Economic independence in Summit County grows more difficult
July 16, 2015
Kim Hogan and her husband, Pat, didn't want to leave Summit County, but, when the couple knew they were having a baby, the moving conversations began.
Could they afford to raise a child here? What about housing? Could Kim and her husband, who both have college degrees, find jobs that let the family spend time together?
The decision didn't seem real until the couple moved in August to Grand Rapids, Michigan.
"Once we put the payment down for the U-Haul, it was like, 'OK I guess this is really happening,'" said Hogan, who lived in Summit for six years. "I want to go back every day."
According to "The Self Sufficiency Standard for Colorado 2015," a report produced for the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, the already-high cost of living in Summit has been rising dramatically — faster than wages and salaries in recent years.
Community leaders say that means more people are struggling to survive, the middle class is shrinking and residents are facing tough choices.
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BEYOND FRUGAL SPENDING
The self-sufficiency standard measures how much income different types of families need to make ends meet without public or private assistance.
The standard looks at the costs of basic needs for working families — housing, child care, food, health care, transportation and miscellaneous items — as well as taxes, tax credits and savings required to meet needs during a period of unemployment or other emergency.
In Summit, the report found, an individual's annual income would need to increase 17 percent, from about $25,100 in 2011 to roughly $29,500 in 2015, to keep up with the jump in the cost of living over the last four years.
For a family with two adults, an infant and a preschooler, the income needed for self-sufficiency rose from $76,900 in 2011 to $90,800 in 2015, an 18 percent increase in four years.
"This really does indicate that you can't look at the Federal Poverty Level as an actual indication of what it costs to live in a community," said Tamara Drangstveit, executive director of the Family and Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC) in Silverthorne.
Federal, state and local support programs that help people afford housing, child care, health care and other necessities as they move toward economic independence should take the self-sufficiency standard into account, she said.
The cost of living in Summit is also higher than the report shows, she said, for a few reasons.
It doesn't take into account cost of private transportation because just more than 7 percent of the county uses public transportation. Some of the information may be outdated, including housing costs, which were calculated using inflation-adjusted data from a five-year study done from 2008 to 2012. The study also assumes most people benefit from employer-sponsored health insurance, while many in Summit do not due to the seasonal nature of the workforce.
The report found mountain resort and Front Range communities were the most expensive places to live, and the self-sufficiency standard rose in every Colorado county and for every family type over the last 15 years. For a family with two adults, one preschooler, and one school-aged child, the standard increased, on average, by 32 percent across the state.
"Many of us for many years had to be very careful with our money," said County Commissioner Thomas Davidson, who has lived in Summit for nearly 30 years. "The most important thing people my age and older need to realize is how much higher the bar is than when we had to get over it 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago."
For more residents, the largest portion of their incomes goes toward housing.
Drangstveit said the guideline is that individuals and families shouldn't spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing; but in Summit, it's common for people to spend 40 to 50 percent.
A 2013 study in Summit showed 54 percent of renters were cost-burdened, or paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing, said Jennifer Kermode, executive director of the Summit Combined Housing Authority.
The housing authority provides people with down-payment assistance and offers classes for landlords, tenants and new homebuyers.
This year, she said she heard regularly about how landlords were raising rent and, multiple times a day, about how the winter was the worst season ever to find housing.
The lack of rental housing is now an issue in every mountain resort community, she said. "We cannot get enough units on the ground, period. We just don't have that much space."
The high cost and low availability of housing often keeps Summit residents in abusive relationships trapped in those situations, said Lori Schiefen, director of legal advocacy for Advocates for Victims of Assault.
"Trying to find affordable housing is probably our biggest obstacle that we face," she said. "We don't want the answer to be move to Denver or move to Leadville."
Davidson said the county is committed to keeping people living where they work.
"People don't want Summit County to turn into the city of Aspen where so many people have to be bussed in every day just to make the town run," he said.
Davidson applauded businesses like Vail Resorts, which recently announced an increase to its minimum wage, and he praised voters for passing tax increases to fund the Summit Housing Authority and to improve the accessibility, affordability and quality of child care.
Child care typically forms the second largest expense for young families, and Summit parents don't usually benefit from the help of nearby relatives.
"It definitely has gotten harder," said Brianne Snow, a FIRC employee who moved to Summit at age 18 and has stayed for 20 years. "Costs rose at a slower speed, and, now, it just seems to be a lightspeed."
She said she and her husband didn't fully anticipate the impact their new baby would have on the family's budget at the same time as their housing and health insurance costs skyrocketed.
"We'll be a one-child family for sure due to the fact that we want to stay here," she said. "This is our home. We don't really know where we would go."
She said she's thankful her job lets her work four days a week, and she is happy with her child care provider. Snow said the couple plans to re-evaluate costs once their daughter enters kindergarten, and they no longer need child care. In the meantime, they hope to stay healthy and avoid vehicle or home maintenance issues.
Lucinda Burns, director of Early Childhood Options, said if preschools and child-care programs lowered tuition they would have to reduce the quality of care.
She added that centers would like to raise wages for their staff members, who usually make less than school-district teachers, though they might have comparable educations; but increased wages would mean higher child-care costs.
"It really takes everybody getting together in order to solve this problem," Burns said. "We do that now, and will continue to do that."
Health-care costs also continue to be concerning.
Mindy Brewer, a property manager who lives in a deed-restricted home in the Wellington neighborhood, said her family buys health insurance through the new state marketplace and switched plans last year when the premium jumped from roughly $650 a month to $1,000.
The family found a plan for $500, but it covers less, she said, and the deductible is around $10,000.
Davidson said the Summit Community Care Clinic is a great resource for low-income, uninsured and underinsured people, but it hasn't been able to keep up with recent demand.
At FIRC, employees work with people who feel isolated and are reluctant to seek assistance through food benefits, Medicaid and other financial assistance programs because of pride and fears about how they might be seen, Drangstveit said.
"In our community, there shouldn't be a stigma because you really do need access to those programs," she said. "Those resources are there, and everyone should take a minute to see if could help."
For more information about the self-sufficiency standard, visit http://www.selfsufficiencystandard.org. To view the 2015 report for Colorado, visit http://www.selfsufficiencystandard.org/docs/Colorado2015.pdf.
For more information about financial assistance programs, call Summit County Social Services at (970) 668-9160 or the Family and Intercultural Resource Center at (970) 262-3888.
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