Seeking the little patch of earth

The retiree was all smiles as he introduced himself, flush with having just sealed a deal to buy the duplex just across the street from ours. Seemed like a nice guy, told us about his boat, his family, his love of the town we shared.

But I was thinking of the number: $540,000. That’s what he’d just agreed to pay for the three-bedroom Frisco duplex that sold for about $135,000 when it was built in the early 1990s. Can’t blame the old guy (an absentee homeowner I’d never met) for taking what the market would pay, I thought. But still, that’s a 400 percent profit, and the demographic is all wrong: One retiree sells to another, and feeds a runaway real estate market that has priced local, working families out of the game.

Boo-hoo, right?

There’s another home in our cul-de-sac for sale, a single-family, good size with five bedrooms. Sold for just under $200,000 when it was built 15 or so years ago; current owners have it on the market for almost $900,000. They’ll probably get it, too, although it may take longer than the one or two weeks the duplex was on the market. We watch the parade of folks driving up with the realtor to “view” the home. They look to be in their late 50s to mid-60s, freshly retired and vibrant, excited about the prospect of relocating from Denver or Duluth or wherever to live the mountain life. Mostly hedonistic and isolationist, they will entertain friends and family at their new home, ignore the community they live in except when something is proposed (an affordable housing development, a college campus) they don’t like, then they come out of the woodwork.

The locals, it’s fair to say, mostly despise these people and what they stand for. It’s usually not personal, since we often don’t know the homeowner or the relatives he lends the house to at different times of the year. It has more to do with the feeling of having one’s chosen town co-opted by moneyed outsiders – probably nice people, most of them, but all the same part of a machine that’s destroying the community fabric of the town. The local elementary school has falling enrollment, the preschool has spaces to fill, the neighborhoods are largely devoid of children. You see strollers replaced by older couples walking similarly gray dogs, and one gets the sense that quiet is preferred.

Last night, while walking with my wife and youngest son, the guy selling the $900,000 home next to us approached us. He’s never said much to us before, and for a ridiculous nanosecond, I imagined him saying he’d reconsidered and would sell us the home for its “real” value — $300,000.

But it had to do with the basketball goal we have on the corner of the lawn, hanging out over the street. He noticed that we didn’t use it very often and wondered if we couldn’t move it while his home was on the market. Something about creating less of a “playground atmosphere,” he said.

And there it was, starkly if unconsciously acknowledged by a seller of a mountain home: I know that no family is going to be able to afford this house, and I don’t want the retired folks who are my real prospects frightened away with the notion that this is a real neighborhood with noisy kids playing.

Or something like that.

 

It’s late spring as I write, and in a town that’s 64 percent second-home owners, it’s quiet. My 5-year-old and I scooter or walk around the neighborhoods, past homes that sit dark and empty, the anonymous owners golfing now in Littleton, Houston, San Diego. I have to make an effort not to be filled with venomous thoughts, as we pass homes worth two or three times what I could afford to pay just sitting there, their owners visiting them maybe 10 or 20 days a year.

Like pretty much all Americans, I’ve been led to believe that home ownership is the ne plus ultra of human existence, a thing that is to be achieved above all things. In its absence, we can only hope to find meaningless lives scrabbling for rent money. Our landlords are a couple who live in Lakewood. They have plans to one day remodel our duplex and occupy one floor while renting out the rest. But they delay their plans and allow us to remain, happy that we’re the kind of renters who fix little things, pay the rent on time and don’t complain. When they raised the rent on us by $250 this year, I complained and got them to come down $50. But $200 extra a month – where’s that supposed to come from I wondered?

But you can do those kinds of things when you’re a landlord in a hot market.

My wife and I talk about buying a home in Frisco, but the logistics don’t seem to be there. Raising five kids has made saving money for a downpayment all but impossible, and if you look at the payments for a half-million-dollar mortgage, it comes out to about twice what we pay now in rent. Jen will point out what seems like a “bargain” in the real estate section of the paper: A 1970s vintage butt-ugly townhome with three bedrooms and a new paint job selling for 649. “That’s cheap for Frisco!”

Maybe so, but it’s not a viable sum for anyone making near the median income in our county (about $79,000 for a family of four). Go by the rule of not paying more than 35 percent for housing and that’s $2,300 a month. Not much left for groceries after that.

It’s just numbers, I tell myself. I just need to figure out how to move them around more effectively – like all these other fuckers laying down a million or more for a home in our town. I tell myself that if we had the money, we’d be those fuckers too, maybe buying a second home on some lake in Minnesota.

 

The idea that we will be “Aspenized” if we don’t do something about our lack of affordable housing has been the subject of a great deal of meeting, hand-wringing and letter-writing for a few decades now. At the close of the millennium, I sat on an “affordable housing task force” in Frisco, where we concluded that there was no “silver bullet” and that we needed to use a lot of different “tools” to improve the situation. We also concluded that the town needed over 300 affordable units to make a dent.

Since then, the town has helped create one, 10-unit project over near the elementary school. There was a lottery to decide the lucky recipients of the pint-sized units. In the meantime, a good number of single-family homes in town are being knocked down and redeveloped into multi-unit monstrosities — built lot-line to lot-line — that sell for $750,000 and up. In addition to being utterly unaffordable to locals, these things have the unfortunate propensity to be wildly out-of-whack with surrounding buildings. One of them is built within about 2 feet of a cute old white clapboard home probably built in the 1940s, and the behemoth towers above it – a precise metaphor for the disparate incomes of the new owners vs. that of the guy in the little house (who probably rents it from someone in another state anyway.)

Frisco is a small town, not just in population (about 2,400 full time) but in size. We’re boxed in by mountains to the west, a lake to the east and National Forest to the north and south. There isn’t much room to expand, which is why we see so much of the aforementioned redevelopment of existing land. The town owns a 9-acre piece of land out by the interstate that it would like to see developed into retail (a Home Depot was proposed and shot down by voters) to pay the bills. There’s another rare spot of open land back by the rec path – about 12 acres owned by the town and on the list for annexation. The idea being kicked around is to make it available for some affordable housing, and the town has begun gently exploring the notion by meeting in small groups with “stakeholders,” which is community government shorthand for “people who will either benefit or be really pissed-off by this idea.”

A few letters have hit the local newspaper about this proposal. One of them was a NIMBY gem that suggested, among other things, that such housing should be built instead on the parcel out by the interstate, and that the rights of the nearby homeowners to walk their dogs on this vacant land trumped all other considerations. The couple writing the letter also decried the loss of habitat for birds and other critters were housing to be built there, apparently unconscious of the fact that the construction of their home most certainly had the same effect.

We’ll be seeing more of these as the town moves into planning for this project. In the meeting I attended, it was mostly locals who heartily approved of the idea and who had plenty of suggestions for making it a good development: buildings in line with what’s there on the perimeter of the parcel, green development, not too dense, etc. As Aspen has done in a number of its affordable housing projects, it seems like a golden opportunity for a town like Frisco – which has a clear and quantifiable housing problem for its workers – to actually do something about it and do it well.

We will butt heads with those who simply don’t agree with the concept of government-subsidized affordable housing. These are locals as well as second-home owners, and they most certainly have a point: They paid real money, on their own, to buy this home they inhabit, so why should the guy next to them have theirs artificially lowered in price using taxpayer dollars?

Strictly speaking, it isn’t fair. But sometimes a community needs to look at its overall health and decide if everyone needs to pitch in to fix something – be it a gaping pothole, a crumbling park or a runaway real estate market that’s driving away the very people who comprise the town. The scenario of Aspenization is ugly, and it looks like this: Second-home owners drive the market up so high that people making average wages can no longer afford to live in the town they work in. Cops, teachers, town employees, middle managers and the like have to start commuting from farther and farther away, which means they have less stake in the town and very little interest or time to devote to participating in community activities ranging from coaching little league to sitting on the town council. In their place, you have a population of second-home owners who, while they may love the town, have little interest in its goings-on and whose far away, grown-up kids will not inspire them to be involved on that level. The other part of the population is a growing core of retirees, who do and should make up part of any population, but not the greater part of it. It’s like a reverse Logan’s Run, where towns are being grayed by market forces and more and more younger families simply leave for a place where they can buy a home surrounded by people like themselves.

 

The language of the affordable housing wonk is by necessity pacifying. You can’t call the people creating the problem “fuckers”; they are stakeholders. You can’t chide them for how few days they spend in the 4,000-square-foot third home they just built; you must recognize American freedom to do what we want with our property. When they start showing up at town meetings to plead their case, you can’t say that their arguments are void because they just moved here; they are, after all, voting, tax-paying citizens. And given the value of their home, they probably pay a lot more in property tax that goes to fund the schools to which you, you whining, long-time local, send your kids.

Most of the carpetbagger homeowners who come to town know very little about the community they’re telling all their friends they “found” in the Rockies. And even if they did know that they’re contributing to a wildly out-of-whack real estate market by paying $3 million for a $400,000 home, what would we have them do? We could require them to shrug as they write the check and feel bad for a moment or two. Just a teensy bit of guilt and knowledge, is that all we can or should ask for?

Or can we make them pay? Some locals see no problem in trying to tax absentee owners at a different rate than full-time residents. The money could then go into an affordable housing pot of money that would then be subjected to disbursement based on focus groups and task forces. After all is said and done, a handful of families might get a hand up, but given the demand versus the supply, they’ll get it via lottery, leaving plenty still in the cold. Tough shit. There’s a lot of luck involved in being able to own your own home in the mountains, starting with when you bought in the first place. The fortunate ones with the good timing sit in homes they’ve watched explode in value and some of them simply can’t resist: They cash out, move to the Front Range or back home to Kansas and buy a bigger home without needing a mortgage.

One less family gone from the neighborhood; one more pair of empty-nesters moving in.

 

I mean to sound bitter because it reflects how a lot of locals feel. When I talk to others who call the mountains home, I see the same dazed, bewildered look in their eyes when they talk of what homes – “normal homes” – are going for in the neighborhood in which they’d like to live. Usually, it’s at least two or three times more than they could afford, which means people like cops or schoolteachers or middle managers who make what would be considered a decent living elsewhere are confronted by a market that offers homes at 10 times their annual salary – and up.

There’s something insulting about being surrounded by wildly unattainable homes in your neighborhood. And it’s not as if we’re talking about a firefighter making 50 grand a year suddenly deciding to shop for a home in a hilltop gated community. I can ride past average homes in a cul-de-sac in Frisco and know that, were they on the market, they could command prices starting in the $600s. Whining about it seems as pointless as complaining of the weather. We’re in the middle of a surge in Baby Boomers, the statistics say. Folks in their 50s and 60s on the leading edge of the Boomer generation have lots of dough to spend on things like vacation homes. In another 10 years, we will see the curve dip back down, meaning that by the time all our kids are grown up and moving out, we’ll finally be able to maybe afford a house big enough to accommodate them when they return home for holidays.

Other than having government attempt to level the playing field with taxes and subsidies, the other answer – the one favored by the conservative NIMBYs in many a letter to the editor – is for those who can’t afford to live here to leave.

Makes sense, right? But that argument mostly comes from people who co-opted their mountain community after they’d made money elsewhere. They see the ability to move to a high-desirability resort town as a right they’ve earned after toiling for years in the Rust Belt or some traffic-choked city. I couldn’t see arguing with that.

What’s missing from this, though, is the realization that a community stripped of its worker class isn’t much of a community at all. And I wonder how the second-home owners and empty-nesters would like a place like Frisco when the neighborhoods have been silenced of most activity, local shops close up only to be replaced by chain stores run by far-commuting immigrants, and the whole town takes on the timbre of a retirement villa.

But maybe that’s what they want. Maybe my neighbor’s desire to have us take down the basketball goal is more representative of the new reality than I believed could be true: Families go away. We don’t necessarily care about a community so long as the streets are plowed and the lifts continue to run.

The public policy doomsayers tell us this is ultimately a non-viable scenario; that somehow a local middle class has to be kept and nurtured — if for no other reason than to continue running the sales-tax machine that enables the town to plow the roads and water the planters in summer to delight the tourists and resident oldsters. Maybe at some point the burgeoning population of immigrants from Mexico, Eastern Europe and West Africa will grow into these roles, and the old white folks on the hill can complain about their horrific presence while paying them peanuts to maintain their lifestyles.

Meanwhile, the workers formerly known as locals will log onto the resort webcams from their new, spacious homes in Kansas to remind themselves of the place they once called home — and wondering if maybe, some day, they could move back. One economist I spoke to for a story about the middle class in the mountains predicted the big-normous homes of Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge would be sitting empty for want of buyers within the next few decades. Whether it’s the ski season shortened by climate change, a shifting demographic (read: retirement-aged people who can’t afford to retire) or some other factors, the log castles sitting proudly on the hill today will stand fallow, or perhaps filled with squatters posing as caretakers for the banks still holding the foreclosure papers.

Not a pretty scenario, but not much worse than the prospect of a community of all lords and no serfs. When the Boomer bubble busts and the absentee-homeowner class either vanishes or redeploys to the banana belts, maybe we’ll get the place back and all move into those timber manses. We can break up the aspen-wood beds and hand-hewn fir trusses for heating and sell the forgotten art pieces to buy food.

It wouldn’t be the first time the land has been repopulated and, to borrow a corporate idiom, repurposed.

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