Editorial: It’s urgent to create a regional housing strategy
Here’s a piece of reality: The Roaring Fork Valley will continue to grow in population. The question is whether we will try to manage it in a strategic fashion.
We aren’t doing a very good job of that now, partly because many residents, including some in leadership positions who make decisions about development, are averse to growth. That leaves many institutions — towns, counties, school districts and businesses — to operate without regional coordination on critical issues, with affordable housing at the top of the list.
Our series and documentary video published last week, “The Price of Paradise,” told story after story of people struggling to find housing they can afford, especially close to the job centers in Glenwood and Aspen.
Improving this situation is critical to economic growth and building strong, sustainable communities in the region — from Parachute to Aspen to Vail, with Glenwood Springs as the pivot point. Our institutions, public and private, must find a mechanism to create a regional housing strategy and then have the resolve to follow it.
Most responses to the series showed the resonance of this issue:
• The stories “made me feel very much not alone. … I find myself driving from Parachute where my children and I cram into a tiny apartment that we can barely afford to my job as a patient care tech in Carbondale.”
• “Communities in resort areas need to come up with viable housing plans in order to keep and retain young professionals and service workers.”
• “We live here because we love Glenwood. However, a lot of our friends and acquaintances have had to leave because of the extremely high cost of living.”
• “Locals tend to adopt a drawbridge mentality once they’ve made it here. Our valley towns would be better served by adopting a more inclusive, slow and sustainable growth mind-set.”
For an example, look at the proposed Tree Farm development at Willits. It’s a proposal for 336 housing units, 46 of them classified as affordable to the middle class, built out over 20 years adjacent to a RFTA stop and tunnel under Highway 82.
The badly needed lower-cost units, renting for $1,200 to $1,500 a month for studios and two bedrooms, would be part of the first phase. The developers say they have done everything in accord with Eagle County’s midvalley development plan. Yet longtime residents and Basalt leaders are fighting it.
Some readers said our series merely expounded on a longstanding and intractable issue, that it’s always been expensive to live near resorts and that they made it after scrimping for a few years after their arrival.
Things are different now, though, and a couple of factors have pushed affordability to a crisis point.
First, home values have rebounded rapidly over the past couple of years from the Great Recession. Garfield County property valuations sent out this year showed a 40 percent overall growth from two years ago, based on sales in the 18 months prior to June 2014. We know they have continued to grow since then.
Aspen, whose housing prices drive up costs all the way to Rifle, is having a bonkers sale year, by July topping $1 billion in sales for 2015. Then September was, according to our sister paper The Aspen Times, the town’s “most lucrative real estate month in at least six years.”
So skyrocketing prices have met squeaky tight supply, forcing cops, teachers, nurses and others to move west as far as Parachute and/or to share homes as couples and adults.
This is overlaid with exploding student debt.
Several interviews in “The Price of Paradise” showed residents with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, which have jumped 76 percent nationwide to nearly $1.2 trillion since the depth of the recession in 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported last month.
Many of these debt-burdened young or midlife professionals with recent degrees are the sorts we must attract and keep in order to help our communities grow and be healthy.
Many of those who don’t feel the housing pinch are longtime residents whose work careers are over or winding down. They won’t be keeping us safe, teaching our children or caring for us when we are sick or injured. Our housing strategy must be based on this latter group’s needs.
This is underscored in a recent Sonoran Institute “Place Value” report based on a survey of nearly 1,000 employers and residents in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming:
“For a community to be an attractive place to live and work — a place that can draw and keep talent — people need to able to afford to live there. Expanding housing and transportation options is a critical, but sometimes overlooked, component of economic development.”
We have a leg up in the transportation component with RFTA’s bus system and some walkable, bike-friendly communities. But the housing situation is so acute that the Roaring Fork School District is seeking voter approval for $15 million to buy or build staff housing. Even if the bond question passes, questions remain about where the school district would buy or build and how that might affect the rest of the market.
The Post Independent calls on our towns, counties (Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle — and Pitkin/Aspen folks can’t pretend downvalley communities’ health doesn’t affect them), school district, RFTA and businesses to band together and create a public-private partnership and regional housing strategy. Then we need to stick to the strategy as individual plans, such as the Tree Farm development, are rolled out for approvals.
Or we can stay in our silos. Unfortunately, the people who will make our communities strong and sustainable can’t live in those.
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