In the absence of expensive, large-scale systems that effectively address a community’s affordable-housing needs, piecemeal efforts can help to alleviate the crisis, according to panelists who spoke at an Aspen Ideas Health discussion on Saturday morning.
“I think as much as we want to solve big problems, sometimes the best work is in smaller, piloted projects,” said Nita Mosby Tyler, a Denver consultant to organizations and communities on diversity and inclusion strategies.
“You can start someplace instead of fretting about the fact that you can’t start every place,” said Shirley Franklin, a former mayor of Atlanta and the current executive chair of Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit.
Mosby Tyler and Franklin joined Pitkin County director of human services Nan Sundeen and Aspen Institute president and CEO Dan Porterfield for the talk, which centered on the housing crisis in the county and the wider Roaring Fork Valley, and what the problem means from a public health perspective. The discussion, held in the William R. Dunaway meeting room at the Pitkin County Library, was free and open to the public as part of Aspen Ideas Health.
Porterfield opened the event by talking about how a lack of stable housing can be stressful to low-income citizens anywhere, particularly young students who don’t have the environment they need to feel comfortable and secure while trying to learn.
It’s even a growing crisis in affluent Pitkin County, where worker-bees often struggle to maintain their health while holding down two or three jobs to afford high-priced rentals — units that might be viewed in other parts of the country as modest.
“We’ve learned a lot about the impact of stress on students at early ages, and how the kinds of stress that come with poverty can really lead to all sorts of blocks and barriers to students that are preventable,” Porterfield said. “Here [in Pitkin County], we have a particular challenge, because the affordable-housing crisis is a crisis for lower-income people but also moderate-income people I think, and it’s probably a growing crisis.”
He referred to a recent regional housing study that estimated the valley will be 5,700 units short by the year 2027.
“We have a little bit of time to work on that, but we’re short right now, so the problem today is gonna get worse, with almost certainty,” Porterfield said.
Sundeen said that while Pitkin County and its nearly 18,000 residents live in “the most beautiful place on the planet,” 25 percent of the population lives at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
“We have a seasonal resort economy here, and so we have a population of people who are overeducated and underemployed, and they’re not earning enough to make a livable wage,” she said.
The state’s self-sufficiency standard that measures food, housing, transportation and medical costs in every county indicates that the cost of living is two to four times higher in Pitkin County than anywhere else in Colorado, Sundeen said.
“Housing costs are too high, people are spending over 30 to 50 percent of their income on housing — they have to decide between housing, food and [health] insurance,” she said.
At 19 percent, the county has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the state, Sundeen added.
Mosby Tyler and Franklin, while not seeming familiar with the Aspen area and its housing troubles, spoke in detail about initiatives on which they’ve worked, albeit in larger cities. Generally, they spoke of how tackling pieces of the puzzle — taking a neighborhood approach, for example, in the health, education and housing arenas — can help to spark greater efforts in the community at large.
Franklin noted that Purpose Built Communities started its work a decade ago in the lowest-income neighborhood in Atlanta, an area that now enjoys one of the top-performing schools in the local school district, many affordable-housing opportunities, several wellness centers and an exceptional grocery store.
Today, Purpose Built Communities is working in 23 different areas across the U.S., she said. “[Our founder] expects us to be everywhere,” Franklin said.
While a lack of money, private or public, can hinder efforts to reshape communities and provide better health and housing options, she said that sometimes new funding is not the answer. Rather, money from various sources can be reallocated toward better uses, Franklin said.
Sundeen said housing issues are being addressed in Pitkin County, to a significant degree. She pointed to the county’s purchase last year of the 40-unit Phillips Trailer Park community north of Woody Creek — with the goal of preserving it for future affordable housing — and the more recent movement by various stakeholders to “end homelessness” in the valley.
The county has a great school system and hospital as well as a solid law-enforcement network. Generally, “we like each other,” Sundeen said of the diverse citizens that make up the county, where gentrification is seen as both “a problem and a solution.”
Better coordination of efforts would go a long way toward solving issues surrounding housing and health care, she said, suggesting that there is a present scattering of initiatives that would be more effective if various agencies joined forces.