The Land Desk: Wealth inequality in the West
This article was originally published in The Land Desk.
In late July, on a moderately smoky day in the Four Corners, I made my way from the Great Sage Plain into the San Juan Mountains for a book event. I drove alongside the Dolores River, through the quiet old mining burg of Rico, and up and over Lizard Head Pass, seeing surprisingly few cars. Then I took a right at Society Turn and got stuck in the chronic road-into-Telluride bumper-to-bumper traffic. I spent a good 20 minutes driving up and down streets in search of a parking spot, crawled out of the Silver Bullet, and texted some old friends to see if they could meet me for lunch at a favorite taco spot.
“It’s closed,” they responded. “Staffing problems.”
We settled on another place where we used to eat often because of its affordability. Over $20 enchiladas, my friends told me what I had already intuited: Telluride has changed and not for the better. The old funky vibe has faded away; already unattainable housing prices have shot into the stratosphere; you hardly ever see anyone you know; the place is a zoo and the trails crowded; there’s a new tension in the air; traffic all the way to Montrose and Norwood is crazy; and businesses are closing because they can’t find people to work.
Telluride has a “low-key Western-inflected Bohemian vibe,” according to Telluride Real Estate Company, as well as an average home sale price of $1.98 million.
I heard versions of the same story everywhere I went this summer, from Mancos to Minturn to Crested Butte. I stopped in Buena Vista for lunch and found every open restaurant teeming with tourists munching on $17 burgers, while at least two eating establishments in the town’s center were closed for the day, presumably due to staffing issues. Hotels in Edwards were having a tough time finding people to clean rooms. Everyone everywhere, especially the frontline workers in tourist towns, seems to be suffering from extreme burnout.
- 61 percent - Amount by which the median sale price of a Chaffee County home, now nearly $600,000, has shot up since 2017.
- $125,000 - Annual income required to afford a house at the median price in Chaffee County, assuming a $30,000 down payment.
- $55,771 - Median household income in Chaffee County.
At least one restaurant in Durango has been unable to open this summer due to staffing issues. Meanwhile the traffic on the road next to the restaurant is thicker than ever as both tourists and new residents flock to the town. “It feels like California,” one longtime resident told me.
- $3.1 million - Amount by which Durango year-to-date sales and use tax revenues exceeded budget projections at the end of June.
- $365,528 - Median sale price for a Durango home, 2011.
- $720,000 - Median sale price for a Durango home, 2021.
- $150,000 - Minimum income required to afford a median priced Durango home in 2021 with a $35,000 down payment.
- 85 - Estimated number of people living at the Purple Cliffs camp for the unhoused south of Durango.
On the public lands surrounding these towns the service workers with no other place to live are competing with vanlifers and recreationists for a limited number of dispersed campsites.
None of this is new, of course. Housing in many of these places has been out of reach to the average working person for years. And Telluride’s funkiness has been waning since the 1980s. But over the last few years, several forces have collided to push the situation toward what feels like a breaking point. The Zoom Boom brought a lot of new folks into small and mid-sized towns in the West, driving up housing prices, even as a surge of pandemic-driven domestic travel brought more tourism to those same places. Short-term rentals have proliferated, taking po
tential long-term rentals out of circulation, and leaving workers with few to no affordable housing options. The busy restaurants and hotels could be raking it in except that they can’t find workers because it’s impossible to live in these places on $12, $15, even $20 per hour.
Communities are scrambling to do something, from buying hotels to convert to affordable housing, to helping tenants buy mobile home parks, to cracking down on short-term rentals. These and other efforts can help ease the housing crisis. Solving it will take a far bigger investment and policy overhaul, from the federal level down.
But the shortage of affordable housing—and the ballooning of housing prices—is merely a symptom and cause of something much larger and deeper, namely the wealth-inequality catastrophe. A huge crevasse has opened between the haves and the have nots and it harms our economies, our communities, and the very fabric of our society.
The gap manifests most glaringly in housing. In Teton County, Wyoming, only the ultra-wealthy can afford to buy a home, and Teton County has the nation’s widest gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else. Pitkin County, home of Aspen, and San Miguel County, home of Telluride, are also in the top ten. Just look at the numbers from the Economic Policy Insitute’s 2018 study entitled The New Gilded Age:
I mean, the average income of Teton County’s top 1 percent back then was $22.5 million. Surely that number has gone up since then. Meanwhile, as housing costs go up, the bottom 99 percent ends up spending a far larger proportion of their income on housing, leaving less to invest or spend on other things. That not only reduces their opportunities and quality of life, but it also hurts the economy, because the economy needs folks to buy things. It’s an unsustainable situation, and what we’re seeing now—labor shortages, people commuting ungodly distances, and working families camping out on public lands or tent cities—is just the beginning.
Clearly we need a massive redistribution of wealth on the order of the New Deal to avert this crisis. We’ll discuss the particulars in future dispatches.
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KSUT publishes selected articles from The Land Desk, a newsletter from Jonathan P. Thompson. Articles are archived here. The Land Desk explores news from the Four Corners, Colorado Plateau, and Native and Indigenous lands. Jonathan is a longtime Four Corners-based journalist and author of River of Lost Souls, Behind the Slickrock Curtain, and his new book, Sagebrush Empire.