Schwartz: Failure to solve the affordable housing crisis is not an acceptable option
Regional collaboration with the commitment of every stakeholder is key
Habitat for Humanity
The first question most businesses in the Colorado River Valley ask of potential new hires is whether they have local housing. If the answer is “no,” the conversation shifts instantly because housing is the single biggest barrier to entry in our mountain communities.
When we talk about the affordable- and workforce-housing crisis in 2023, it’s critically important that we remember we were also calling it a housing crisis in 2020 before COVID-19, which changed our valleys forever.
In a study of Greater Roaring Fork Valley housing needs in 2017, a shortfall of 4,000 units was identified from Parachute to Aspen (including Gypsum and Dotsero) with a projected need of 6,800 units by 2027. That was before a supplemental study in 2022 showed the average home price in the region had increased 42%-71%, the average rent increased 40%, non-local home buyers increased 80%, and mortgage rates doubled. Plus, local wage increases continue to lag far behind the cost of housing and cost of living increases.
We are in trouble.
The demand for attainable housing far outstrips the supply in the upper valley communities where the jobs are. In 2022, the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority, which manages more than 3,000 owned and rented units, had 900 bids for just 18 available homes in the most popular Category III and IV units.
The only people surprised by APCHA’S inability to manage the housing problem are the people who haven’t noticed that Pitkin County had 4,400 jobs in 1970, but 23,000 jobs in 2020.
Three of our valley’s most critical essential service providers — Roaring Fork School District, Aspen Valley Hospital, and Roaring Fork Transportation Authority — recently reported that they need a combined 530 units just to recruit and retain employees to provide a minimum level of services.
These are not isolated instances of need. Rather, this is a recurring pattern in our community. For example, this winter alone, RFTA has canceled 3,500 scheduled bus trips because they are operating with 15%-20% fewer bus drivers than necessary.
The Roaring Fork School district had 32 bus drivers on staff in 2019. That number dwindled to 14 in 2022. There are simply fewer qualified applicants because there is no available housing. And although the school district has procured, built, or is planning to build 130 new units, that doesn’t come close to matching the need for its nearly 800 full-time staff members.
Seven years ago, applicants for available units were 2:1. Today it’s 13:1. Perhaps even more worrisome is that a shortage of staff means teachers are leading classes that aren’t aligned with their level of qualification, and sick days are nearly impossible because who will provide the backfill?
And now we know first-hand from our local hospital’s senior staff that our valley’s health-care safety net is being seriously undercut by the workforce-housing shortfall affecting so many of their critical employees.
Glenwood Springs Director of Economic and Community Development Hannah Klausman worries that delivery of critical services are being compromised when employees have to live so far from the communities where they work. This winter, snowplow drivers critical to Highway 82 between Glenwood Springs and Aspen were stuck on the east side of Glenwood Canyon – another example of how the entire valley’s ecosystem is disrupted by the lack of housing.
The farther away these critical service workers are living from the places they work, the bigger the negative impacts. Commuting upward of 90 minutes has become a norm. Despite just 3% unemployment in Garfield County, about 40% of the county’s workers are migrating to work, commuting at least 30 minutes.
What used to be touted as an “Aspen” problem has traveled as far down the river as Grand Junction, losing workers to Glenwood Springs, which is losing workers to Aspen. We are all reeling from the affordable-housing pinch, and it will take all of us working together to solve it.
We need to look at affordable-workforce housing as a critical piece of the infrastructure for maintaining strong families and the vibrant lifestyle we all came here for. We need to view housing as the essential shelter that working families need rather than simply an investment in paradise for those fortunate enough to move here.
We must shift our mindset from “not in my backyard” to “my backyard is where hard working families deserve a roof over their heads.” We must be less re-active and more pro-active.
Over the next three weeks, my columns will explore solutions to the affordable-housing crisis that were identified at the recent Habitat for Humanity Housing Crisis Summit at the Aspen Meadows from three lenses: Governmental Policy, Financial and Real Estate Development, and Non-profit Partnerships. I will dive into the regional collaborations already taking place, federal and state money that is up for grabs, and the critical relationship between private and public partnerships in creating sustainable communities.
If you didn’t get the opportunity to attend Solving the Housing Crisis: A Regional Summit on Equitable Solutions, we invite you to please watch the panel presentations on YouTube youtube.com/@habitatforhumanityrfv.
Gail Schwartz is the president of Habitat for Humanity of the Roaring Fork Valley. As a former Colorado state senator, business owner, and community planner, she has a unique understanding of the affordable-housing crisis on the Western Slope and in the greater Roaring Fork Valley and is committed to being part of the solution. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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