Price of Paradise: In housing crunch, who can afford to stay?
September 27, 2015
First of five parts.
For a look at one of the greatest threats to our region's economy — and perhaps to the U.S. economy — meet Krystal Wu and her fiancé, Matt Miller.
Both with master's degrees, in 2013 they accepted teaching positions at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale. Each took a $10,000 pay cut from teaching jobs in Oakland, California, which they left because of the high cost of living.
"We figured that the cost of living here would be proportionate to that pay cut," Wu said.
The couple was drawn to the peace and beauty of the Roaring Fork Valley. But prices driven up by the area's overall desirability and proximity to Aspen proved to be a strain for the young teachers, as they are for any middle-income worker.
In a region where resort prices and rural wages have long created a mismatch for household budgets, it has become increasingly difficult for towns to recruit and retain public safety, education and medical workers, among others. And that, observers say, bodes ill for the health of communities and core quality-of-life factors, such as education.
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"We love it here. I love my job and I love my students," Wu said, but added: "We didn't know what we were getting into. We moved here from the Bay Area because that was exorbitantly expensive. But we found that we were paying a similar price for our apartment here as we were in Oakland — $1,500 for a two bedroom. But we were making $20,000 a year more in Oakland."
Although together they earned $80,000 a year, Wu, 27, and Miller, 37, also are paying off $48,000 in graduate school loans.
So the couple this summer quit the valley. The University of Idaho beckoned, where Miller is now teaching — and housing is half as expensive.
"If we stayed here, we would have to ask our parents for help," said Wu. "There's no way we could afford to buy a house with the money that we have, and we want to start a family soon."
MIDDLE CLASS PINCH
Their story is common in the region. In a mountain paradise known for ski resorts, whitewater rapids, great weather and a robust outdoor lifestyle, baristas have master's degrees, nurses can't afford to live in the towns where they work and many teachers must live four to a home.
Americans would like to believe that the people we need to make our communities work — teachers, cops, nurses — should be able to live a basic middle-class lifestyle. Certainly, we think, even in an era of rising income inequality, two married professionals with master's degrees and jobs in their field of study should be able to make it just about anywhere in the country.
Increasingly, though, that basic dream requires more than the two incomes to which we have become accustomed.
In Garfield County, downvalley from Aspen, it means long commutes between the homes workers can barely afford and the jobs — maybe two or three jobs — that demand ever-longer hours.
"I think it is creeping into the broader economy in Colorado," beyond the resort areas, said Rich Jones, policy and research director for the Denver-based Bell Policy Center, which studies and promotes opportunity in the state.
"The area you are in is most pronounced," he said, "but if over time, the folks that you need there — teachers, hospital workers — can't stay there, it means a whole host of other people can't afford to stay — construction workers, grocery workers and the like."
If housing and other basic costs consume workers' full pay, they can't buy discretionary items or save, important because about two-thirds of the U.S. economy is driven by consumer spending.
"It's not great for the flat-out economy," Jones said, "and it's not good generally for society."
Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Analytics, said these are among the consequences of the Great Recession and growing income inequality across the United States.
"There is no doubt that the nation's middle class has been under intense financial pressure," he told the PI in an email. "The Great Recession was especially hard on middle-income occupations, particularly for those working in government jobs, like teachers.
"The mounting housing shortage, especially for rental housing, is causing rents to rise quickly and squeezing these households even more. High student loan debt is also a heavy weight for many."
David Pellow, director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, considers the Roaring Fork Valley "a bellwether for what we're seeing in the rest of the country."
Pellow is co-author of "The Slums of Aspen," which was called "a damning picture of the stark inequalities between local immigrant laborers and Aspen vacationers and the wealthy homeowners they serve."
In researching the book, published in 2011, Pellow said, "We saw that from Aspen on down to Rifle or Parachute, it became very difficult for many of those people to eke out an existence. So people move from one end of the valley to the other to try to make ends meet, and oftentimes would have to leave the region altogether.
"That is unsustainable, politically, socially, economically and environmentally. You can't maintain a community if people are constantly migrating in and out. You have to have some serious long-term stability."
DIFFICULTY OF RECRUITING
Roaring Fork High Principal Drew Adams, Wu's and Miller's former boss, said his first question to potential teachers is "Have you investigated the cost-of-living scenario for the valley?
"And when that conversation continues, I know whether or not this is an individual who understands the housing reality and will be able to sustain himself," he said.
Adams has had candidates accept positions and then realize that their housing costs exceed their budget or the type of housing available is unsuitable.
"I've had a lot of candidates back out of positions based on the high cost of housing," he said.
"Our salary schedule is fairly competitive. It's just that when you have a cost of living at 20-30 percent higher than other regions in the state, a base salary of $36,000 is really hard to live on. Nearly impossible."
So Adams' teachers make do. House-sharing, long commutes and multiple jobs are the norm.
Science teacher Rachel Cooper lives in New Castle and works nights at PetCo in Glenwood Springs.
English teacher Jackie Bosler house shares.
English teacher Erika Kelly works as a bartender for Carbondale Beer Works.
Hand-in-hand with the sky-high costs is the scarcity of housing.
Adams points to the limited rental properties in Carbondale in particular. "I usually tell single teachers or younger teachers, who are on a lower pay scale, that they'll probably be looking at sharing a house."
The problem is so acute that the Roaring Fork School District included $15 million for staff housing in its November bond issue request, describing housing as a need as critical as any construction project in the growing district.
No one knows more about the difficulty of survival in the Roaring Fork Valley than real estate agents.
"Drew is losing teachers," said Lynn Kirchner, owner of Carbondale's Amore Realty. "He can get them here for a year, but then they don't stay. They can't afford to stay.
"He's got two, three teachers living together because that's the best thing that they can find. They sacrifice their privacy as adults to take a job."
Carbondale rentals for two-bedroom apartments roughly range from $1,500 to $2,000 a month.
"That's out of the price range for 90 percent of the people looking for housing," Kirchner said.
The Realtor, a longtime advocate for affordable housing, added, "In Carbondale, rentals at a reasonable price are non-existent. And it's happening beyond Carbondale. It's happening all over the valley right now."
Shari Nova, an realty agent with Coldwell Banker Mason Morse who manages 80 homes in Carbondale and El Jebel, concurs.
"Right now, there's a supply-and-demand thing. A two-bedroom, two-bath is running from around $1,600. I have a list here with 10 people on it. Just this week. People are calling. They're stopping by. They're scrambling. They're desperate," Nova said.
"It seems worse now than ever before, but this has been a problem in Carbondale forever," she added. "It's hard to find a place for a teacher to live on the salary that they make. I would like to have employers be a bit more involved with this. If they're going to bring someone in from out of state, then I wish they had affordable housing for them."
Jones, with the Bell Policy Center, said more communities will have to look at discounted employee housing such as the units available in Aspen, to keep people.
The Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority subsidizes about 2,600 units for sale or rent in a 40-year-old effort to make it possible for middle-class workers to live in town. Aspen financed the program with a real-estate transfer tax, and many other ski towns have followed suit with other financing methods.
Still, resort towns don't have enough "employee housing" for their full workforce, and towns beyond Aspen in the Roaring Fork Valley struggle to create any. Aspen residents surveyed this year said affordable housing for workers and retirees continues to be the town's top need.
Three apartment complexes are expected to be built in Glenwood in the next year or so, but, to spur development, the city has suspended its requirements that projects include a certain number of affordable units — affordable in the valley meaning something a cop or teacher can afford.
The Roaring Fork School District backed away earlier this year from partnering on a complex in Carbondale that would have set aside some affordable units for district employees. District officials instead have asked for the $15 million for employee housing — $5 million each in Glenwood, Carbondale and Basalt — as part of a larger bond issue to be decided in November.
With housing so tight in the Roaring Fork Valley, New Castle, Silt, Rifle and even Parachute, 80 miles from Aspen, offer the only solutions many workers can find.
One helpful tool is the region's rural bus system operated by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. RFTA in 2013 started its rapid transit buses and is seeing record ridership this year. While riding the bus from, say, New Castle to Aspen is time-consuming, it is less stressful than driving and more affordable for a lower-income worker than vehicle costs, and people can use WiFi on the buses.
RFTA's ridership increased 4 percent a year, on average, between 2004 and 2014, said Jim Charlier of Charlier Associates Inc., which has studied regional traffic patterns in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys in 1998, 2004 and 2014.
Since 2004, the regional population has grown about 1.8 percent a year and jobs have grown almost as quickly, but median household income — the line at which half of households are above and half are below — has declined 1.2 percent.
With 75 percent of the region's jobs clustered in Aspen, Glenwood and Rifle, Charlier said, that's pushing up housing costs and forcing people to live farther from work.
In 2004, 59 percent of survey respondents lived in a town other than where they work; in 2014, it was 62 percent. Average commute distances rose slightly, from 15 miles in '04 to 16 miles. But accessibility to RFTA stops dropped as people moved farther from Aspen and Glenwood.
"In 2004, 52 percent of our respondents lived within five blocks of a bus stop. In 2014, that had dropped to 23 percent," he said.
Kirchner, the Carbondale Realtor, said letting the market force people to move farther from their jobs is no answer.
"In New Castle, Silt and Rifle you can still find reasonable rent, but you've just multiplied the cost of gasoline, commuting, wear and tear on your vehicle and time away from your family."
Kirchner's proposal: "Individual communities in Garfield County need to build affordable apartment complexes, build affordable housing complexes which people can afford. I'm saying affordable. The townhomes and condos have to be under $100,000. The houses, under $200,000."
Kirchner instead sees home prices topping $500,000 to $600,000. "What teacher has $80,000 to put down to get a good loan?" she asked. "We're losing good quality people in our community."
Tuesday: Young professionals struggle to get a foothold.