While visiting Western Slope resort towns, tourists count on some of Colorado’s most aggrieved workers. Few consider how these employees live.
Recent immigrants, students on summer break and others wait tables, clean hotel rooms, park cars, guide rafting tours, teach ski lessons and provide a large assortment of other services required for tourism.
Visitors typically don’t think about the commutes tourism workers make for jobs in Steamboat Springs, Aspen, Vail, Telluride, Glenwood Springs and other resort towns with exorbitant costs of living.
Sperling’s Best Places finds housing in Aspen costs 707.4% more than the national average. Vail housing costs 397% more than the average; Glenwood Springs, 215.7% more; Steamboat Springs, 257% more; and Telluride 391% more. That’s to be expected in communities that provide second homes for wealthy consumers who fly in and out from around the globe.
As the tourism economy spreads to neighboring towns, workers find themselves commuting farther and farther to find basic shelter. The housing cost in Edwards — 11 miles east of Vail — exceeds the national average by 438.4%.
Low-wage employees in Vail often commute 80 miles round trip, or more, to live in mobile homes in Gypsum and other places far from their jobs. Local affordable housing initiatives have helped a fortunate few but not most.
Colorado needs tourists and the industry needs workers. Yet, economic forces prevent restaurants and hotels from paying the wages required to rent or buy in markets with housing costs beyond the universe of normal. Average tourists simply cannot pay $100 for a cheeseburger or $1,000 a night for a midgrade hotel room.
Given this socioeconomic dilemma, we hoped Initiative 108 might help more Colorado tourism workers live closer to their jobs. Called the Make Colorado Affordable Act, the November ballot measure proposes diverting 0.1% of the general fund into a state affordable housing program.
The state would fund this by dipping into future TABOR refunds, such as the $750 in direct payments each taxpayer received this year by mandate of the Colorado Constitution’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. By 2024, the proposed TABOR retention would generate about $300 million for the fund.
That massive diversion of taxpayer earnings must ease the burdens of tourism workers, or it’s not a good plan. Sadly, it would do no such thing.
The initiative defines affordable rentals as units available to a household with an annual income at or below 60% of the area median income and which costs less than 30% of the renter’s monthly income.
Affordable for-sale houses would be those available to households with annual incomes at or below 100% of the area median income and a mortgage payment of less than 30% of a household’s income.
That formula might help consumers on the Eastern Plains and in urban neighborhoods zoned for high-rise apartments and other dense housing.
It won’t work in resort communities where terrain and public land place extreme limits on the amount of property available for any kind of residential development. Those communities have almost no chance of meeting the price criterion needed to qualify for aid.
“I appreciate the sentiment and what they’re trying to do, and I think it’s smart,” said Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence, as quoted in a chain of mountain newspapers.
“I just don’t agree with the details of the funding because it leaves out a significant portion of our state. It really hurts some of our rural resort communities.”
Another mechanism in the funding formula requires communities to add 3% additional affordable housing each year to qualify. This would penalize jurisdictions that have invested in affordable housing and reward those that have not. A community with 100 affordable homes could qualify by adding three units, while a community with 1,000 would need to add 30.
“When I translate it to my community, that’s where I realized it really doesn’t work,” Lawrence said.
Ballot-measure formulas seldom result in fair and equitable distribution of public funds because the wording involves almost no deliberative process.
Initiative 108 highlights this inconvenient truth. It proposes taking refunds from hard-working Coloradans and redistributing the money unfairly. It would fail to help a demographic that probably needs it the most.
The Gazette Editorial Board