A presentation to Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday sought to drive home the connection between the regional housing shortage and its effect on health.
Karen Koenemann, county public health director, said the goal of the presentation was to offer information that will assist future decisions. “The impact of housing on health is now being widely considered by policymakers,” she wrote in a memorandum to commissioners in advance of their Tuesday work session.
Health topics can be woven into government discussions about housing, transportation and other public necessities, Koenemann said at the start of the meeting. She called it a “health-in-all-policies approach.”
“Health is a way to weave together these systems that are intersecting,” she said. “We know that housing is related to transportation and transportation is related to housing. And if we use health as a thread to go through those different systems, it’s a way to talk about these systems and how they interact together. It’s also a way to have a unifying voice around some of these pieces.”
Much of the presentation relied on data from a recent regional housing study conducted by two consultants, Denver-based Economic and Planning Systems and RRC Associates of Boulder. It was commissioned by the West Mountain Regional Health Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of providers and agencies that works to promote better health in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties.
The study shows that the $683,000 median home value in Pitkin County is $452,000 higher than the state average. It also indicates that 19 percent of owner-occupied households and 28 percent of renters in the county are “cost-burdened,” a term to describe households that have to spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing.
As housing costs rise, Koenemann’s memo says, members of the community are “put into the difficult position of having to decide where their thinly stretched budget goes.” Often, that means sacrificing money they would spend on preventive care and nutritious food, she wrote.
Additionally, high monthly costs can result in “increased levels of stress surrounding financial security” as well as “overcrowding,” in which the number of residents exceeds the number of rooms in a home, the memo says.
“Overcrowding can result in substandard living conditions, which can lead to increased levels of chronic stress on residents,” Koenemann wrote. “Chronic stress can cause chronic disease through a variety of pathways. It has a significant effect on the immune system which can ultimately manifest an illness.”
At the meeting, she presented a slideshow about how in the big picture, creating healthy environments — through improved housing, public transportation, parks and recreation, school systems and public safety — saves millions of lives and millions in taxpayer dollars.
“Health in all policies: You might call it sustainability or wellness in all policies, or even equity in all policies,” the slideshow narrator said. “But it all means one thing, bringing public agencies together around a common goal. …This approach requires leaders from public agencies to convene and collaborate, to engage the community and create a vision for a healthier community.”
David Schwartz, executive vice president of Economic and Planning Systems, assisted with the presentation and talked about the 2,100-resident survey that fueled his company’s recent housing study. Over the last couple of months, Schwartz has presented the study’s findings to elected officials throughout the region, defined broadly as the Interstate 70 corridor between Battlement Mesa and Avon, and the Highway 82 corridor extending south to Aspen and Snowmass Village.
“There is a lot of concern over just how increasingly exacerbated the problems have become, in terms of housing affordability and attainability, and availability,” Schwartz said.
The regional housing problems have gotten worse in recent years, he said, and examination of cross-commuting patterns and economic linkages between communities points in the direction of the need for a “regional solution.”
Many respondents in the survey, Schwartz noted, spoke of “increased stress levels in spite of having high educational attainment levels.” The stress is caused by increases in housing and health care costs, coupled with substandard living conditions.
“The impact of housing costs have tremendous impact on people’s ability to start a family, to maintain a family, to maintain a certain quality of life,” he said. Many families throughout the region are at risk — straddling the line between staying afloat or falling into crisis, Schwartz suggested.
Commissioner Patti Clapper pointed out that employment opportunities abound in the area, although perhaps not at a pay level that would suit people with high education levels.
“We hear it all the time from employers, that they are begging for employees,” she said, asking Schwartz to clarify comments that refer to an absence of jobs. He responded by saying that while jobs abound, many people in the area are underemployed.
Later in the discussion, Clapper noted that commissioners have been hearing about the regional housing shortage for several years. Leaders have to look at the concerns of everybody in the community, she said, not just those who are homeless or
commuting great distances for work.
“We have this complex matrix of people who need homes,” Clapper said. “It’s a difficult picture for us to look at. I wish a group would come forward to say … ‘This is how we’re gonna build this housing. This is how we’re gonna fund it.’”
For many years, Pitkin County has been viewed by upvalley communities as the cause of the regional housing problem, she said.
“But there’s a lot of people who live in Silt and Parachute and New Castle who like living there, who aren’t gonna move up here no matter how much hassle … because they like the environment there, the open space,” Clapper said.
Solutions can be attained incrementally, she said, such as through the initiative the county recently undertook by purchasing the Phillips Trailer Park property north of Woody Creek with plans to upgrade that community and possibly expand it.
Existing residents of many communities throughout the valley don’t want the increased density that comes with affordable-housing projects, she said.
“Looking at policies, we also have the side of this community that says the government is too much in our face, too much in our lives now,” Clapper said. “We have to figure out a way to come up with policies that allow some flexibility within them so that we’re not directing people’s lives.”
Commissioner George Newman said after the meeting that he thought the presentation will be helpful. Consideration of health can be part of future discussions surrounding housing needs, he said, much like the impact on climate change is factored into land-use decisions.