Emergency worker and her family priced out of Aspen market
June 8, 2016
Amy Engelmann, her husband, Curt, and two daughters had no permanent place to stay this past weekend, so they temporarily moved into the recently opened Element Basalt-Aspen hotel.
The parents aren't jobless, nor were they evicted. But unlike some workers who commute to Aspen from as far away as towns along the Interstate 70 corridor, Amy can't do that because of her job's demands.
As a nurse anesthetist, Amy must be close to Aspen Valley Hospital — no more than a 30-minute drive away — in case of an emergency, be it coming to the aid of a car-crash victim or a woman in labor.
The Engelmanns also earn too much money to acquire affordable housing in Pitkin County, but don't draw enough to find an adequate home on the free market. They're looking for a three-bedroom residence, and for their financial status, it doesn't look good. Recent advertisements have shown rentals for three-bedroom units in Aspen commanding anywhere from $6,000 to $9,000 a month.
The Engelmanns have changed addresses six or seven times since they relocated to the area from Boise, Idaho, in 2010. It has become a tired act, Amy and Curt said. Last week, they put most of their belongings in a storage unit, with no place lined up to live except their temporary home at the Willits hotel.
"We are homeless," said Curt, who works in the fields of carpentry and painting, and is a winter employee for Aspen Skiing Co.
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Ineligible for hospital housing
The hospital has 48 employee-housing units in Aspen and two in Basalt, but they are available exclusively to staff employees, said hospital spokeswoman Ginny Dyche. Amy is employed by Aspen Anesthesia, which is contracted to serve the hospital.
"We're subcontracted by the hospital, so I'm not eligible for AVH housing," she said. "When you look at teachers, cops, Aspen Skiing Co., they all have subsidized housing."
Most recently the Engelmanns were paying as much as $4,000 in monthly rent for a free-market house in Snowmass Village, where they also are on a waiting list for the limited number of three-bedroom employee-housing units offered by the town government.
Their household income puts them somewhere between Category 7 and resident-occupied status under the rules of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority. A Category 7 family with two dependents cannot have a gross income of more than $201,000 to qualify to buy a home for $522,000 under the authority's guidelines.
As of Monday, there were no Category 7 units of any size available for rent through the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority, according to its website. Also, just one three-bedroom home was being advertised for the housing lottery — a $448,546 condo at Burlingame — but it was for Category 5 residents.
"I'm lucky that I have a good income, but even on my good income we can't afford to live here," Amy said.
A growing problem
Dr. Eric Willsky, who hired Amy to work for Aspen Anesthesia, said the hospital is losing quality talent because of the dearth of housing.
"I think the community has to decide what it wants to do," he said. "Do we want to have the ability to take care of people who are critically ill and need a fast response time? And if we do, we have to find a way for these people to live."
That's the plight of Engelmann, who said she was aware of Aspen's housing costs when she moved her family here. Even so, she and her family came here with the hopes that they could make it work.
"This was a good opportunity for us," she said. "Everything in life is a trade-off, and I understood and knew the cost of living. But I love to bicycle, my girls like to ski, so we thought we'd give it a try to see if we can make this experiment work. It's obviously beautiful here, and we figured everything is a trade-off."
The trade-off, however, has Amy and her husband wondering if it's worth it. Residences that they have found affordable — their price range is roughly $3,500 a month but they have paid more — often are unkempt and poorly maintained, they said.
Chuck Frias, who runs a property-management firm and is a member of the hospital's board of directors, said the housing problem seems more acute than it was five or six years ago.
That's partly because an increasing number of employee-housing units are occupied by Aspen's aging population of retirees, along with a lack of land on which to build new affordable housing.
"It's a very complex problem," he said. "And I don't know what the answer is."
The hospital should consider its current housing program and whether some units should be set aside for trauma employees whether they are on the hospital's payroll or contract with the medical facility, Willsky said.
"Down the road 10 years from now, how are we going to get a trauma physician?" he said. "I don't think there's a long-term plan. What do we need to do to keep our hospital viable five years, 10 years or 15 years from now?"
For Amy Engelmann and her family, the system is set up so that if she made less money, the family would have a better shot at affordable housing. That isn't an option, said Amy, who graduated from the University of Southern California and is saddled with student-loan debt.
"This town is not family-friendly," she said. "It really comes down to the haves and the have-nots. And there is nothing in between."
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