09.19.19

Housing prices drive demographics

Nikki Larsen made a good life for herself during the decade she lived in Boulder. She and her husband were active and engaged citizens. They stumped for city council candidates, served on boards and commissions, donated time and money to local nonprofits and helped with the cleanup efforts after the 2013 floods.

The pair are the type of involved residents who make a community a better place. Boulder’s loss: They had to move because of housing costs. Thanks to a stable longterm rental, Larsen and her husband had been able to stay in Boulder even as friend after friend moved to the L towns in search of more affordable living situations. The two-salary couple considered buying in Boulder. With two salaries and modest needs, it didn’t seem impossible.

“All we wanted was, like, 1,000 square feet and a one-car garage” for outdoor gear, Larsen said.

They put in a couple of offers on homes, to no avail. Then came the news that many Boulder renters fear: Their landlords were selling the house the couple was renting, drawn to the promise of massive returns in a superheated housing market. They had to move.

Their story illustrates how much housing prices determine who lives in Boulder County.

Boulder and Louisville, home of Boulder County’s highest housing costs, actually lost residents in 2018, while the rest of the Front Range continued to boom.

Yet the story of housing and demographics can’t be reduced to a narrative of the rich moving in and the poor moving out. Most income groups haven’t changed their share of the population in recent years, according to census data, except for the very wealthy. Those earning $150,000 or more have gained ground since 2013, while the proportion of lower income groups have remained more or less the same.

“It takes capital to move,” said Julie Van Domelen, executive director of Emergency Family Assistance Association.

Those of more means are more likely to remain in the same house year-over-year, while lower-income residents move about more frequently within the county and state. (The presence of highly transient university students skews the data somewhat.)

The county’s housing crisis creates a system of haves and have-nots, in which the have is housing, more than income. Those with stable, affordable housing, especially those who bought homes before the astronomical rise in prices, are able to enjoy all the advantages that staying in place entails. Those without, struggle. More than half of Boulder County renters spent more than a third of their income on housing in 2017, according to census data.

Groups not traditionally involved in housing are calling for solutions. Boulder’s Arts Commission has prioritized affordable housing for artists. Business owners say the crisis keeps them from being able to hire and retain employees. Disability advocates are fighting for their share of the limited available, affordable units. The city’s Human Relations Commission warns that housing pressures affect diversity and inclusivity.

How a community approaches housing is really the question of “who it wants to live there,” Larsen said. In the end, it came down to a question of wealth rather than what she could contribute. “I feel like we were model citizens.”

She and her husband moved to Denver. A 20-year-old from Brooklyn bought the house they had been renting.

by Shay Castle