New generation feels hopeless over housing
July 24, 2006
While soaring real estate prices make many homeowners giddy over their bulging equity, they might prevent a new generation from taking root in the Roaring Fork Valley.Midvalley residents in their 20s say they aren’t sure they can afford to remain part of the community in the long run.Settling into the upper valley has been tough for the past few decades, but places like Basalt, El Jebel and Carbondale provided affordable options. Now workers are being priced out of those towns as well.As elected officials in the mid- and lower valley sort through philosophies on affordable housing, the community fabric becomes increasingly frayed and potentially unraveled. Midvalley residents like teachers, small-business owners and recent college graduates want to be part of the community, but they wonder how long they can hold on with little hope of owning a home.”We’re always working to make it here,” said Molly McDonald, 22, who has juggled as many as five jobs at a time to pay her rent since moving to the valley from Illinois three years ago.
She and her 23-year-old fiance are the type of people the Roaring Fork Valley has always counted on to fill the demand for workers. McDonald is the office manager at a photography business in Aspen and is a budding small-business owner; her fiance is a sous chef at a midvalley restaurant.Even as dual income, white-collar workers, they struggle to find an affordable apartment that meets their needs. McDonald said government-built affordable housing in the upper valley doesn’t really appeal to her because of the appreciation caps. She questions if it is worth the investment.But she acknowledged that their options in the free market are extremely limited. They have toured with real estate agents and found the only thing they could afford to buy in the midvalley is “modulars.” Moving farther downvalley creates its own problems with travel time and gas expenses.The couple is getting married in a year and eventually wants kids. Realistically, they might be forced to return to Illinois”We really love it here. That’s why we’re sticking it out,” said McDonald. “[But] we feel we could never get ahead here.”The same dilemma is in the back of Seann Goodman’s mind. The 27-year-old is entering his fourth year as a social studies teacher at Basalt High School; he rents an apartment above the garage of a house in Emma. It’s a good deal, and it’s secure for as long as he wants it.As a single man with a world of options, the scenario suits him fine. But he said he is nearing a “crossroads” in his life and ultimately must decide whether to pursue other opportunities or remain in the valley long-term. If he stays, he doesn’t want to keep paying rent, but it’s difficult to envision an alternative.
“I don’t see myself where I could afford to take on a mortgage,” said Goodman. “If I was ever to buy, I don’t think I could buy in the Basalt community.”He’s also lukewarm about living in Glenwood Springs or farther downvalley and working in Basalt. He believes communities are strongest when people live where they work.Goodman doesn’t think the Basalt schools have run into a problem yet attracting young teachers because of the housing dilemma. “It seems like people make it happen if they want it to happen,” he said. But retaining teachers like himself is a bigger issue, he said.Basalt’s also in danger of losing its homegrown youth due to lack of opportunity. Jen Donovan graduated from Basalt High School in 2001, went to college at a military academy in the east and “I swore I’d never come back.”Time, travel and experience made her realize what a special place her hometown is so she did, indeed, return, after graduating with majors in political science and public law. Donovan is frustrated by the lack of opportunity her hometown provides for college graduates in terms of jobs and housing.Since returning, she’s picked up on a political and social “buzz” among Basaltines that their town will never be like Aspen. She suggests those people open their eyes: “There seems to be a really deep denial that we’re on the fast track to that,” she said.She sees an evolution into a community that is concerned with making money above all else. That short-sighted outlook threatens to leave Basalt and other Roaring Fork Valley towns without the workers they need to sustain themselves. Perhaps more important, she said, it drains the town of people with history and continuity in the community.
“If people like me can’t come back, who is going to preserve it?” asked Donovan.Donovan and her fiance are negotiating on a property in Missouri Heights, but she isn’t confident it will go through. If not, they will have to consider moving away.In the bigger picture, any political or social reform starts with thorough discussion, Donovan said. She recommended that Basalt residents engage in discussions about how growth can be sustained while still assisting locals. The key, she said, is getting all residents involved in solving a problem – not taking sides and working against one another.”Stop having the 50-year-olds talking about it themselves,” Donovan said. “Get the 20-year-olds, too. They’re not all drunks or video game freaks.”Taking actionBasalt’s elected officials vowed at a public meeting last month to take action rather than just talk about the shortage of affordable housing.A first step was to institute regular meetings with Susan Shirley, director of the nonprofit Mountain Regional Housing Corp., which works with public and private entities to build housing in the valley. The meetings between the Basalt Town Council and Shirley are designed to identify housing needs and ways to meet them.The next gathering in that series of meetings is tonight at 6:20 p.m. at Basalt Town Hall. The meeting is open to the public.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org