Putting down roots
Symon Hayes launched his home-buying search in Vail. It didn’t last long.Everything he could afford in one of North America’s No. 1 ski resort towns was “old and dark.” Avon, next door and at the bottom of exclusive Beaver Creek, was pretty much the same way, he said. Anything he considered livable was beyond his price range.So Hayes, a teacher at Minturn Middle School, did what most Eagle County’s middle-class wage earners do: He headed west. Hayes settled on a condo in Edwards, about 10 miles away, where there are newer, more affordable places to live and, he says, a sense of community. “I have neighbors,” he said. “Things are walkable and you don’t really need a car to get around Edwards.”All over the High Country, the middle class is moving away from the resort towns, where most of them work, and toward “downvalley” towns, where they can afford to live. In Eagle County, the locals are heading to Edwards, Eagle, Gypsum and even Dotsero before they can find something they can afford. For Aspen’s workers, it’s Basalt or Glenwood Springs. And then there’s Leadville, affordable bedroom community for hundreds of commuters who work in Summit and Eagle counties.Downvalley migration is taking the “life” out of tourist towns like Vail, said Mark Gordon, a 40-something married father of one who is determined to stay in Vail. “The middle class is the heart of a community,” Gordon said. “Vail will not survive without one.”Vail may not have much of a choice. Officials with the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, a coalition of resort communities, is predicting an influx of wealthy retirees as aging baby boomers begin to retire to their second homes in Colorado. It will pressure local communities in two ways: by taking more affordable condominiums and townhomes out of the hands of middle-class homebuyers, and by creating a need for more services – and therefore, middle-wage jobs – in an increasingly expensive place to live.For now, most local residents seem willing to live with it.
Middle-class exodus?Gordon isn’t ready to give up on Vail’s middle class.Rather than heading downvalley like everyone else, he and his wife, Tracy, purchased a home in Vail. Sure, it’s a townhome. It’s not big and it’s not new. And they have no yard.”But to us those are small things to give up to live in Vail,” he said. Gordon may be in the minority, though. Migration from Vail to Edwards and places west has fostered tremendous growth in these communities. Edwards, while not technically a town because it is unincorporated, is the largest community in Eagle County with more than 8,000 year-round residents. Eagle, which had just more than 1,000 residents counted in the 1990 census, is fastly approaching 5,000 people. Gypsum’s population boom has been similar.More affordable housing is the most obvious reason. Any potential homebuyer looking for a home priced under the $261,000 mark (see sidebar) would be hard-pressed to find anything other than a dated, one-bedroom condo in Vail for that price. A handful of condos in Avon fall under that range, and the number of units found under $261,000 increases as you move west.While homes in Vail, Avon and even Minturn are being bought up by second-home owners, Edwards, Eagle and Gypsum remain, for now, communities with full-time residents. That’s what drives many upvalley residents to move down to Gypsum, said Gypsum Mayor Steve Carver.”They like the laid-back atmosphere down here,” he said. “Everybody still kind of knows each other. They help each other when someone in the community is in need.”That downvalley migration is driving up the cost of living in affordable communities, however. Home prices in Basalt, where many Aspen workers live, have gone up significantly. Glenwood Springs – a bedroom community for many workers in Eagle and Pitkin counties – also is getting more expensive, forcing would-be residents to move to Rifle or Parachute, said Randy Russell, Garfield County’s senior long-term planner.Russell suggested that if workers were able to factor in the cost of commuting, living closer to work may not seem that expensive.
The real cost of livingMaintaining a middle class has been even more of a struggle in Aspen, where mobile homes – albeit, rather luxurious ones – can go for $1 million. But Pitkin County in many ways pioneered the government-sponsored affordable housing push now popping up in Eagle and Summit counties.The most common way to keep housing affordable is creating deed restrictions. They can limit how much a home appreciates and keep out second-home owners by requiring homebuyers work and live in their community year-round. Requiring developers of large projects to build affordable housing, or contribute money to programs like downpayment assistance, is another tactic. Pitkin County has created more than 1,700 affordable units for rent or for sale using deed restrictions. They get snatched up quickly. Recent listings on Pitkin County’s housing department Web site showed just two units for sale – a two-bedroom, two-bath condominium for $232,100 and a two-bedroom, one-bath condo for $181,000. Prospective homebuyers must enter their name into a lottery for a chance to buy. For those who can’t get into an Aspen home, there’s Garfield County. Those who can’t afford a Breckenridge home commute from Park County or Leadville, which also is home to a fair number of Eagle County workers. According to state labor statistics, 60 percent of Leadville residents commute outside of their home county for work. Gordon, who ran for the Vail Town Council in 2004, said the town can’t afford to lose its middle class, even if it’s just to a community a few miles down Interstate 70. It’s just good business sense, he said. “When you go to a ski resort for vacation, you want to relive your youth,” he said. “You can’t have that if your community is only made up of the upper crust and the geriatric.”Middle class wage earners are the people who traditionally serve on school boards and do community service, he said.But places like Garfield County don’t even have much of that, Russell said. That’s because Garfield County’s middle class is heading to work in Aspen or Vail. Having a population that commutes long distances for work creates several problems, he said. “If you have someone who is having to commute that distance, they can’t volunteer on community groups,” Russell said. “They are not going to join the local service club that meets at lunch. They can’t make parent-teacher conferences. It further distances the resident from an opportunity to participate in their community.”
Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or firstname.lastname@example.org.=========================================================Cost of Living in ParadiseHere’s a breakdown of housing expenses for a family of four with a household income of $58,000 that owns a three-bedroom condominium or townhome of about 1,500 square feet.Average American CityHousing: $8,175Total costs: $58,000
Eagle CountyHousing: $28,331Housing compared to Standard City (%): 346.6Garfield CountyHousing: $16,521Housing compared to Standard City (%): 202.1Pitkin CountyHousing: $64,023Housing compared to Standard City (%): 783.2
Summit CountyHousing: $23,112Housing compared to Standard City (%): 282.7source: Northwest Colorado Council Governments, 2004 Cost of Living study===========================================================Vail, Colorado