Addressing affordable worker housing in mountain resort towns

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Published Thursday, June 30, 2022
by Sarah Melotte

(Colorado News Connection) Migrants to Pitkin County added a quarter billion dollars to the county's Adjusted Gross Income in 2020. Pitkin's recreation economy is thriving, but what does that mean for middle- and low-income families?

Outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world visit rural Pitkin County for year-round recreation. Skiers and snowboarders flock to Aspen's world-famous slopes in the winter and the summer months bring even more opportunities for outdoor adventure. Tourists engage in hiking, tubing, rafting, kayaking, fishing, and camping in the Rocky Mountains that tower over the rural town.

From 1998-2019, industries related to travel and tourism increased 12 percent in Pitkin County. Some reports cite the benefits that recreation bring to a rural economy, such as economic diversification and the migration of young workers into the area. A 2018 Pew Trust analysis found that a recreation county in Montana had more high-paying full-time employment and a 29 percent increase in jobs from 2000 to 2015 all due to recreation.  Recreation-dependent counties, which are defined by the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) as having a certain share of their economy dependent on recreation related industries, also have lower persistent poverty levels. But the effects of recreation are complex and vary county to county.

Recreation Can Dislocate Residents

Recreation can cause dislocation, which occurs when people who can no longer afford to live in an area move, according to a recent Daily Yonder analysis.

2005 ERS report stated that although recreation can attract permanent residents and produce a diverse economy, it can also introduce seasonal, low- wage and low- skilled jobs while simultaneously increasing housing prices. Aspen, one of Pitkin County's resort towns, was named the most expensive neighborhood in the country in 2020.

Over 900 households migrated to Pitkin County in 2020, resulting in a net gain of $283 million in Adjusted Growth Income, when factoring in the income lost when people left the county.

The migration of high-income residents and rising costs of living, combined with the share of homes intended for seasonal use, increases housing competition in rural recreation counties. Workers from outside the county could be commuting into Pitkin County for a variety of reasons, but often it is because of an increased cost of living, said Megan Lawson, Ph.D., of Headwaters Economics in an interview.

"In non-metro counties, as the net migration rate increases by 10 percent, the share of wages spent on mortgages increases by 7 percent" Lawson wrote in a 2020 housing analysis on rural recreation communities. As Pitkin County grew 1.2 percent in the last decade, households struggling to pay rent increased by 3.7 percent.

A five-year estimate of the American Community Survey (ACS) released in 2015 found that 3,219 workers commuted to Pitkin County from Eagle County, while 4,201 workers commuted from Garfield County. ACS 5-year estimates are data collected over a 60 month period and describe the average of that period. The population in Pitkin County 16 years and older during the same collection period was about 14,911, meaning that the number of commuters into Pitkin was equal to about half the population that was of age to work. 

Pitkin County has more employees that commute from outside the county than the state average. The average percentage of people who work outside their county of residence in Colorado is 22 percent. But only 11 percent of Pitkin County residents commuted outside the county for work. 

Pitkin County has a lower percentage of people who commute outside the county to work than the state average, suggesting that Pitkin County has a higher share of employees that come from outside the county than other Colorado counties.

Possible Solutions

While recreation is often touted as a cure for rural poverty and economic stagnation, locals can find themselves pushed out of their homes to make space for new development. Experts suggest there are solutions to the problem. Constructing new housing priced for low-income families can reduce the burden of competition for those experiencing housing insecurity, for example. 

Other solutions include revising zoning policies that regulate the supply of housing for low - income households, giving tax credits for more densely developed housing units, removing square footage requirements for units, and eliminating impact fees (fees developers pay a local government for infrastructure offsets) for affordable housing. 

These solutions can be hard sells because people who own homes in a neighborhood of single family units often resist affordable housing developments, citing fears of urbanization and decreasing home values, among other things. Community development specialists suggest that circumventing a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitude is easier than fighting it. Purchasing buildings for units that accept housing vouchers (instead of constructing new ones) is one approach, says former director of The National Housing Trust Michael Bodaken in an interview with Shelter Force. Some states also enact Fair Share laws that require municipalities to provide enough affordable housing for middle and low income residents or risk losing zoning and permitting privileges.

Local housing authorities and non-profits can organize to provide affordable housing as well. The Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) provides Pitkin County workers affordable housing by offering deed-restricted units - units that must be sold or rented to qualified individuals at an affordable price. Residents may be eligible for the bidding lottery if they have worked in Pitkin County for at least four years. APCHA also allows employers to buy affordable units to rent or sell to their full-time employees. Their interactive map shows units organized by APCHA for interested participants. 

Rural recreation communities confronting the prospect of affordability issues may plan ahead to protect their long-term residents. Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies provides information on how communities can create incentives for affordable housing.

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