One morning this past March, while skiing up a snowy trail in Breckenridge, I saw an old friend shuffling toward me. Mike “Quigs” Quigley was towing an empty propane tank on a plastic sled, his long red and gray beard tickling his duct-taped jacket. I’d biked, skied, and shared deep conversations with Quigs during my two decades in town. Recently, I’d heard he was being kicked out of a tiny miner’s cabin located high on the flank of 13,684-foot Bald Mountain, where he’d lived for 30 years. The news alarmed me; I wondered what it meant for Quigs, as well as for Breckenridge.

Quigs paused and flashed a gentle smile. We caught up briefly, and I told him I’d learned that he had to leave. “Yeah,” he confirmed—he had to be out by the end of June. Then he said something that was hard to believe: The reason he couldn’t stay was because the land on which his cabin sits—tucked away in a forested gully, a thousand feet above town—had been sold for $15 million.

You could argue no real estate news in Colorado should come as a surprise anymore. Rapid population growth, pandemic-fueled Zoomtowns, and historically low inventory turned the market into one giant silent auction—especially in mountain towns. But as I would learn, it wasn’t just the price that made this deal so significant.

Breckenridge had been wading through an uncertain future as a community, with scant workforce housing, widespread employee shortages, booming economic growth, and a recently imposed, controversial cap on how many short-term rentals (STRs) can exist in Breckenridge, which has more STRs than any other locale in Colorado. I’d sat through marathon public meetings and advocated publicly for ways to keep locals from leaving. But suddenly, the cost was laid bare.

Quigs, who is 59, did his best to downplay the significance of his pending move, probably to ease my concern. But when I asked where he was going to live, he looked at the ground and got quiet. He paused, then stammered, “I don’t know.”

Breckenridge was founded in 1859 as a mining town and didn’t become a tourist destination until the ski area opened more than a century later, in 1961. “Funny little ugly duckling Breckenridge is fast developing into a dramatic swan,” the Rocky Mountain News declared in 1972. “The year-round recreation area is a model of what a mountain community can be.”

The town of Breckenridge circa 1973. Photo by Alden Spilman.

Still, no one believed it would become as popular as its lower-elevation cousins Aspen and Vail. “If you sat down with 10 of the older locals and asked, ‘Why were you here in 1980?’ the answer wasn’t, ‘To make money,’ ” says Turk Montepare, a real estate agent who moved to town in 1973. “For years, you’d be in a bar talking to somebody, saying, We’re never going to take off here, because we’re at 9,600 feet. That was a common thread.”

Quigs is one of seven children and grew up in Connecticut. His father was a surgeon. In 1985, shortly after graduating from Hobart College with a degree in Asian studies, Quigs sold his car, bought a one-way ticket to Denver, and with $75 in his pocket, hopped on a bus to Summit County, where he’d skied on spring break. He had planned to apply for the foreign service, but the magic of what he discovered in Colorado kept him in Breckenridge. “I was in town for just a matter of weeks, and I felt like I knew everybody and everybody knew me,” he recalls. “All the people were extremely cool, unlike anywhere else.”

He worked at restaurants and eventually got into construction. At the time, it was de rigueur to occupy a backcountry cabin, and Quigs found the lifestyle appealing. He lived in small miner’s cabins in French Gulch and later Monte Cristo Gulch, below 14,265-foot Quandary Peak. In 1992, he was living in a cab-over camper when he heard that a fellow construction worker had moved out of a cabin on Illinois Creek, just east of town. Quigs knew the owner, a developer named Brian Stahl, and got permission to move in. When Stahl sold his land six years later, Quigs recalls, “he said, ‘Just stay there until they throw you out.’ ”

It didn’t take long before Quigs came home to find a lease nailed to his door. The new owner, likely wary of Quigs claiming squatter’s rights, required payment of $1 a year. Quigs signed the lease but stopped paying the dollar after a few years.

He dealt with the occasional hairy bear paw reaching through his door at dawn and multiple generations of pine martens that jumped on his head in the middle of the night. But the creek ran under his deck, and he loved the buffer from society cabin life afforded. “It becomes part of you,” he says. He packed out his poop, took sponge baths, and embraced the 20-minute hike home under the stars. “The coldest nights,” he says, “are always the clearest.”

Gold Camp, where David Clouse listed his first unit after starting VRBO in 1995. Photo by Theo Stroomer.

Perhaps inevitably, as Breckenridge became increasingly popular with travelers, parts of the town became commodified. In 1995, David Clouse, a computer programmer who lived in Aurora and was designing United Airlines’ online reservation system, wanted to rent out his two-bedroom condo in Breckenridge. At the time, there was no established way to do so without hiring a property manager to market it. Clouse started a website called Vacation Rentals By Owner, or VRBO, and listed his unit at Gold Camp, a complex within walking distance of the ski resort. The next nine or so listings on VRBO were in Breckenridge, too. “I had very simple aspirations,” Clouse says. “At the end of our first year, we had 250 properties, and I didn’t charge anything. Then, I realized that if people were willing to pay for it, there might be something there.”

His model launched what would become a multibillion-dollar industry and paved the way for brands such as HomeToGo and Airbnb. Breckenridge, meanwhile, became one of the world’s STR epicenters—and a modern-day gold mine for savvy prospectors.

Mark and Mary Waldman arrived in 2001 from Silicon Valley, where Mark had worked as an economic forecaster and Mary as a sales engineer. They had often visited Breckenridge on Presidents Day weekend and dreamed of living in the mountains. The couple bought a boutique hotel in Frisco in May 2002 and three years later launched Frisco Mountain Rentals with a handful of condos. As they expanded into Breckenridge, they acquired Summit Mountain Rentals and assumed the name. Now, the Waldmans have more than 40 full-time employees and manage more than 250 STRs—with about 200 in Breckenridge—making them one of the largest rental managers in town.

“We don’t have kids. Summit Mountain Rentals is our baby,” Mary says. She and Mark, both in their early 50s, are sitting in their office in Frisco. Mark is holding their 11-year-old Chihuahua, Bella, on his lap. “We didn’t ski for three years because we worked so hard,” he says. “That’s what it takes.”

Breckenridge has long relied on STRs to house a majority of its guests, because it doesn’t have large hotels like, for example, Vail. But as online booking platforms streamlined the process and hundreds of new timeshares augmented the supply—and as Vail Resorts, which owns Breckenridge Ski Resort, increased its Epic season pass sales to more than two million—the number of vacation rentals ballooned. Between 2012 and the summer of 2021, when the debate over STRs’ impact began in earnest, STR licenses increased from 2,881 to 3,945. That number was by far the most of any Colorado municipality, in a town of just more than 5,000 residents. The influx of visitors brought ample employment, record revenue, and unprecedented congestion.

Many towns in the West are struggling to manage their STRs, which give owners scheduling flexibility and, often, a higher return than long-term rentals. But most municipalities have far fewer STRs, and regulate them more tightly, than Breckenridge. Denver, which had 2,419 STR licenses as of early August (up 18 percent from 2021), and Boulder, which has roughly 600, only allow homeowners to rent out primary residences. Leadville, which was so concerned about STRs that its City Council imposed a cap on licenses in 2021, has just 171. Aspen has fewer than a third as many as Breckenridge and recently imposed a moratorium on new licenses. Meanwhile, Breckenridge’s total has grown to 4,370—57 percent of all units in town. The rest of Summit County combined has approximately 6,000 STRs.

Despite locals’ gripes about compromised cell service and empty grocery store shelves, the sheer number of visitors wasn’t the only problem. The issue was where they were staying: increasingly, in residential neighborhoods and complexes that had once housed local workers who would rent for six months or longer. The vast majority of STR units are two bedrooms or smaller, like at Gold Camp, where VRBO started. In 2012, only 19 percent of Gold Camp’s 170 units were short-term rentals. Today, 45 percent of them are.

Quigs’ cabin sits on a piece of land known as the Ranch, which originally encompassed 485 acres of assembled mining claims. After building 12 large homes in the mid-’90s, Stahl sold the Ranch—and its remaining 16 homesites, aka Phase 2—for $4.9 million to a former Dell Computers executive named John Kinnaird. Kinnaird, who owned a home in the Ranch, listed Phase 2 for $11 million in 2008. The 280-acre parcel spent most of the next 12 years on the market.

Despite its development potential, perhaps the most likely suitor was the town of Breckenridge itself. A controversial half-percent sales tax, which voters approved in 1997, has allowed Breckenridge to purchase 5,073 acres of open space and funded one of the most robust trail networks to be found in a small town in America. Bald Mountain’s backcountry—close to town yet far from infrastructure, with pristine recreation opportunities—had long been a target for preservation. The town and county acquired nearly a dozen mining claims on Baldy, but the Ranch stood to be their biggest score, with abundant wetlands, wildlife corridors, forest resources, singletrack, and one of the most untrammeled landscapes around. “We were ever hopeful for that property,” says Breckenridge open space and trails manager Anne Lowe.

Three years ago, the town entered into serious talks with Kinnaird. “John seemed very supportive of open space and conservation, especially since that is his backyard,” Lowe says. (Kinnaird declined an interview for this story through his attorney.) Those talks seemed to pay off when the town, with the county contributing 10 percent, signed a contract to buy Phase 2 for $10 million on March 18, 2020—more than double what Breckenridge had ever paid for an acquisition. Town Councilmembers Jeffrey Bergeron and Dick Carleton, both longtime locals, met with Quigs and told him the town would let him stay for a year. It was, Bergeron told me, enough time to perhaps figure out a way for Quigs to stay in the cabin permanently.

The pandemic changed everything. Travel ceased, budgets were cut, and the town backed out of the deal. “The optics of us purchasing a piece of property of that size at that cost during a time when we were laying off staff—you just can’t justify that,” says Breckenridge recreation director Scott Reid. Quigs was relieved his stay had been extended. But he knew it was tenuous.

By the time the town re-engaged with Kinnaird in early 2021, he’d increased his price to $15 million. The town’s $10 million offer lost out to a full-price, cash offer. The deal closed that August. In October, Quigs got a call from a lawyer representing the new owners. “She said, ‘You have two weeks to get out of there,’ ” he recalls. “I was like, You gotta be kidding me.”

Quigs received permission to stay the winter, but the symbolism of his pending departure wasn’t lost on anyone in town. “That property really represents where we are right now,” says Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula, who met with Kinnaird multiple times. “The desire to build more huge homes that are out of most people’s reach won over the community’s desire to have open space.”

Suzanne Allen Sabo. Photo by Theo Stroomer.

The new ownership group is fronted by Suzanne Allen Sabo, a Summit County resident since 1992. Allen Sabo owns a prominent architectural firm, Allen-Guerra, and has designed more than 500 local homes, including several in the Ranch. “I have to make a living and keep my firm alive,” she says. “It sounds crazy, but there’s almost no land left in Summit County. This was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. But it’s tough. My family has known Mike [Quigs] for almost 40 years. He’s worked on a lot of our jobs, he’s a great guy, and in order to subdivide the land, he has to vacate the property.”

The county, which granted permission for 16 lots on the land, said Quigs could stay, but it would cost the Ranch one of its 16 lots—which are likely to range from five to 28 acres and sell for seven figures. Allen Sabo says she can’t concede a homesite. “It’s not like we’re just raking it in,” she says.

For generations, despite what the escalating crowds might have suggested, locals fought to preserve Breckenridge’s charm. They beat back an effort to bring in a McDonald’s almost two decades ago and passed the open space tax despite vehement opposition from business owners who thought it would deter tourists.

In 2002, the town released a highly anticipated Vision Plan. Preserving “community character” ranked highest on the list of goals, just above economic viability. “The PEOPLE of Breckenridge are the community’s most valuable asset,” it read. Or as Bergeron—a three-term town councilmember who moved to Breckenridge from Boston’s South Shore in 1975 and goes by the nom de plume Biff America as a columnist: “I consider the locals to be part of the attraction.”

Even so, there have always been casualties. When the town and county bought 1,840 acres in French Gulch from B&B Mines in 2005, turning an environmental wasteland into an open space paradise, B&B had to evict 11 local “gulch rats” from seven cabins before the sale was final. Most went quietly, but an old-timer nicknamed Buckskin Buck rigged his cabin with explosives. The Jefferson County bomb squad was called in to disarm them, and Buckskin Buck pleaded guilty to possession of explosives and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Meanwhile, Breckenridge’s growth accelerated. Net taxable sales in town tripled from 2011 to 2021, jumping from $280 million to $839 million. (Vail’s didn’t even double in the same decade.) Annual short-term lodging revenue soared from $68 million in 2010 to $294 million in 2021. But whereas nearly half the workforce used to live locally, now that number is down to 27 percent. A popular bumper sticker reads: “BRECKENRIDGE: WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?”

“I don’t think this is a replay of another moment in time. I think we’ve tipped,” says Robin Theobald, a fifth-generation Breckenridge resident and former underground miner who owns 28 commercial and residential units in town. “There has never been a time when people who wanted to live and work in Breckenridge couldn’t afford to live here—until now.”

The irony of the housing crisis infiltrating Breckenridge, of all places, is as thick as the lift lines during spring break. Few, if any, towns in the West have done more to create homes for workers. When Laurie Best, the town’s manager of housing and childcare programs, started as a special projects planner in 2000, she spent fewer than 10 hours a week on housing—and was the only staffer who worked on it. Now Breckenridge has four full-time employees and one part-timer devoted to housing. The stock of deed-restricted properties (which require occupants to work locally and can carry an appreciation cap) has increased from 100 to 1,200, accommodating more than 2,100 people.

Breckenridge, Colorado. Photo by Theo Stroomer.

Still, the most recent needs assessment indicates that by 2023 there will be a shortage of 1,200 units in the Upper Blue Basin, a region defined by Dillon Reservoir to the north, Hoosier Pass to the south, the Continental Divide to the east, and the Tenmile Range to the west. “Housing is emotional,” Best says. “It’s as deep in what a person cares about as you can get. The stories you hear are endless. People who are losing their rentals and have no options. Literally not knowing where they are going to sleep tonight. Or, say you do get a house but are paying too much. I think the stress around housing is why so many locals are opting to leave. Life is short, and sometimes you have to decide which battles to fight.”

The demarcation between who lasts and who doesn’t often can be traced to one’s arrival date and which subsidies, if any, a person received. After moving to town in 2001, Jeff Carlson lived in a tent or with as many as five roommates while working in ski shops. Eventually, he took a property caretaker’s job that helped him save a little money. In 2018, he and his wife, a dietician, spent “every dollar” they had to buy a friend’s 1973 modular home. They sold a deed restriction to the county and used the proceeds to renovate their kitchen and replace the roof while starting a family. “I feel we have a house because I stuck around and was involved, which creates a support system of people who want you to succeed and stay,” says Carlson, who is 42, while looking out at French Creek from his back door. “We talk about it every week. We’ve got something that’s really special—and essentially unattainable now.”

No one needs to convince Dan Bogardus of that. For 34 years, Bogardus worked as a snowboard instructor and ski shop manager, most recently at Mountain Outfitters in Breckenridge. In June 2021, the owners of the Frisco home he and his wife had rented for eight years put it on the market. Bogardus, 51, started looking for a home to buy, but he found that he and his wife earned too much to qualify for many deed-restricted homes and were priced out of everything else. “It put us in this weird no man’s land,” he says. He had friends who were quitting their jobs, not listing their employment, or putting off marriage to help meet the requirements for deed-restricted housing.

In the fall of 2021, after failing to land multiple homes they’d attempted to buy, Bogardus and his wife decided to leave Summit County. Then they saw a new listing in Frisco: a deed-restricted, three-bedroom house for $500,000. The seller told Bogardus’ wife that they were her first choice. Then, she stopped responding to their texts. Only after the sale did they find out she’d accepted a cash offer at the last minute.

The town of Frisco bought Bogardus’ former rental for $1.35 million. According to a Frisco spokesperson, the plan is to combine it with an adjacent lot and add density by building more workforce housing—potentially something like a fourplex.

“It’s not a meritocracy up here,” Bogardus says. “It’s not how hard you work.” He and his wife bought a pickup with a camper and stuffed it full of paddleboards, bikes, and backpacking gear. At the end of May, they hit the road in search of a place to call home.

Last winter, Bogardus sometimes looked up at the Tenmile Range and broke into tears. “Because I knew, I can’t have this anymore,” he says, then pauses. “We’re going to land somewhere near the stuff we like to do, but Summit’s a special place. I don’t blame anybody for wanting a piece of it.”

Balance. That’s the word everyone uses when they talk about Breckenridge’s status quo: the need to find harmony again. Locals moving away or being displaced, old-timers cashing out, wealthy retirees leaving because their neighborhoods are teeming with short-term rentals—none of those alone is enough to change a town.

But crucial nonprofits are suddenly having a harder time fundraising, vacationers can’t always get dinner reservations, and under-the-table deals have started permeating the workforce-housing market. “I’ve heard of couches selling for $5,000,” says Town Councilmember Todd Rankin, a longtime real estate agent. “Like, Hey, you can buy my deed-restricted house at this price, but you have to buy my bachelor couch that I wouldn’t let my mom sit on, too. Otherwise, I’ll find someone who will.”

With no way to control the number of day visitors, the question became whether to regulate how many guests could stay overnight. Breckenridge Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Owens, a 41-year-old who grew up in Denver and lives in a deed-restricted home, proposed capping the number of short-term rentals at the August 10, 2021, Town Council meeting.

This prompted a series of contentious discussions. Property managers and real estate agents lambasted a potential cap, encouraging second homeowners to fly in and speak up. Other locals, myself included, supported a cap as a way to address congestion, preserve neighborhoods, and increase workforce housing. The Town Council voted unanimously to impose a cap in late August 2021, limiting the STR total to 3,700—after attrition—and declaring that licenses would no longer transfer if a property sold. “The large number of [STRs] pose a real and imminent threat to the quality of life of the residents of the Town,” the ordinance read.

Quigs riding his bike on Bald Mountain in July. Photo by Theo Stroomer.

Opponents pushed back harder, leading to a climactic meeting on September 28. After five hours of heated public comment, councilmembers had a chance to explain their votes. Jeffrey Bergeron, who had been fighting growth for 40 years, often unsuccessfully, ticked off reasons why it had come to this and blasted a proposal for higher-density complexes far from the town’s core. “I do not want to live in a community that has a four-story building out on Airport Road, where we house people like refugees,” he said. “If you don’t think this town is in a position that we can’t sustain, then you’re either not paying attention or you’re thinking of your pocketbooks instead of the goodness of our community.”

A real estate agent sitting in the back of the room shouted, “You’re taking away our livelihood!”

“Ah, eat me,” Bergeron replied.

He later apologized for the comment—and took plenty of flak in the newspaper’s letters section. Meanwhile, a rush on STR licenses before the ordinance took effect in November bumped the town’s total to 4,436 (some owners chose not to renew for 2022). Citing higher enforcement and administrative costs, the town increased the annual license fee from $25 per unit to, in 2023, $756 per bedroom—which is expected to generate $4 million a year for workforce housing. Many property managers contend that the cap and increased fee are punishments. “I think regulating short-term rentals has been an easy target to distract from the lack of investment that the town should have been making all along,” Summit Mountain Rentals’ Mark Waldman says.

Some argued Breckenridge’s property values would plummet because buyers wouldn’t be able to get STR licenses—and thus might not be able to pay their mortgages. Only four times since 1989 have Summit County’s residential units depreciated in value. The other 30 years they’ve gone up, including the highest appreciation on record, when values grew by 24 percent in 2021.

“Let’s say the regulations do hurt the value,” says Dana Cottrell,  Summit Association of Realtors’ 2021 Realtor of the Year, who moved to town in ’93 with just enough money for two nights at an RV park. “Our whole world would implode if prices really come down enough for somebody with basic local wages to afford a property here. And that would be catastrophic for all of our businesses. It would mean the tourists aren’t coming and people aren’t finding value in what Summit has to offer.” She adds, “If you believe growth is not a good thing, then this might not be the community for you anymore.”

Quigs doesn’t dispute the need for economic vitality. He gets much of his work from Summit Mountain Rentals and has for more than a decade. He agrees with the cap, begrudgingly. “I hate to see top-down regulation, but we’re at a point where it’s just not working,” he says, acknowledging his personal paradox. “Doing construction, it doesn’t matter if I work for a management company or I’m trimming out a $6 million home. It’s the same thing. And I’ve been doing that for basically the whole time I’ve been here. We’ve all been building it up. There has to be an economy.”

Question: What would happen if Breckenridge’s STR cap were put to a popular vote? That effectively happened this past April, when 10 candidates—including four real estate agents—ran for three Town Council seats. The trio who supported the cap won by a wide margin. They include Rankin, 50, who paid his mountain town dues by bartending, waiting tables, and tuning skis before entering real estate. Now, his firm has 19 employees, and he owns and manages 10 long-term rentals.

“My big-picture lens on this place starts with the people,” Rankin says. “It’s very simple: You invest in the locals and give them enough to have balanced lives, and the rest will take care of itself.” Rankin understands the free-market argument but believes it’s shortsighted, pointing to Aspen and Telluride as places where prices left the local population adrift. “In my opinion, we have to step in and make sure we have a community here,” he says.

Breckenridge, whose affordable housing funds come primarily from a .725-percent sales tax, is projected to raise $50 million in the next five years to increase its number of deed-restricted units by 974. Suzanne Allen Sabo donated 32 acres of open space to Summit County, protecting trails that run through the Ranch—and helping to ensure the county approved her project. Each new home will generate $2 per square foot that will go toward affordable housing in Summit.

Condos are prime candidates for short-term rentals. Photo by Theo Stroomer.

Livability isn’t just a discussion point in Breckenridge; it remains a fluid topic statewide. This past March, Governor Jared Polis signed a bill that said county lodging taxes no longer must be used for tourism advertising; now the funds can go toward anything from workforce housing to childcare. (Summit County doesn’t have a lodging tax, but the bill’s proponents argue it gives county leaders fresh cause to propose one.) And the Colorado real estate market was starting to soften against rising interest rates.

Short-term rentals remained hot, however: In January and February 2022, Breckenridge’s lodging revenue was up almost 50 percent from the year before. It’s still impossible to predict what the cap will do in the long term, but Mayor Eric Mamula, who moved to town 36 years ago and whose father was mayor before him, believes the measuring stick is simple. If longtime locals still want to live in Breckenridge a decade from now, then the cap—and everything else the town is doing to preserve its character—will have been successful.

Mamula doesn’t know Quigs well but sees him in town almost every day, a sight he calls “anchoring.” Retaining colorful locals who reflect the community’s tenets is, for many, essential to its survival. “I don’t know how you quantify the cost of losing folks who have been here for a lifetime, but it has an impact,” Rankin says. “Yeah, some are going to naturally age out, but that’s part of the investment in the future. How do you make sure you’re able to have enough people here who can continue telling their stories and still be connected to that first generation of ski bums? I want to make sure we put up a good fight to keep the characters here. That’s really what it’s about.”

One warm, overcast afternoon in late June, I visited Quigs at his cabin. He was packing his belongings. Books sat in piles on his shelves. Sunlight trickled in through three small windows wedged in the log-and-plywood frame. The couch that doubled as his bed was stacked high with blankets. His front wall was buckled. Reality still hadn’t set in. “It will,” he says.

You could argue Quigs should have plugged into the housing stock years ago, if for nothing more than security. But as Bergeron says, “He chose to live that life, and I respect it. I think the town is better served by people who don’t want to make a lot of money, but want to get by, and by getting by, they service the people who come here.”

Quigs doesn’t blame anyone for his life turn, even if he laments the direction in which Breckenridge has gone. “Anger’s kind of useless,” he says. “I’m sad. And scared. What am I going to do? I’ve lived in that cabin for almost half my life. Walking home at night, getting up in the morning, it’s like, How many more of these do I have?”

He talked about winterizing a shed he owns on a small piece of land near Alma. It’s on the other side of the Continental Divide, 30 to 45 minutes away depending on weather and traffic. “That’s a long commute,” he says. “I think I’ll be spending a lot of nights in the truck”—meaning, in Breckenridge.

Quigs has made first descents on Mexican volcanoes, traveled around Asia, and extensively explored Moab on his bike. “People talk, ‘Oh, I’m gonna leave,’ ” he says. “You’ll never find anywhere as good as this place.”