Glenwood Chamber economic forum tackles housing affordability problems, solutions
There’s a relatively new economic indicator when it comes to the cost of making a living in Glenwood Springs and trying to find a reasonably affordable place to live and be a part of the community.
It’s called the “H+T index” — the combined cost of housing plus transportation to get to and from work.
So explained Clark Anderson, executive director for Community Builders, who led a panel discussion on housing affordability Friday at the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association’s annual membership meeting and economic forecast.
On the housing front, the benchmark for affordability has traditionally held that rent or a family’s mortgage payment should not exceed 30 percent of the household income.
Anything above that is considered a “cost burden,” Anderson said in setting the foundation for the five panelists to address the issue.
“The evolution of that is housing plus transportation,” he said. “We have this huge imbalance between jobs and housing [options] that makes it so people have to drive farther and farther …
“So, yeah, you may be paying a lot less for that house in Parachute or Battlement Mesa, but how much are you then spending on transportation?”
The H+T index factors that cost into the equation. The magic number: 45 percent.
Anything above that amount and, again, that individual or family is cost burdened, Anderson said.
And, according to a new draft housing needs assessment for the tri-county region including Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle counties, that cost burden adds up to about $54 million per year — money that’s not being saved or spent in the community on other things, Anderson pointed out.
The other cost to Glenwood Springs from a business standpoint is the ongoing difficulty for employers to hire and retain employees, he said.
limited housing types
The Friday panel invited experts to discuss the housing affordability issue from several angles.
Among them were Chris Akers, an economist with the Colorado State Demography Office who also gave the keynote address looking at some of the vital statistics for Garfield County from a population, jobs and economic growth standpoint.
He and Anderson both pointed to the so-called “missing middle” when it comes to development of housing types in Glenwood Springs and other Roaring Fork Valley communities.
Statewide, there’s still a dearth of lower-cost, multifamily housing being built compared to the more-expensive single-family homes, Akers said.
“The thing that’s missing is that entry-level condo or apartment,” he said. “We need to have the ability for people to get into a first-time homebuyer situation, where they’re not looking at a $500,000 detached house, but maybe a condo that’s 60–70 percent of that cost.”
The challenge with that, Anderson said, is the perceived trade-off between providing a greater variety of housing types and maintaining community character. Higher-density projects and growth in general are often tough battles for communities like Glenwood Springs to fight, he said.
“We are going to grow,” Anderson said. “The question is how do we grow in ways that make it possible to create great places that are also more affordable …
“We’re going to have to confront the reality that, for Glenwood to be an affordable place, we’re going to have to find places to create new housing within our community.”
Also participating in the panel discussion were Melanie Bourgeois, mortgage loan originator for Bank of Colorado; Bob Murphy, state director for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP); Jeff Gatlin, chief operating officer for the Roaring Fork School District; and Hannah Klausman, senior planner for the city of Glenwood Springs.
more rentals coming
For the city’s part, Klausman pointed to City Council’s efforts in recent years to shift the affordable housing focus away from deed-restricted for-purchase units to more rentals.
While the city eliminated its former requirement of developers that 15 percent of all new residential units be set aside for certain income categories — due to the program’s marginal success — it put new incentives in place to attract more rental apartment projects.
“The city has been trying to catch up on the inventory side,” Klausman said. But she, too, said it’s a “hard balance” to add new housing while addressing community concerns around parking, traffic, building heights, utility impacts and other issues.
“There is a big pushback,” she said.
Since 2016, some 500 new rental units have been approved by the city. Incentives, such as certain development fee waivers, are in place for some of those units to be offered for below-market rental rates. So far, though, few developers have taken advantage of those incentives.
Not only is Glenwood Springs and other western Colorado towns going to grow, “we are going to grow older,” noted AARP’s Murphy.
“When you talk about housing, you have to look at it holistically,” he said. “It’s not just housing. It’s also transportation and delivery of services to people.”
That’s especially important for people of retirement age who are often looking to downsize when it comes to housing, or seek out other housing alternatives.
“I would urge you to plan your community through an age-friendly lens,” Murphy said. Not only should the menu of housing options include apartments, multifamily unit types and accessory dwelling units, the city should also be fostering things like home sharing and cohousing projects, he said.
Roaring Fork Schools have been successful — thanks to voters’ support of a 2015 bond issue — in building or acquiring 66 rental units that are now available to teachers and staff.
Gatlin said that’s been huge in helping address a 20 percent yearly employee turnover rate in the district, which serves the communities of Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
“Our biggest concern is, what’s next?,” Gatlin said of the desire, particularly for longer-term district employees, to buy a home in the community.
“That’s a very, very challenging issue,” he said, but one that is being addressed through the district’s partnership with Pitkin County and Habitat for Humanity to build several housing units behind Basalt High School that will be available for teachers and other district employees to purchase.