This column is about the Colorado Springs technology sector. So, let’s discuss housing.
Is there enough of it? Is there a roof and a bed for the thousands of tech workers that employers say they need?
Look, it’s not as if job hunters are in danger of being turned away at the city limits. If there’s one thing this city knows how to do, it’s plow ground, lay pipe, pave streets, frame houses, lather, rinse, repeat. I won’t make too much of this, but it is striking to see how the tables have turned on tech labor demand and housing stock.
Consider the four tech sectors in Colorado Springs with the most job openings. They have 3,100 jobs they want to fill, according to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Economic Forum. Even in a metro area of three-quarters of a million people, that’s a lot of available jobs, even if it is a routine number.
I first saw these numbers a few weeks ago. They’ve stuck in my mind. Three thousand souls? Where are we going to put these people?
Under normal circumstances, this question probably wouldn’t occur to me. But things aren’t normal. Real-estate agents are showing up at our doorstep, encouraging us to sell our home (and do what? Face this market?). They’ve done a good job convincing me that finding a place to live in this town requires a shoehorn. The property-tax assessment that just arrived has only added an exclamation point.
This is what they’re up against: an inventory of about 1,500 single-family homes and condos, according to the Multiple Listing Service data used by members of the area Realtors Association. The metro area has about 2,500 vacant apartments, according to the state Division of Housing.
That would seem to provide ample choice for one software engineer, but there are 3,100 more tech workers in line behind her. And behind those 3,100 new renters and homeowners are another 10,000-plus people who ultimately will fill posted openings in nontech sectors, all of them elbowing each other aside to claim one of our roughly 4,000 available housing units.
It is at this point that Tammy Fields, chief economic development officer for the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, dumps a bucket of cold water on my head.
“We’re not getting tech workers because we don’t have housing. it’s just that there’s a shortage of tech workers,” she said. “The bigger challenge is finding the people with the skill set, rather than the housing for them.”
Those 3,100 open local tech jobs? They’re real. They would be filled tomorrow if the right candidates miraculously showed up. But here’s the thing: No one expects that to happen any time soon.
“Everyone is looking for tech workers. We can’t pump them out fast enough,” Fields said. The pickings are slim not only locally, but nationally, so those eye-popping tech job listings are likely to keep popping for a while. That puts local tech labor demand in a bit of a different, more theoretical, light. The numbers describe our future more than they describe our present.
Which may be a good thing. If an army of talent emerged from our schools today, they would march straight into the housing bottleneck. Retrained locals, now in other jobs or unemployed, surely will supply some of the needed tech labor, but that only shifts the recruitment challenge to some other employer.
This voracious demand for generally well-paid tech labor vs. the lagging supply of housing goes some way toward explaining the eruption of higher-end apartment construction along, for example, the Powers corridor north of Woodmen. To the north, it explains a lot of Denver’s high-rise residential boom.
Denver, in fact, might be more proactive than Colorado Springs in this regard. Developers there added nearly 4,000 apartment units during the first quarter, according to industry figures as reported by the Denver Post. First-quarter figures for Colorado Springs are not yet available, but since 2013 the average first-quarter pace here has been about 200 new apartments, according to the state Division of Housing. Translated: Denver’s first quarter apartment construction ran hotter, per capita, than it typically runs here.
Perhaps that is to be expected when comparing a metro area of nearly 3 million people to one a quarter of that size. And perhaps Colorado Springs still isn’t completely over a 25-year hangover from the savings-and-loan collapse of the 1980s-’90s.
Land developers hopped up on easy financing and blue-sky tech optimism got way ahead of themselves. When the jobs didn’t materialize and the crash came, our fair city became the foreclosure capital of America for a while.
That’s a lesson that is hard to forget, even if was taught before half of the people swinging hammers on construction sites today were even born.
Today, it’s the inverse: Tech job supply is way ahead of housing. That’s a boom waiting to happen, if tech labor ever starts pouring into a city that knows, in its bones, how to plow ground, lay pipe, pave roads, and frame houses.
Jeff Thomas was a reporter and editor at The Gazette from 1988-2011. Currently he’s an editor for a nonprofit that supports Christians around the world who live under threat. Reach him via DM at @JTattheG, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.