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Tough times in Happy Valley

Tamara Miller
Illustration by Amanda Swanson
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It’s not scientific, but one of the ways you can find out how Eagle County workers are faring is to place a call to the local Salvation Army.

The national nonprofit group may be best known for the bell ringers who stand outside the grocery store around Christmas collecting loose change for the poor.

While that’s not the image most people around the country have of Vail ” a part of the country that has more than its fair share of fur coat stores and 10,000 square-foot homes ” there are plenty of local residents who are struggling to make ends meet.

It’s the case of the latter that keeps Tsu Wolin-Brown, executive director for the local Salvation Army chapter, plenty busy. Especially lately.

Since the beginning of the year, the local Salvation Army has worked 480 cases, meaning there have been 480 times when the Salvation Army has responded to a request for help. That can vary from helping a local family pay rent one month to paying for a bus ticket for a stranded traveler.

At that rate, the Salvation Army is on track to work more cases than it did in 2007.

Perhaps more telling is that as of the end of May, there had been 122 visits to the food pantry ” essentially a large closet in the Salvation Army’s office full of nonperishable food. There have been so many visits this year the nonprofit began running low on essential items like peanut butter and canned tuna. Wolin-Brown and her staff had to contact the local churches and ask them to rally their parishioners for donations.

The impacts of the economy ” that nationwide slowdown that has stagnated real estate markets and crippled working class folks with soaring gas prices ” are starting to seep into the Vail Valley.

Add in expensive housing, and it’s easy to understand why some people are getting into trouble.

“I think there are a whole lot of reasons,” Wolin-Brown said. “Food costs are higher, gas is up, we had that really long, awful spring and a lot of people who would be able to do painting or construction couldn’t, and were laid off for longer.”

It’s not news that living in the Vail Valley isn’t easy. But perhaps what’s striking is how much money a local resident needs to make to survive here.

According to a new study conducted by the National Center for Children in Poverty, a single parent with two children in Eagle County must make $53,729 annually just to meet the basic cost of living here.

Consider that the median household income in the U.S. in 2006 ” the latest data available ” was about $47,000, and you can see how out of proportion life can be here.

That’s not news to Jamie, a single mom with three children who didn’t want her real name used because she doesn’t want her children’s friends to know they are struggling financially.

Jamie makes about $35,000 a year as an office manager for a local hotel. She makes about $14,000 a year more than the federal poverty line, which greatly reduces the number of federal and state assistance programs she can qualify for. But she still can’t pay all her bills each month.

She’s considering moving, but right now she can’t afford to do it.

“I just think this valley needs to do more to help people like me,” she said. “I’ve lived here for 10 years. The valley’s losing families.”

Jamie is one of several local residents who are victims to what’s being called “the cliff effect.” The National Center for Children in Poverty study also revealed the price of making more than the poverty level, but not enough to be self-sufficient. Most state and federal programs use the federal poverty level to qualify residents for aid. That means a single parent with two kids who earns about $15 an hour ” the going rate for many jobs in the Vail Valley ” is still about $12,000 short of being self-sufficient in Eagle County, yet makes too much to qualify for food stamps or for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Make $16 an hour, and that same family can also no longer qualify for public insurance.

The “cliff effect” is such an issue that local government officials and leaders for nonprofit agencies that help low-income families recently met to discuss the problem. The group concluded that about 18,000 of the 50,000 or so people who live in Eagle County are in a situation where they make too much to qualify for aid but still aren’t able to make it here.

Kathleen Lyons, the self-sufficiency manager for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said it isn’t rare for a resident applying for aid to make too much to qualify for some programs.

In the meantime, Lyons said she’s seen an increase in applications for help.

“I think the full impact of the economy hasn’t hit here yet,” she said.

Pricey gas makes the commute to Vail more expensive, and inflates the cost of food. But despite the economy’s new challenges, the real cause for an Eagle County worker’s struggles hasn’t changed. It’s housing, said Mark Eldridge, the director of Catholic Charities. A look at the classified section in the Vail Daily shows the going rate for a two-bedroom apartment is about $2,000 in Edwards and east. A three-bedroom apartment in the more family-oriented communities of Gypsum and Eagle goes for about $2,000.

Prices like that just are too steep for Jim Daily, a self-employed contractor.

Lately, he’s been making between $1,000 and $1,500 per month, when he needs at least $2,000 to pay all his bills. It wasn’t always this way. When the county’s real estate market was booming and fuel prices were still relatively cheap, Daily did pretty well.

But now, Daily has to spend nearly $5 a gallon to fill up his diesel truck. Homes for sale are sitting on the market for months. The lion’s share of Daily’s work came from realtors who hired him to make repairs to homes before a sale closed.

Homes aren’t closing, so Daily’s resigned to doing smaller jobs, and fewer of them.

Daily is also being undercut by illegal immigrants who will do the work for far cheaper because they don’t pay the liability insurance premiums he does, he said.

That’s why Daily is crashing at his friend’s place until he can find an affordable apartment of his own.

“I’m very frustrated,” Daily said. “Sometimes, I’d like to go take off and live on a deserted island. Your mind just goes crazy … I’ve got work, but I don’t have enough work and money isn’t coming in fast enough. I can’t afford to leave, but can’t afford to live here.”

Costly housing is more than just Daily’s problem, though. Eldridge points out that the affordable housing shortage is pinching local employers. Vail Resorts struggled to keep the ski mountain open and running at top speed at the end of the ski season. Many of the foreign workers Vail Resorts hires to work on the mountain had to leave after their visas expired before the end of the ski season. Sweet Basil, a restaurant in Vail, had to shorten its hours because of a staff shortage.

While there has been a concerted effort to build more affordable housing across the valley, it isn’t enough, Eldridge said.

“When they build these big hotels, they should consider them like cruise ships and have a staff quarters,” Eldridge said.

The good news is the push to build affordable housing is at an all-time high. Last month, sales began for the Stratton Flats development in Gypsum. The project is a mix of free market and deed-restricted condos, townhomes and single-family homes. The town of Gypsum and Eagle County partnered with a private developer to get the project done.

How well the project will sell, now that banks are tightening their lending guidelines in the wake of the nationwide credit crisis, remains to be seen.

Most towns across Eagle County are requiring developers compensate for the new jobs they create when they decide to build here. And despite the pricey rental market, there are some apartment complexes in Eagle County that rent specifically to low-income residents, though the waiting list to get into one of those units can be long.

There are several groups in the valley that work to help struggling residents. The Salvation Army and Catholic Charities have policies to help a resident who has a demonstrated need for help, regardless of income, once a year. When a health crisis forces even a middle-income resident to seek help, groups like the Vail Valley Charitable Fund and the Swift Eagle Foundation assist locals who can’t pay all their medical bills.

And for all the assistance these groups provide, there are still residents who could probably use some help, but won’t ask.

Take Daily, for instance, who, despite his challenges, hasn’t contacted a group like the Salvation Army for help.

“There are people who need it more than I do,” he said.

Tamara Miller can be reached for comment at tmiller@vaildaily.com.


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