would be nice if they wouldn’t,” Cindy Clark, a resident since 1988, told me, outside the crowded grocery store parking lot.

But as the many doubled-up residents of Steamboat can attest, America has never been able to prevent people from moving west. Steamboat and popular communities across the country can convince the people who got there first to agree to accommodate the new residents by building more housing. Or residents can declare their cities and towns closed to new construction, new ways to live, and the new people who are seeking a place to live as they did months, years, or decades before.

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