Do we still have a middle class?
summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY ” Silverthorne Elementary teacher Beth Williams moved to Summit County in 1983 just after graduating from college. Taking a job in special education with Summit School District, Williams lived in a house on Peak 7 with a roommate. She remembers her share of the rent being between $250 and $325 ” a steal by today’s standards, but a high price for a single, starting-salary teacher at the time, she says.
Fast forward almost 25 years and the story hasn’t improved. Williams, who now lives in Dillon Valley with her family, tells stories of a few younger teachers who recently moved to Summit County taking up part-time second jobs ” though whether out of want or need, she doesn’t know.
“I don’t know how coming into this county people can afford to live here given the cost of housing,” Williams said. “If I were to move into this county now, single, I think it would be extremely difficult.”
The problem Williams speaks of is familiar ” sometimes personal ” to many Summit County residents.
At the same time that the county’s amenities attract people to live here, government officials voice concerns that if steps aren’t taken, rising costs could drive away local families. And the virtually permanent “help wanted” signs in store windows across the county speak to many businesses’ difficulties keeping staff ranks filled.
Jennifer Kermode, executive director of the Summit Housing Authority, says the prospect of residents leaving the area for financial reasons isn’t just a concern for the future. “We are there,” she says.
“There’s a lot of income that’s being made up here, but it just doesn’t go as far for housing as we all know it does in other places,” Kermode said. “It creates a choice people have to make, and the choice is, ‘Do I spend all my money on acceptable housing, or do I spend money on skis, lift tickets, letting your kids do all the fun stuff?'”
Doug Westenskow, research project manager for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, has done several community studies in Summit County. He agrees with Kermode that the local middle class is already being lost.
“I wouldn’t say we’re in the beginning stages, but we’re in the early stages,” he said. “The beginning’s already happened.”
And without local action, Westenskow sees the trend growing exponentially in the future. “You’re going to have all these jobs like middle managers that basically would be middle class, but the middle managers won’t be able to afford a place to live,” he said.
The question Summit County needs to ask, Westeskow says, is, “Are we going to turn into Aspen, where the worker drives 60 miles to get to work?”
Kermode says that if Summit County were to become reliant on a commuter workforce, the commuters themselves wouldn’t be the only ones negatively affected.
“It’s in my opinion the middle class that really drives an economy. They’re not only the majority of consumers, but the majority of innovators and creators,” she said. “Without the middle class we’re really kind of an empty shell.”
Summit County Sheriff John Minor lives with the effects of a disappearing workforce every day in his job. He said the sheriff’s office sees a 20 to 25 percent turnover in its 80-member staff every year ” a situation he says is “very frustrating, and to put it frankly, it stinks.”
“The primary reason I’m hearing from my cops when they’re leaving is cost of living and the housing market,” Minor said. “Police, fire, ambulance ” we’re the caretakers of the community, and if this trend continues we’re going to be absentee caretakers.”
With a starting salary of $39,000 to $44,000, Summit County Sheriffs officers often make too much to qualify for deed-restricted housing, but too little to afford the type of market-value home they want and need, Minor said.
“Most of our cops are no different than anybody else. They want a a small home, nothing fancy, a two-door garage and a place for the dog to run around,” Minor said.
“It doesn’t matter how much we pay them; they’ll never be able to afford the typical three or four bedroom home.”
Minor said Summit County attracts officers with its local amenities, but once they come here, living costs often overshadow the perks. “We try to appeal to the outdoor enthusiast, but that only lasts so long, because they realize, ‘If I want to go skiing, I can just drive up from Denver like anybody else.'”
Officers who come to Summit County for the recreational opportunities come to one of two conclusions, Minor said. For many, “What happens is they realize in a couple years they’re paying so much for rent they can’t afford to do the things they love to do. … Then you have cops who come here and love the mountain lifestyle, and they’re willing to make the sacrifices it takes to live here. But they’re becoming fewer and fewer.”
Minor himself has dealt with the challenges of finding housing in Summit County. This summer his family of four searched the market for a four-bedroom house, but couldn’t afford any units for sale. “If I’m in that boat, I truly feel so bad for our cops,” he said.
Williams and her family have had a more positive experience with housing. She and her husband, Tom, bought a duplex in Dillon Valley in the mid-1990s ” “It wasn’t very much,” she says, “but it took everything we had then just to pay for it” ” and were later able to buy a larger home with help from the profit they made selling the duplex.
Westenskow says Summit County’s seemingly ever-rising housing market is in part a self-fulfilling prophecy due to the exact situation Williams experienced selling her duplex. Based on history, people know buying a home here will return a profit in short time, driving up demand to buy property and further increasing property prices.
But the biggest reason why property costs are so high in Summit County is something much more basic, Westenskow says. “It’s quality of life. That’s the easiest way to put it.”
Beyond outside market forces, Kermode sees a change in people’s thinking as partly responsible for difficulties affording a place to live.
“I don’t think people make choices based on long-term consequences anymore,” she said. “The cultural thought process needs to go back to longer-term thought processes, and part of that will be using money more wisely.”
Kermode said the Housing Authority is beginning financial education efforts to help rectify this situation locally, but that the biggest solution to Summit County’s housing problem is building affordable housing, saying that “along with a change in thinking, it will regenerate the middle class to be here in the long term.”
Westenskow agrees. “Affordable housing will eventually be the biggest issue,” he said, though he notes, “There’s all kinds of good solutions, but no matter what solutions you come up with, there’s people who are against them.”
Still, Westenskow and Kermode remain optimistic that Summit County will find ways to deal with the effects its cost of living has on the working population.
Kermode says the area will remain strong “as long as we manage ourselves.” “I think the thing that keeps us different than a Vail or an Aspen is the people, just far more down to eath,” she said.
And in Williams’ eyes, the high cost of living is the price for Summit County’s above-average lifestyle. She says the benefits of living here “absolutely” outweigh the cost.
“This has been a wonderful place for Tom and I to raise our children,” Williams said.
“People who have been here long enough, I don’t think they’ll ever let it become like an Aspen.”
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