Virtually everyone who’s lived in Steamboat Springs for longer than a decade waxes nostalgic about the dodgy hovels that provided their first homes in the ski resort community. Mine was a ground-floor apartment infested with earwigs that covered the floors, walls, and ceilings every summer. The “shanty” is how one of my friends refers to the drafty cabin that initially sheltered her. Even Jason Peasley, a well-known name around town these days, shakes his head when he remembers the “sketchy little stained-glass house” he occupied when he moved to Steamboat at 24 years old.

Seventeen years later, Peasley now lives in a handsome townhome with his wife, a teacher in the local school district, and two elementary-school-age daughters. But as the executive director of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority since 2012, Peasley—who embodies the mountain-dude look thanks to his trail shoes, trucker cap, and wiry red beard that collects icicles when he skis—sees mounting evidence that upward mobility is vanishing in Steamboat Springs. Increasingly, ski-bum crash pads are being scraped to make way for mansions, a trend that has caused the median price for a single-family home to escalate to $1.7 million. Meanwhile, the rise of Airbnb and Vrbo have helped turn the modest condos and homes that once housed working folk into vacation rentals. Given the dearth of long-term leases, the median rent has skyrocketed to $4,100 per month; a studio or a bedroom in someone’s house commands as much as $1,500. “Some people now spend more than 50 percent of their monthly income on housing,” Peasley says.

That was true of my veterinarian’s two technicians, who cited the untenable cost of housing when they quit and moved away. Businesses around town fly the “help wanted” flag, including schools (where many of the applicants ultimately have to turn down job offers because they can’t find suitable living arrangements) and medical providers (my dentist hires a visiting hygienist from Salt Lake City for a few days every month and houses her in his camper). Beyond creating a shortage of services, the scarcity of attainable housing prevents people from becoming rooted in the community. When they’ve made their seasonal money or their family outgrows the size of their digs, they simply leave.

Then, in 2021, a miracle befell Steamboat Springs: Believing the town’s middle-class culture was dying, wealthy anonymous donors offered to fund something big enough to fix the housing shortage. They donated $24 million to the authority, which used the gift to purchase a 534-acre parcel just outside the northwest edge of the city. There, Peasley and his staff envisioned building an expansive neighborhood of homes for rent and purchase where local workers could actually afford to live.

In summer 2023, after two years of receiving input from citizen stakeholders and negotiating with city staff, the authority released the final annexation plan for Brown Ranch, a phased development that would build 2,264 residences, making it 25 times bigger than the housing authority’s largest existing complex. Ranging from apartments to detached single-family homes, the units would have a requirement that a resident work in Routt County, and a deed restriction would limit their market values and facilitate affordable resale. Construction, however, is contingent on the parcel’s annexation into Steamboat Springs, which would involve the city paying for installation of water, electricity, and other critical infrastructure. And that prospect turned the miracle into a civic melee.

Locals who oppose the new neighborhood unleashed a torrent of criticism, which centered on how growth would affect the community. Upon completion in 25 years, Brown Ranch would house some 6,000 people—a little less than half of Steamboat’s current population—a figure that strikes many longtime locals as too big to maintain the town’s folksy character. (Peasley’s retort? “The magnitude of the project is equal to the magnitude of the problem.”) Next month, residents of Steamboat Springs will vote on annexation and the related costs of creating Brown Ranch. The results will reveal whether a majority of Steamboaters believe Brown Ranch will save their city’s character—or destroy it.

If you’ve attended a public meeting in Steamboat, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Jim Engelken’s voice. A Steamboat city councilman in the 1990s and 2000s, the Denver native spent his childhood listening to his parents’ political debates. “My dad supported Nixon; my mother, McGovern,” he recalls. Engelken moved to Steamboat in 1979, where he helped open the local Safeway and inhabited a mobile home before eventually buying a single-family residence. Recently retired, the 65-year-old attends town hall discussions and City Council meetings he feels passionate about: He once fought pro-development representatives who wanted to shrink Steamboat’s affordable housing mechanisms. Today, he opposes Brown Ranch. “It will segregate this community into the people who need government-subsidized housing and everybody else,” Engelken says.

Funding is the most obvious challenge. The donors’ $24 million paid for the land, but estimates for the sewer and water pipes, roads, and other necessary infrastructure come to $482 million. In November, 55 percent of Steamboaters who voted approved a ballot measure granting the Yampa Valley Housing Authority 75 percent of the revenue from the community’s nine percent tax on short-term rentals for up to 20 years, totaling an estimated $200 million. That covers the authority’s portion of off-site infrastructure costs, but the city is still $42 million short on its share.

Steamboat could make up the difference by increasing revenues, but locals have been reluctant to tax themselves in the past. In 1978, residents voted to end the city’s property tax in favor of sales tax, which remains Steamboat’s main source of funds. That annual haul is subject to the volatility of consumer spending and isn’t enough to cover Steamboat Springs’ existing needs. Meanwhile, 81 percent of Steamboat respondents to a 2022 survey indicated that creating affordable housing is essential or very important—but only eight percent expressed a willingness to reinstate a property tax to pay for it.

Some Steamboaters already seem primed to classify Brown Ranch residents as second-class citizens. Posts on social media exhibited racist and classist stereotypes about the people who would inhabit Brown Ranch, which some opponents have called “a ghetto.” Other locals have registered their disdain on the public record. “You do get a different group of people in affordable housing,” one resident said during an October 2023 City Council meeting. “I know that sounds horrible, but walk around those places…it’s terrible.”

Underpinning such concerns is some locals’ desire to simply stop Steamboat from growing. “It’s too big,” Engelken says of Brown Ranch. He praises the Yampa Valley Housing Authority for having realized seven projects that now house an estimated 1,175 people in smaller complexes within existing neighborhoods, but he bristles at Peasley’s all-inclusive attitude: A year ago, he heard Peasley say that the goal of Brown Ranch was to “house anybody and everybody who wants to move to Steamboat Springs,” Engelken recalls. “And I thought, Really? What’s the model for that? What resort community has thrown open their doors to the world and said, ‘Everybody come move here’?” (Peasley claims Engelken is misconstruing his intentions, maintaining that, “we want to have the opportunity for everyone who works in Steamboat Springs to have the choice to live in the community where they work.”)

Housing authority data indicate that Steamboat Springs needs 1,400 more residential units to meet current demand for workers. That number will likely grow, as the state demographer’s office projects Routt County’s population will rise from 24,899 today to 30,133 by 2040. The affordable housing problem is so big, Engelken believes anyone who says it can be fully solved is naive or misguided. Plus, Engelken fears Brown Ranch would actually outpace demand—and could consequently incite a mass migration to Steamboat Springs to take advantage of cheap mountain living.

Despite such objections, in October, the City Council approved annexation of 420 of the 534 acres at Brown Ranch. The authorization, plus $7.7 million in state and federal grants secured by the authority, gave the project’s contractor the green light to begin work. But Engelken and four other residents’ Let Steamboat Vote campaign succeeded in securing enough signatures to halt construction and force the annexation question to a public vote.

Brown Ranch enjoys enthusiastic support outside of Steamboat. Peasley often hears comments from housing professionals in other resort communities who wish they had the philanthropy and build-friendly geography that allow Steamboat to consider affordable housing at such a significant scale. Although challenges do exist, Peasley believes Brown Ranch can be copied: “From our peer communities to the highest levels of the state, people are watching [Brown Ranch] because they’re hoping that this can be the model for how communities can take control of their housing situations.”

Should Steamboat Springs voters choose not to approve Brown Ranch, however, the project might also serve as a cautionary tale illustrating the social limits of scaling up affordable housing. “Why wouldn’t we be proactive and take control of that growth and make sure that growth benefitted our local workers,” Peasley says, “instead of just building second homes?”

If Engelken is the actuary who tallies the risks and costs, Peasley is the dreamer who imagines upward mobility for all, even cash-poor residents of Colorado’s wealthiest communities. Both worry that Steamboat’s character hangs in the balance, that the town is vulnerable to changes that are eroding the very qualities that made this a great place to call home. Engelken wants to save the small-town feel. Peasley wants to preserve residents’ ability to grow roots. This March, Steamboaters must decide which matters most.