County’s rising economic tide not lifting all boats

Business is booming in the tiny town of Nederland, population 1,536.

Sales tax revenue rose nearly 10% between 2016 and 2017, helped along by a popular new pizzeria, coffee shop and bike-ski retailer, and hordes of weekend tourists. Ned even added a shoe repair shop: The owners of Perry’s, one of Boulder’s oldest businesses, migrated up the canyon in search of cheaper rent and a nice live-work situation above the store. They were in good company: Nederland’s population has grown 10% since 2000.

It’s a story being repeated all over Boulder County: the economy growing quickly and the population right along with it. But, in Nederland and elsewhere, the rising tide has not lifted all boats. Thf high-paying jobs has led to ripple effects that are sinking many residents.

A majority of clients at Nederland’s food pantry are spending 80% of their income on rent, according to Chris Current, executive director. The town is gettinst affordable housing development courtesy of Boulder County, but low-income provider Kristi Venditti worries the 26 units won’t be nearly enough to serve the need.

Venditti is the mountain resource liaison for Emergency Family Assistance Association. Her part-time position was created in 2016 but has morphed into a full-time job has her caseload has grown 35% since she started.

Her clients struggle to find affordable rentals, or any rentals at all. The town is now in a fight over vacation rentals: Buyers across the Front Range have snapped up Nederland properties for second and third homes and rent to tourists rather than residents.

With housing as the top spending priority for most families, everything else gets pinched: physical and mental health care, groceries, transportation. “The need is so great,” Venditti said.

On paper, things don’t look so dire. Boulder County has enjoyed some of the lowest unemployment in the nation in recent years, dipping below 2% at times. The area median income is among the highest in Colorado, which is higher than the national median. Nearly 40,000 new jobs have been added to the local economy in the past decade.

But a tenth of residents are still below the poverty line, including 12% of children. More than a quarter of the population doesn’t earn enough to cover their basic needs.

For most, the struggle can be traced to one thing: “In Boulder County, it’s housing,” said Claire Levy, executive director of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy.

The price of a single-family home has more than doubled in the past 15 years. There’s not a community left in Boulder County with a median home price below $400,000.

Costs have risen so high that, in 2017, experts declared a complete end to affordable housing. “There are no entry level housing options,” wrote the authors of the Longmont Housing Affordability Review, real estate industry insiders Kyle Snyder and Amy Aschenbrenner. “The lines we drew in the sand as reasonably priced” — $150,000 for a condo or townhome, $250,000 for a single-family dwelling — “will soon be obsolete."

Those who bought early are doing well, enjoying millions of dollars in appreciation. But the vast majority of residents, more than 60%, don’t earn enough to buy a house here.

It’s the kind of inequality that is plaguing the nation. Income inequality in Boulder County is about on par with the U.S. as a whole. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the top 1% of Boulder County earners make 26.5 times more than the remaining 99% combined. Nationally, the ratio is 26.3.

But Boulder County is in the bottom 4% for equality among the nation’s metro areas (No. 44 of 916) and counties (132 of 3,061). It’s more unequal than Colorado as a whole, which has a ratio of 20.6 and ranks twentieth of 50 states.

Venditti sees the split clearly in Nederland’s elementary schools, where she works part-time. “There are the families with a lot of needs who can’t really afford to be here,” she said, “and then families who can buy the million-dollar houses.”

by Shay Castle