Work Here, Live Here: The steep cost of living in the mountains

Local bartender is the epitome of the working-class struggle in Eagle County, holding down three jobs to keep a home

With its scenic mountain ranges, charming towns, and world-class skiing and biking, there is no surprise people from around the globe flock to Eagle County. But living the mountain lifestyle comes at a steep price.

Jenny Legge is a South Dakota native, but she has called Eagle County home for the past seven years. She has held two to three jobs at a time while living here. Legge is a bartender at Harvest in Edwards and the Highline hotel in Vail. She also inspects condos and apartments for the Vail Valley Partnership. For Legge, that still isn’t enough to sustain a life here.

Legge’s husband has lived in Eagle for the past 13 years and works as driver and manager for Mountain Beverage.

“If he (Jenny’s husband) wasn’t established, there is just no way I could have stayed here” she said.

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She and her husband currently live in Eagle. They own a deed-restricted condo acquired 10 years ago. “We pay $1,400 per month for a two-bedroom, two bath, and that’s nonexistent now,” Legge said.

“It’s ironic, people who live here can’t have a home. Most of the people who own in Vail live somewhere else,” she said. “I have a friend that makes pretty good money — like $90,000 a year and he can’t afford anything but a small studio for $1000 a month.”

Jenny Legge, halfway through working a double at the Harvest, in Edwards. This summer has been especially busy due to the worker shortage and the increasing tourism in the valley.
Noelle Harff/

In May, the average transaction price for a home in Eagle County was $1,377,750 according to Land Title Guarantee Company — nearly $1 million more than the average home price in the U.S. of $381,300, according to the United States Census Bureau. The average home prices in Avon ($688,777), Edwards ($979,925), and Eagle ($630,110) show just how steep it is to get in the market. And that’s if you can find anything in your price range.

Couple that with the median household income in Eagle County of $84,790, according to census data, and it’s not hard to see how hard it is for workers to make it here.

It’s no surprise that Legge’s story is a valley cliché.

Home prices in Eagle County have reached record highs and rents have increased 20% to 40% in one year, according to a recent Mountain Migration Survey commissioned by the Colorado Association of Ski Towns and the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

The survey puts statistics to Legge’s struggle, showing that only 40% of buyers in Eagle County are local. “Newcomers with significantly higher incomes than year-round residents more often won the competition for scarce housing units,” the report states.

It also shows how the high costs of living in Eagle County makes it harder for locals to stay here, as opposed to making a go of it somewhere else.

Eagle County’s overall cost of living indexes at a score of 176.30 — with anything greater than 100 considered higher than the national average. Food and transportation sit slightly above 100 for the county’s cost of living, but what throws everything out of whack is the cost of housing, indexed at 340 against the national average.

If Legge could make one change in the valley, it would be the emergence of more affordable housing. “Seeing more special properties for locals that have a rent cap would be a big step,” she said.

Legge described properties that would be affordable and realistic — somewhere that is not too far from work and can support a decent lifestyle.

“Anecdotally, there is still a strong sense of community in our town, but it’s at risk as we continue to look forward,” said Kevin Armitage, the director of residential construction and Eagle County market president for NBH Bank. “Wanting to establish roots is becoming tougher and tougher.”

“You can’t build your way out of this problem,” said Chris Romer, the CEO and president of Vail Valley Partnership. “We need to have programs that normalize the market: Land acquisition, deed restricted units, accessory dwelling units, and funding. We need all of these solutions because the answer to the housing is not one, but all of the above.”

And while options exist for locals to try to get into the market through various town housing initiatives like the town of Vail’s housing lottery and Vail’s InDEED program and Avon’s Mi Casa program, which help local workers get into deed-restricted housing, they do not meet the demand in the area, and are very competitive.

“Down payment assistance gets used immediately,” Romer said.

Still, Legge stays in the valley. When she isn’t working the long hours it takes to stay here, she savors the moments when she can get out and enjoy the things that brought her here in the first place.

“I live an active lifestyle outside. I like to cross-country ski, bike, and hike,” she said.

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