The Ugly Side Effects of Sky-High Rents

When most people think about the high rent prices in the Denver-Boulder area, they tend to focus on how much folks are required to pay each month.

But this outlay is only the beginning. High rents impact a range of other issues, including employment, traffic, health care and the overall economic well-being of communities in which housing costs often seem out of control.

Jim Williams understands that very well. He's the communications specialist for Boulder County Housing and Human Services, so his comments are specific to the challenges in that area. But they can also be applied to Denver and plenty of other Colorado communities, as well as to hot housing markets around the country.

The rise in Boulder rents didn't happen overnight. As first reported by the Boulder Daily Camera, rents in the Boulder urban area have gone up 43 percent since 1980 — 9 percent faster than the national average over the same period. But far from shrugging off the issue as intractable, local officials are increasingly looking for ways to put a dent in the problem.

"Obviously, this is something we're grappling with as the housing authority for Boulder County, but we're not alone," Williams says. "The City of Boulder has its own housing authority, and they're grappling with it within the city limits. Longmont also has a housing authority, and they're seeing some of the same issues in the far eastern part of Boulder County, because people are finding that they're having to move farther and farther out from the city.

"We're seeing people who work in Boulder moving to places like Broomfield and Westminster, out into western Weld County and up north to Larimer County just because Boulder County's rental rates are so high — and 38 percent of our population in Boulder County is renters. That's a significant number of people...."

Individuals "moving out of Boulder County because they can't afford to live here anymore, even though  they still work here" results in "a lot of commuters going back and forth on 119 and 36 and all the other highways in the county," Williams notes, "and you can certainly see the impacts. Anyone who has been on Highway 36 in the mornings or afternoons or pretty much any other time of the day has seen the effects of the high number of commuters coming in and out of Boulder County.

"Those traffic effects are tremendous, and we're concerned about the impacts they have on people's lives in general," he continues. "They involve more stress, less time with families, health impacts and other kinds of ripple effects that can grow more serious because of the increase of distance from home to work."

Also impacted are "the decisions people make on where they're going to spend money," Williams points out. "If you have less money to spend because you're spending more money on your housing, just because you need to be close to where you work, you have less money to spend on food, health care, child care and all the other things people need in their lives. And they're having to make difficult decisions about what to leave out."

When faced with these factors, some folks are concluding that they can no longer afford to work in Boulder.

"Anecdotally, we're hearing that and seeing that happening at restaurants, in grocery stores, in school districts," Williams confirms. "In Boulder County, we're seeing that teachers and custodial staff and others on the lower end of the salary spectrum in school districts are increasingly having a hard time maintaining their employment because they can't live close enough to where the schools are. If you're a school teacher in Lafayette who's being pushed out of the housing market and is challenged by the rising rent, there's additional stress on you to move to a place where you can afford to live. That's part of the shrinking middle class, not only in Boulder County, but in other parts of Colorado as well."

One way to keep such employees is to pay them more. But Williams says "there's some feeling that the disparity between salaries and housing costs is now large enough that it's going to be hard to make that up in any capacity — certainly in terms of increasing wages and how we get there, but also in how we can build enough affordable housing, and how we can convince enough landlords to accept housing-choice vouchers."

The housing-choice voucher program in Boulder County was created to subsidize housing costs for "low-income individuals and households, military veterans, homeless families, and families and children involved in the child welfare system," its website states. But supply simply cannot keep up with demand, Williams concedes.

"We have a little over 700 housing-choice vouchers — but we have about 40,000 people living in households where they're paying more than half of their income on rent," he says. "So the wait list fills up very quickly, and any time we do have available vouchers, they're assigned immediately. And with the need continuing to increase and financial supports not necessarily increasing at the same rate, we can see this continuing for the foreseeable future."

In an effort to change the equation, what Williams describes as a "Regional Housing Network" has been launched in Boulder County; members of the steering committee include the Boulder County Housing Authority, Boulder Housing Partners, the Emergency Family Assistance Association, Mental Health Partners, Element Properties, Thistle Community Housing, Allison Development, the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence, Attention Homes, Bridge House, Boulder Shelter and the Boulder County AIDS Project. Additionally, the housing authorities in Boulder and Longmont have been working with Boulder Housing Partners and officials representing both cities to put together a housing plan for Boulder County as a whole.

Williams is encouraged by these undertakings and is optimistic that collaboration will lead to concrete results. But he feels the analysis shouldn't stop there.

"As a community, we need to ask bigger questions," he says. "We need to decide what we value. And if we value the quality of life for the people who live here, and the quality of life for the people who teach our children and put out the fires and police our communities and serve us in restaurants and the wide range of other things people do — if we value their quality of life, then we need to be making some tough choices. And we need to do it now."