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Leilani Cardenas, 6, enjoys her new room in Gypsum on Monday, April 18, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

GYPSUM — Brenda Saucedo has lived in Eagle County all her life, but with housing prices that have become out of reach and a daughter to care for, the place she considers home once left her homeless.

Three years ago, Saucedo, of Gypsum, turned to a shelter while figuring out how to piece together a future after becoming a single mother. Now, she’s in her own house with bedrooms for her and her daughter, a balcony where they share lunch on warm spring days and a front door that opens up to a view of the Sawatch Range in the distance.

It’s everything Saucedo, 29, has wanted for her and her 6-year-old daughter, Leilani Cardenas — and everything that has remained out of her grasp in a county where the average home sale price is about $2 million.

“It’s kind of like a feeling of being stuck,” Saucedo said, adding, “you just start questioning yourself a lot.” 

Saucedo, an administrator in Eagle County School District’s early childhood department, became a homeowner in December after Habitat for Humanity Vail Valley selected her to receive one of 12 houses newly built on land donated in 2018 by the school district.

That donation solidified a partnership that helped the local Habitat for Humanity focus on building affordable, permanent housing for educators, police officers, health care workers and other members of the county’s workforce who are living in a precarious middle ground. They earn the kind of salary that once made it possible for them to live in the community where they work and have stability. But now, as resort mountain towns buckle under the weight of a housing crisis with soaring home prices and low stock, their income no longer stretches far enough. And yet, in many cases, they still make too much money to qualify for help from government agencies or nonprofits.

“They’re finding themselves in this limbo,” said April-Dawn Knudsen, executive director of Summit Habitat for Humanity, which is also embarking on a project to connect teachers and other community workers with affordable housing in Summit and Park counties.

“This is the lifeblood of our community, and we have to find solutions to house these folks,” Knudsen said.

Brenda Saucedo and her daughter, Leilani Cardenas, at their home in Gypsum on Monday, April 18, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Habitat for Humanity organizations in the high country have scrambled to develop their own solutions, investing more of their time and resources into teachers and other professionals desperate for permanent homes, which Knudsen called “uncharted territory” for the nonprofit. The organization, which builds homes for low-income families in 45 communities throughout Colorado, never envisioned housing educators and police officers, she said.

Habitat for Humanity traditionally builds homes affordable to families earning between 35% and 80% of the area median income. In Eagle County, 80% of the median income for a family of four is about $70,000 a year, said Elyse Howard, director of development at Habitat for Humanity Vail Valley.

Howard has watched as the housing stock once affordable to public service workers, including teachers, has “eroded” in Eagle County over the past decade and a half, particularly as prospective homeowners have had to start competing against buyers from all over the state, country and world. More than half of real estate transactions in the past two years have been made with out-of-county buyers, Howard said. She finds it “deeply troubling” that educators in her community schools aren’t always able to live in the place they teach.

“I want to live in a place and I want my kids to be educated in schools where teachers can live where they work,” Howard said. “They’re so important, and they’re such a critical part of the fabric of our community.”

Elyse Howard, director of development at Habitat for Humanity Vail Valley, on April 18, 2022, in Gypsum. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Habitat for Humanity Vail Valley completed a dozen homes in a neighborhood on the edge of Red Hill Elementary School in Gypsum in fall 2021. It’s one tiny step toward opening up more housing at a time the county faces a significant deficit. A 2018 housing needs assessment of the Eagle River Valley of Eagle County determined that the area would be 5,900 units short by 2025. The pandemic accelerated that shortage, Howard said.

“It’s not going to solve the whole problem,” she said, “but we’ve got 12 more and we’re going to keep going.”

The organization now has its ambitions set on building an entirely separate neighborhood of 16 modular homes in Eagle, on another piece of land donated by Eagle County School District. Most of those homes will be designated for district staff members, particularly teachers who have taught in the district for three to five years. Realizing that teachers’ salaries don’t go far enough in the county’s housing market, Habitat of Humanity Vail Valley will build homes for educators even though their incomes are above the nonprofit’s normal threshold to qualify for help.

The nonprofit anticipates completing the neighborhood by early 2024 and, along with the school district, hopes it gives more experienced teachers a way to stay in both their school and community.

Habitat for Humanity Vail Valley partnered with Eagle County School District to construct an affordable housing neighborhood, in part for district staff. The nonprofit and school district are embarking on a second neighborhood in hopes of housing teachers with three to five years of experience in the classroom. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“They’re so critical in the work that they do that if they leave the community, it’s a loss to the school district, it’s a loss to the children of the community, it’s a loss to everyone,” said Emily Peyton, director of special projects for the nonprofit.

The future neighborhood is part of a broader district effort to secure affordable housing for employees, said Matthew Miano, the district’s chief communications officer. The district has also broken ground on a project in Edwards that will create 37 units — including one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments — that the district will own and lease to staff members.

“Hope to exist”

Saucedo, the Habitat homeowner in Gypsum, doesn’t know how she would have managed to stay in Eagle County without the nonprofit’s help. Before moving in, she and her daughter were renting a one-bedroom apartment in Avon for almost $1,300 a month. They were scraping by on the $4,000 she brought home each month, and she often worried about the rent increasing.

Her new home, which she had a hand in building, has given her the kind of stability that will help keep Leilani safe and put her own mind at ease, especially after her battles with depression.

The Habitat home “gave me hope to exist in general,” she said.

Affordable housing in Summit and Park counties has been just as hard to come by, said Knudsen, of Summit Habitat for Humanity. 

Brenda Saucedo and her daughter, Leilani Cardenas, at their home in Gypsum on Monday, April 18, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“It’s always been staggering, but COVID has really brought us to a place that has never been forecasted before,” Knudsen said. “It’s outrageous not only how prices have changed, but just the lack of housing stock is remarkable.”

She added that as of last week, there were only 54 houses for sale in Park County, which is roughly the size of Delaware.

Summit Habitat for Humanity is in the early stages of a project in Fairplay in Park County, building eight single family modular units of about 1,400 square feet, each with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The homes, which will be deed restricted and capped at $250,000, will occupy about a half acre of land donated to the organization by Park County commissioners.

The development, which the organization aims to complete before the end of 2024, neighbors South Park schools, and its homes will be available to anyone who has permanent full-time employment within Park County. The nonprofit is prioritizing teachers, law enforcement, first responders and municipal employees, Knudsen said, noting most of those workers earn 60%-70% of the area’s average median income. 

They are classified as renters, she said, because their income is “too low for viable homeownership sustainability.”

Kirsten Kraus, a second grade teacher at Edith Teter Elementary School in Fairplay, is one of two homeowners that Summit Habitat for Humanity has so far selected to move into the nascent development.

Kraus, 42, has spent much of her time as a resident of Alma holding her breath, wondering each year whether her landlords would raise her rent. After the owners of a home she previously rented for $1,100 per month decided to sell it about a year and a half ago, she lucked out and was able to move into an affordable housing neighborhood for the same price. Her lease started in December 2020. One year later, her rent jumped to $1,481.

Kraus has been able to make ends meet with a salary that’s close to $46,000 and child support she receives from her ex-husband to support their three teenagers. But she’s stuck inside the workforce “limbo” as she makes too much money for most forms of government aid and yet not enough money to afford her own home in the high country.

“To be able to own and just know that you’re secure was the big draw” to a Habitat home, Kraus said.

Summit Habitat for Humanity has also committed to constructing 15 homes in Summit County over the next five years that will target the local workforce, including educators. Similar housing efforts are underway in Pitkin County, where Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley is collaborating with the county and Roaring Fork Schools to construct 27 homes behind Basalt High School in Basalt. 

“I think that every community should really see red flags when their middle class is struggling or when their middle class is slowly starting to lose ground,” Knudsen said. “I think that that has an impact across all socioeconomic backgrounds really. It means that if the middle is slipping, that those who were looking up at the middle are also falling further behind.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...