HOMELIFE: explore the Missing Middle Roaring Fork Valley housing markets.
WHERE IS THE MIDDLE?
Here’s the Middle. If your family is living on two professional incomes yet feeling stretched when deciding between seeing the dentist and taking a road trip. Chances are, you’re in the Middle, capital M. If either of you is a teacher, nurse, delivery driver, mid-level management, hourly worker, or self-employed at your dream start-up, you’re probably in it. Own your home in the Roaring Fork Valley? Renting? Upvalley? Downvalley? Either way, you’re statistically most likely in the Middle. “The Missing Middle” is a new catchphrase describing a market gap for families who can neither qualify for traditional low-income housing nor comfortably buy on the open market. It’s like this right now all over the country, particularly here in the Mountain West.
HOW MANY ARE MISSING?
You are Missing if your household of any size earns between $70k – $137k annually. This is according to the 2019 Greater Roaring Fork Regional (GRFR) Housing Study. The first comprehensive look since 2000 at our region’s housing “workshed” (the geographical span of our workforce, stretching from Aspen to Parachute and Avon). “This is the diagnosis that will help us come up with solutions,” explains APCHA executive director Mike Kosdrosky, who helped initiate the GRFR study. We’re talking about commuter patterns, construction costs, income growth, real estate variables, demographic trends. Truly every metric you’ve ever imagined if you’re curious about our local economy.
The GRFR tells us that 14,126 local households live in the Missing Middle. It’s the largest demographic group in the study (39% of total population), 55% of which are households with children under age 16. According to GRFR, these families “can afford” to spend between $400k-$450k to purchase their home. The catch? The study also shows a 1,900 unit shortfall in this price range. That’s a shortage in supply of nearly 2000 almost half-million-dollar homes. Entrepreneurs on the forefront of new-urbanism around the U.S. are building specifically for the Missing Middle, who are literally lining up to make offers on smaller-footprint, duplex, triplex and four-plex bungalows in walkable neighborhoods with communal outdoor spaces and smart design details. So why aren’t local developers jumping on this hot trend? Because land prices and construction costs turn a very slim (if not upside down) margin on a new $450k three bedroom.
There’s good news – and it isn’t just a silver lining. We live here. Here – as opposed to a large metro area or another mountain resort community. Our Valley has been on the forefront of affordable housing for more than 45 years. Ever since visionaries built Pitkin County’s first deed-restricted workforce housing in the early 1970s. The City of Aspen and Pitkin County later joined forces to create the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) in mid-1980s. Now the oldest and largest mountain resort workforce housing program in North America. Relative to population size, it is the largest in the nation – with 3033 deed-restricted homes (45% of these are affordable rentals; 55% owner-occupied).
We’re now three generations into a land-use legacy that inspires innovations and partnerships today. In our annual HOMELife edition, we share stories of visionaries and families who are finding a place for the Missing Middle to live in a multi-family net zero neighborhood, a trailer-park makeover and a consciously sourced tiny home.
A BIG IDEA
Imagine a housing Shangri La where people live near where they work, near where their kids go to school, near where they shop and play; where affordable means attainable.
If this sounds like some sort of utopia, it is. Yet it’s exactly what happened when Habitat Roaring Fork’s president Scott Gilbert asked how we can address the housing needs of the Roaring Fork Valley. First he focussed on low-income families, and now, working professionals in the Missing Middle, especially teachers.
“I started my career as a teacher,” Gilbert said. “And I quickly learned that I couldn’t support a family on what I was earning. So I changed professions. We lose teachers every year because they can’t afford to live here. Affordable housing is an issue that becomes a crisis for teachers. Their income isn’t enough to promise housing security. When I saw that there was a large, unused piece of land immediately adjacent to Basalt High School, I reached out to the school district to see if we could talk.”
The Roaring Fork School District and Habitat for Humanity started envisioning affordable housing for teachers on the RFSD’s seven acres near Southside Basalt. Pitkin County entered the equation by providing road construction and utility infrastructure in exchange for a portion of homes slated for workers within the county. Next came discussions with Basalt planners and trustees, who extended the Town’s urban growth boundary. The result is Basalt Vista, a 27 home neighborhood for teachers and other families in the Missing Middle.
Remove the cost of purchasing land and developing infrastructure. The rest of the puzzle is solved by Habitat’s model of construction. Expert builders and sub-contractors work together with volunteers and homeowners who pay a portion of their future home’s cost through true sweat equity, working on-site during construction.
“I like to think of it like an old-fashioned barn raising. People come together to help each other. This is what community is all about,” says Habitat Volunteer Coordinator & Family Services Director Amy French. If our community’s housing future is one of your red button issues, then Amy can help you get involved. Of course supporting Habitat’s Restore is a small way to make a big difference.
GO INSIDE 3 HOMES FOR THE MISSING MIDDLE:
The GRFR study gives some eye-popping projections for 2027. For example, it estimates the housing supply gap for low wage earners will reach 2,383 and the gap for the lower Missing Middle will reach 3,338. It also shows that those who will age into the 65+ category will increase by 31% throughout the region; 48% in Aspen-Snowmass.
How do our community’s housing visionaries interpret the numbers?
“It means that now we know what we are really seeing,” explains APCHA executive director Mike Kosdrosky, who helped inititate the GRFR study. “We’ve never had a regional housing study. We’ve never actually identified the geographical region that is defined by our workforce. Just being able to apply statistical analysis to the numbers will give us tools we’ve never been able to use before – to better inform policy makers, to more actively engage the community, and to look at real needs in terms of dollars and inventory.”
To better respond to changes in demographics and increased need, APCHA is launching a Hometrek program that will automate the collection of housing data, taking the housing authority from a paper-based system to a web-based model where accurate, up-to-date information can, according to Kosdrosky, “revolutionize the way we serve the community. It will be as innovative as the original impulse to launch APCHA in the 70s and 80s. When we can see, for example, how many people Pitkin County imports every day from as far as an hour-an-a-half away, we can start finding better long-term answers that serve the whole region.”
Once the broader community heard about what was happening at Basalt Vista, the momentum behind the project started growing, attracting more than 1,100 volunteers, and drawing the attention of state legislators and leaders in the fields of sustainable housing and renewable energy. Everyone wanted to know how to replicate the project.
“This was the seminal moment,” says Scott Gilbert of Habitat Roaring Fork, who got Basalt Vista started with a conversation. “We were willing to let go of our prior ways of doing things. We asked ourselves how we could work together, and we found solutions. We galvanized everyone behind this need. When this happens, you can drown out nay-sayers and NIMBYism with positive, can-do thinking. Basalt Vista can be a springboard for the next partnerships, the next big ideas. We can do this in ten years. I know we can. It’s what I think about everyday.”