Price of Paradise: Sticker shock rattles young professionals
Post Independent Correspondent
Second of five parts.
The Roaring Fork Valley attracts big money along with promises of life in paradise.
Despite the glamour of Aspen and a thriving recreation economy, Garfield and Pitkin counties remain essentially rural places with resort prices.
Across the country, the middle class is losing ground. But what is happening in the Roaring Fork and Colorado river valleys makes it difficult to attract and retain the people essential to nurturing and protecting communities, such as police officers, nurses and teachers.
Teacher and police pay in the region are comparable to that in cities of various sizes around the country, Post Independent research found.
Beginning teachers, for example, are paid about $36,000 a year in the Roaring Fork School District and Garfield Re-2, and about $40,000 in Aspen. That compares with $34,600 in Las Vegas and $39,700 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Beginning police officers in the region also are paid largely on par with peers around the country, according to PI research.
But housing prices here, for rental or ownership, are among the highest in America, creating a financial mismatch for professionals starting their careers.
Here are three stories of struggles to get by in the region.
One year ago, Pediatric Partners nurse and single mother Cassandra Santiago, 26, and her 8-year-old son, Diego, moved to the area from New Mexico.
“Everything about the mountains is better — it’s safer. It’s beautiful. It’s family-oriented,” she said. “And Diego can snowboard.”
The full-time nurse works in Glenwood Springs but lives in more affordable Rifle. Although $53,000 is a good salary for this young professional, it will not buy her housing in Glenwood.
“It’s so expensive for a single income,” she said. “And Glenwood is where I work and my son goes to school and Cub Scouts. Everything is here in Glenwood, but it is way too much to afford.”
Santiago’s sticker shock goes across the board. “The food, the gas, even the kids’ sports. Everything is more expensive,” she said.
Payments on the first-time homeowner’s newly purchased $227,000, two-bedroom home will be a bit of a challenge, as will that long commute.
“I would prefer not to do it,” she said. “It would be nice if I could get off work, be home in a reasonable amount of time. But by the time I get out of work, pick up my son from his after-school program, we’re rushed for dinner, homework and then it’s bedtime. There’s no extra time to enjoy anything.”
HIGH RENTAL COSTS
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Glenwood Police Chief Terry Wilson consistently faces unaffordable housing headaches when he recruits.
“One of the biggest and most consistent problems I have is that our pool of applicants tends to be in their early to mid-20s. They have just gotten out of college and a police academy. A lot of times, we represent their first real-world, adult job,” Wilson said.
“But there’s a big reality about the difficulty of making a living here. We pay a price for the views out our windows. We pay a premium for the activities, the recreational opportunities and lifestyle quality that being in this area offers. I try to introduce that thought process into the minds of my candidates.
“Our starting wage is $47,000 and change,” he said. “We’re probably making 25 percent to 50 percent less than Colorado Springs and Boulder. But there’s a lot of different variables — pay scales, experience.”
So the chief sells his potential recruits on quality of life in the valley.
“Matching that up with the reality that you’re going to pay more for groceries, or for gasoline, a heck of a lot more for housing,” he added. “That you may have to live 25 miles away from where you work. You may have to commute. Blah, blah, blah. The reality is that a 16-, 18-hour day is absolutely normal for our patrol officers. And that’s without the commute.”
The department’s year-to-year turnover is about 10-20 percent. Reasons for leaving are across the board.
“Folks came here enamored with the lifestyle, but their family ties are somewhere else. People wanting to make more money. We’ve lost people strictly on the economics.”
Out of the department’s staff of 31, only eight or nine live in Glenwood. To move the hiring process along, Wilson acts a bit as a real estate agent himself.
“We show potential recruits ads in the newspaper, put them in touch with local real estate companies. They need to get the sticker shock out of their systems. They need to do a realistic and comprehensive look at what it’s going cost them to provide housing for themselves and their family. I’ve seen a lot a lot of jaws drop when they do that.”
However, that promise of a great outdoor lifestyle remains attractive to Wilson’s young recruits.
“But it’s no fun if you’re going to work so much that you’re not going to ski, raft or fish or hunt or do any of those things that make us such a great destination.”
The chief’s worst-case scenario:
“I bring somebody in here, show them nothing but sunshine and roses, and six, eight months, a year down the line, they’re going, ‘Well, my paycheck all goes on my roof and I don’t have anything left over. I came here to live, not just to work.’”
ARCHITECT AND TEACHER
Eighteen months ago, Amy Wright, her husband and their 5-year-old son relocated to the valley because Jason had been offered a job at an Aspen architectural firm.
But the small family quickly found out that they could not financially swing it on one salary.
“When we moved here and things were not shaping up financially, my husband said that I really needed to get a part-time job,” Wright said.
Wright, 44, who holds two master’s degrees and had taught in the Massachusetts public schools for more than six years, took a part-time job as a barista at Starbucks.
“If we decide to stay in the valley, I’m going to have to take two part-time jobs. I’m kind of dreading that,” she said.
Every day, Wright feels the weight of her troubled finances.
“My student loans are in the 30s. And since moving to the valley, my credit card debt is in the 30s too. Our rental apartment is just under $2,000, but we have a mortgage that we’re paying for our house in Albuquerque. We rent that out, but we’re upside down $400 a month there. We have to make at least a $100,000. I need to make over $30,000.”
The Wright family does not have the time or the money to enjoy all the pleasures of their rich surroundings. And forget about the toys — the skis, the snowboards, the bikes.
“It’s beautiful,” Wright said, “But it’s a resort. We live in a resort. How do you afford all this?”
Wednesday: Christine Tinner’s life before a tragic accident last summer was hectic in a way familiar to many area residents.