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Study shows the cost of living in Aspen is way out of whack

No one trying to make a go of it in Pitkin County needs to be told that the cost of living here is stratospheric, but a study released Thursday shows just how out of whack it is with the rest of the country.

A study conducted for a consortium of governments called the Rural Resort Region said the cost of living in Pitkin County is so expensive due primarily to housing costs and that many families face “an impossible situation.”

The study looked at expenses paid by four typical profiles of residents: Single people making $20,000 and renting a room in an apartment; a single person making $34,000 and renting; a family of four with a household income of $58,000 and living in a townhouse or condominium; and a family of four with a household income of $72,000 and living in a single-family home.

Expenses in Pitkin County, and other resort areas of Colorado, were compared to “Standard City USA,” which was actually a statistic mean of costs in 162 metro areas across the country, with at least two from every state.

The cost of living for single people who are renting is slightly more than 14 percent higher than other parts of the country, mostly because of rental prices, the study said.

Families have it bad

A family of four with a household income of $58,000 is facing the toughest time, according to the study. The cost of living for that type of family is 89 percent higher in Pitkin County. The study assumed people were living in free-market homes. It didn’t factor in subsidized housing, which is where a good share of Pitkin County’s middle class lives.

The study noted that teacher, government workers, midlevel managers and midlevel professionals fall within that household income range. While those types of people make up the backbone of a community and work force, they are getting pushed out of their communities.

“This [group], in some locations, is competing with second-home owners for available housing stock,” the study said. “In many parts of the region – Pitkin County, Eagle County, Summit County – workers cannot compete.”

Linda Venturoni, director of special projects for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, which coordinates the Rural Resort Region, said another way to look at the figure is to imagine a family moving from Standard City USA to Pitkin County. A household making $58,000 elsewhere would have to make $109,448 in Pitkin County to offset the increase in the cost of living.

A family of four with a household income of $72,000 in Pitkin County is also facing a cost of living that is 88 percent higher than Standard City USA, the study said.

Another way of looking at it is the $72,000 in Standard City USA would require an income of $134,996 in Pitkin County.

Ironically, for that group, the cost-of-living disparity improved since the last study for Rural Resort Region in 2001. The cost of living then was 136 percent higher.

“It is difficult to view [88 percent] as an improvement when it still reflects an impossible situation for households in this income bracket,” the study said.

Glenwood is better off

In addition to looking at Pitkin County, the study compared the cost of living in Clear Creek, Eagle, Garfield, Grand Jackson, Lake and Summit counties as well as the towns of Glenwood Springs, Granby, Gypsum and Rifle. Aspen didn’t request to participate in the study.

The cost of living wasn’t as bleak farther down the Roaring Fork Valley. The study concluded that it costs about the same to live in Glenwood Springs as it does in the standard city in the United States. Garfield County was also at about the same cost of living.

The cost of living was higher in Eagle County, but not nearly as high as in Pitkin County.

The study was conducted by Runzheimer International of Rochester, Wis. It was conducted in winter 2004. Runzheimer looked at four major categories to compare prices: Taxes, operating and fixed costs of personal vehicles, housing, and goods and services.

The study concluded that housing was the only area where the resort areas of Colorado were drastically above national averages. Rental costs in Pitkin County, for example, were 62 percent above average.

A puzzling conclusion

The study reached a conclusion that had some audience members at a Rural Resort Region meeting in Aspen Thursday shaking their heads. The study claimed that the cost of goods and services in Pitkin County was slightly below the national average for similar items.

To measure those costs, Runzheimer looked at groceries, dining out, tobacco, alcohol, furnishings and household operations, clothing, “domestic service,” medical care, personal care and recreation.

Venturoni said many of the same costs that have soared in mountain towns have soared throughout the country, like medical care and insurance. That’s helped equalize the cost of living for goods and services, according to the study.

But Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland said he was skeptical of the study’s conclusion in that context. He said he would need to see Runzheimer’s work on comparing costs for goods and services before he could buy into Pitkin County having the same as the national prices.

The cost-of-living study will soon be posted on the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments web site at http://nwc.cog.co.us.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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