For years, trailer parks set up on state-owned land have offered the workers who plow Colorado’s highways and maintain many of its scenic byways one of the surest ways to gain a stable footing in wildly expensive mountain housing markets.
“I was part of the one in Avon,” said Joseph Bajza, who was starting a family with his wife when the Colorado Department of Transportation hired him eight years ago. He landed on a cheap, state-provided trailer pad.
“And then we saved up enough to get a bigger (trailer) that was located at the Wolcott facility when another employee left,” he said, referring to another CDOT site. “From there, we had enough equity when we sold that place to put a significant downpayment on our home now, in Gypsum.”
But CDOT’s trailer parks — with a dozen trailer pads here, two or four there, for a monthly charge of about $25 — have been an ad-hoc way of managing the housing affordability crisis that’s hamstrung its ability to staff essential positions in the mountains. Now the transportation department is jumping more seriously into the housing business, with the hope of figuring out a sustainable solution.
It’s preparing to break ground in early 2023 on the first two of what’s expected to be a series of CDOT-financed employee housing developments. CDOT will cover construction costs in Frisco and Fairplay by tapping its savings from hundreds of vacant highway maintenance positions in recent years.
CDOT leaders see the move, which echoes efforts by ski resorts and other mountain employers, as a matter of necessity, building on other initiatives to draw and keep workers. The department has drastically increased housing stipends that can boost pay by more than 50% in areas with sky-high costs of living.
It’s also opened up entry-level maintenance jobs to people who don’t yet have a commercial driver’s license by offering an in-house CDL program.
Yet the housing barrier persists, stamping out some once-eager new hires’ interest after they scope out places to live.
“This is not something new,” said John Lorme, CDOT’s director of maintenance and operations, a division with nearly 1,700 jobs at full staffing. “Ever since people have come to Colorado to ski, it’s been hard for us to staff maintainers in those positions.”
CDOT’s highway maintenance jobs, which have overtime potential, start at an annual salary of $40,164. That has inched up in recent years but remains a fraction of what private employers pay drivers with CDLs, even if some CDOT officials point out that state benefits often are more expansive.
This winter, the agency is offering performance bonuses of up to $2,000 to reward workers for the long hours they’re putting in at the helm of snowplows.
“Retaining staff is almost the exact same challenge as hiring,” Lorme said. “If you have a commercial motor vehicle license today, you’ve got a ticket to ride.”
During the snowy winter months, CDOT’s maintenance division weathers its big shortages, particularly along Interstate 70 in the mountains, by sharing resources across district lines and running week-long rotations of crews from the Eastern Plains and other areas, putting them up in hotels. Lorme expects those efforts to fill the gap again this winter.
But the overall shortage was worse this year.
During the summer, about 325 entry-level maintenance jobs were vacant, or roughly a third in that classification, Lorme said. Vacancy rates reached upward of 70% at some mountain patrol offices, including Silverthorne — and approached 100% in the Roaring Fork Valley, home to Aspen, where all 15 maintainer positions were empty.
But Lorme said a sprint of hiring in recent months has reduced those vacancies to 275 as of Dec. 21.
$2,000 monthly stipends fill gap — but not completely
CDOT now offers an extra $2,000 a month in high-cost areas, including along the entire I-70 mountain corridor, up from $800. In the Denver area, the stipend is $1,000 a month.
With rents running two to three times the stipend’s value in some communities, it doesn’t always close the affordability gap. And the supply has shrunk, as out-of-towners have snapped up condos and listed them on short-term-rental sites for vacationers.
So CDOT is aiming to fill some of the housing market gaps itself.
First came a pilot initiative in Glenwood Springs. The owners of the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park built a new apartment complex to house some employees of the park and Iron Mountain Hot Springs. CDOT struck an agreement to reserve a handful of first-floor units and office space. Now CDOT employees live in two apartments, Lorme said.
The new projects are expected to break ground in late spring or early summer, he said.
In Frisco, CDOT and the town’s government are splitting the cost evenly for a $12.5 million, two-building workforce housing project that will build 22 apartments, half of them for CDOT employees, on state-owned property. CDOT is kicking in $3 million, along with the land’s value, Lorme said.
The Fairplay project, budgeted at up to $6 million, will construct 14 to 16 homes and townhomes on a single acre in town that’s now home to an old CDOT maintenance building. CDOT recently awarded a project contract and is going it alone, though Lorme said some of the homes could be offered to Colorado State Patrol troopers or local government workers.
Once they’re built, the plan is for CDOT to offer the apartments or townhomes as a perk in lieu of the housing stipend, which would be used to cover most of the rent. Residents will pay perhaps a couple hundred dollars a month, he said, to cover property management — making the operation self-sustaining.
“It won’t cost the taxpayers anything,” Lorme said.
As the State Patrol grapples with similar hiring and retention challenges in the mountains, it’s joined forces with CDOT, reserving additional apartment units in the private Glenwood Springs complex and looking at further participation.
“It used to be (only) a mountain corridor issue — the Vails and Aspens of the world — trying to get troopers in those areas,” said Lt. Col. Barry Bratt, the commander over all State Patrol districts outside metro Denver. “It’s really becoming an issue across the whole state.”
Where troopers live can affect response times, Bratt said. As the housing challenge has intensified, mountain communities have become a more likely first assignment for troopers graduating from the training academy, he said. More seasoned officers can’t afford to stay once they’re starting families, even at base salaries that are double or more what CDOT’s highway workers make.
Colorado isn’t alone in facing workforce housing challenge
Other states with wildly varying costs of living, from California to Maine, face similar housing-related workforce challenges.
“To address recruitment and retention challenges, Caltrans has implemented several strategies,” said William Arnold, a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation. Those include “providing dormitory housing for people working on winter operations in mountain regions and negotiating recruitment and retention differentials in high cost-of-living areas.”
In Colorado, Lorme and other officials are eyeing other communities for potential housing projects, from Buena Vista and Basalt to Vail and Steamboat Springs. In Steamboat, he said, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s park rangers also have faced steep housing barriers.
“If this is successful — and I think it will be — hopefully it is a model for other state agencies to follow,” Lorme said.
Lately, CDOT is having more success hiring maintenance workers. Sean Lichota, who manages CDOT’s maintenance training academy in Aurora, said he’s watched dozens of new recruits earn their commercial licenses and join maintenance crews, even though “some of them never had any experience around a truck.”
“You get to have an impact on the community where you live,” he said, giving the job a mission focus that can help offset the pay gaps.
But for many, it’s still a matter of being able to afford to live in those communities.
In Eagle County, Bajza, who’s risen to a senior supervisor position, now watches new employees navigate the housing challenges he once did. And the extra money CDOT is putting into paychecks has only strengthened job offers.
“When people do start shopping” for places to rent or buy, Bajza said, they’re less likely to be spooked into backing out of the job. “They’re not so eager to pull an application, because we are supplementing with that housing stipend.”
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