Last summer, my family and I moved back to my hometown of Durango, Colo. It’s been a bittersweet experience — sweet because my family has been here for generations, and it’s got great schools, a college and a river running through town. But bitter because housing is far too expensive for the average working Joe, like me.
That means Durango is a lot like Jackson, Aspen, Boulder and dozens of other chi-chi Western towns: Rents are high and wages are low. It’s not uncommon around here for a family’s rent to suck up half the monthly paycheck, and most people can forget about buying a place within the city limits. If you want to live here, either bring a lot of extra cash or be prepared to commute from some neighboring town.
Even in those places with less cachet, affordability is also elusive. The West has the greatest disparity between incomes and housing costs in the nation, according to the National Association of Realtors’ affordability index. Even Boulder, with its high-paying jobs in academia, science and high-tech fields, is the twelfth least-affordable town in the nation, thanks to little bungalows that sell for a half-million bucks. As the housing market recovers from the bust, the situation will only get worse.
Here in Durango, though, we have a pressure-release valve of sorts — sprawl. The town itself is nicely hemmed in by hills on two sides, and a big floodplain on another, which to some degree guarantees reasonable land use, even in the absence of good regulations. But one need only drive over the hills to find acres of private, developable land. Much of it was once in agriculture, but a building boom from the late 1980s until the mid-2000s, encouraged by lack of land-use planning, left it spattered with a hodgepodge of ranchettes, trailers and subdivisions.
Some might see this as a mess, but it’s a relatively affordable one. The same $300,000 that would get you a tiny old fixer-upper in town will buy a brand-new home in the development just over the ridge, a sweaty bike ride to downtown, true, but still within the school district and town limits. With considerably less, you can purchase a trailer 10 miles outside of town. It’s hardly ideal, but Durango has stumbled into a housing situation that’s far more sustainable than the 45-mile treacherous, mountain pass drive to affordability in Jackson, Wyo., for example, or the epic trek up-valley to Aspen that for some workers exceeds 60 miles.
Durango’s “solution” highlights the quandary that many communities face, in which it appears they must choose between affordable housing and the preservation of the environment, open space and scenery on which the community’s very identity depends. Sometimes this conflict is indirect, such as when a town puts up land-use codes that are so strict, it becomes virtually impossible to build in an affordable way. Other times it’s blatant — in Jackson, affordable housing development proposals have been shot down over what are called environmental concerns.
It’s time we move beyond these conflicts. After all, the current situation, in which the working class must “drive until they qualify” for a mortgage, and then commute long-distances to their jobs without the benefit of public transportation, is hardly environmentally friendly. Think of the resources used by, and the carbon and particulates emitted from, that line of cars heading into and out of Boulder, Aspen, Jackson and Telluride every day.
That’s not to say that the Boulders and Jacksons of the world should scrap their land-use codes and start putting up trailer parks in the surrounding open space. The sprawl solution to housing is ultimately no more sustainable than the commuter-class fix.
Perhaps there is a middle way. Instead of pushing the working class out into the exurbs or over the pass, why not pull them inward, into the heart of the community where they belong?
It’s possible, through high-density development in the urban envelope, taller buildings with income-restricted housing atop commercial spaces, and maybe some clustered development on the town’s fringes. Sure, the community you’re living in might lose a bit of that prized “frontier town” feel. But as the lack of affordable housing makes clear, those frontier days have long been over.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a contributing editor for the magazine in Durango, Colorado.