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Coming up Short 

Soaring rents, plummeting vacancy rates continue to crunch Colorado Springs housing costs, availability

Colorado Springs is increasingly the land of milk, honey and Grand Cherokees for developers, realtors, landlords and other beneficiaries of the booming growth industry. But a study released last week by the Colorado Division of Housing warns of a "market failure" in affordable housing that, in the absence of government intervention, will leave more and more of the local workforce -- including entry-level professionals -- in the cold.

The CDH study is the latest in a host of reports, surveys and economic forecasts in recent years that have spelled out how a massive population influx and plummeting vacancy rates have inflated Colorado Springs rents by 100 percent in the past decade, with no remedy or leveling off in sight.

Last week's study reports a drop in local vacancy rates from 4.4 to 2.8 percent in the last six months alone. A similar study by commercial real-estate group Palmer-McAllister recently reported a drop from 2.8 to 1.3 percent between August of 1999 and August of 2000. A Colorado Department of Local Affairs study found that, out of 14,863 apartment units in Colorado Springs, only 647 vacancies are available.

Community leaders have long promised the housing crunch, now in its eighth year, is a temporary headache, one that will correct itself as the market determines.

However, the continuing dearth is pushing increasingly large segments of the workforce lower on the housing ladder, according to the CDH report. People now must earn at least $29,000 -- $14-plus an hour -- to afford the average rent of $608 to $642 for a two-bedroom apartment in Colorado Springs.

The same report relates that median income of renting households is $28,500, and that more than 53,000 Colorado Springs households have incomes of less than $30,000.

"We're finding that a growing percentage of families are a paycheck, medical catastrophe or spousal desertion away from losing the roof over their heads," said Dick Conn, executive director of Partners in Housing, a local nonprofit that aids homeless families.

"And we're seeing this in families higher up the economic ladder than ever before," added Chad Wright of the city's Community Services department. "More and more families are having to choose between paying more for rent than they can afford, settling for less safe and rattier living quarters, or doing without necessities in other areas.

"This used to be the plight of the indigent, but it's no longer limited to that population. Few of us would choose to live in the kind of places that, more and more, are affordable these days to people with the income of entry-level teachers, police officers and fire fighters. And those lower down the ladder are being priced out of the market. Something's gotta give somewhere."

A recently published report contracted by the city -- "Colorado Springs Homeless Survey" -- found that more than one-third of Colorado Springs' homeless are families, that 64 percent have some college or vocational training, and that 80 percent attribute their homelessness to this city's lack of affordable housing.


All that glitters

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment predicts that the Colorado economy will attract 32,000 new households between now and 2005, and that the state economy will grow by 65,900 jobs in the next year, and by 272,00 new jobs in the next six years.

The economy is booming, but it booms far louder for an upper-tier few than for most others. The lion's share of those quarter-million new jobs being predicted will be in service occupation areas -- retail sales, child care, office clerks, home health aides, recreation attendants -- jobs that average $7 to $10 an hour and don't cover the living expenses of single adults, let alone families.

In an effort to put a human face on this trend, Paula Carole of Catholic Charities put together the economic profile of a hypothetical Colorado Springs single mother of two. That woman is employed as a dental assistant at $11.88 an hour, average payment for that position according to the Colorado Division of Labor.

After paying child-care costs, medical costs, transportation costs and a monthly rent of $632, this virtual woman would be left with $22 per week for food, soap, toothpaste, cleaning products, diapers, clothing, school supplies, phone bills and any other needs. Carole factored the living costs using information supplied by Child Care Connection, medical costs supplied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and transportation costs taken from Family Needs statistics.

"I did this to spell out how an adult working full time at twice the minimum wage can't afford the basics," Carole explained. "People in this boat struggle to keep their heads above water, but they aren't visible to the public in the way that shopping-cart ladies, bridge people or alleyway alcoholics are.

"They're among us, though, and there's more and more of them every month," she said.

A recent Consumer Price Index report suggests that the problem is only getting worse. Last year, Colorado energy prices increased by 17.4 percent, transportation costs rose by 6.7 percent, and home heating costs will increase by 40 percent this winter.

"We're seeing more and more households trying to keep a roof over their heads by doing without basic necessities," Hanger said. "They're buying less and lower-quality food, not going to the doctor, driving rundown cars, letting their car registration and insurance lapse. To be frank, the only solution is more affordable housing."

As last week's Division of Housing report puts it, "Poor families living without the benefit of affordable housing are more likely to have children who suffer from hunger, have lower reading scores and greater difficulty in school. These families often cannot afford food, medical services, transportation or clothing. Last year, 32 percent of all emergency food recipients at the Food Bank of the Rockies had to make the difficult choice between paying rent and buying food."


Bullet-biting time

Claudia Deats of Greccio Housing Unlimited -- a nonprofit devoted to helping the poor and near-poor obtain housing -- thinks that governmental action is needed.

"The really big bucks for developers, builders and landlords are in upper-end housing and higher-end rents," she said. "There's little or no incentive at present to build or maintain affordable housing. It's probably going to require steps like strategic tax breaks and modification of building fees to create those incentives."

"Colorado Springs is going to have to bite the bullet and forge a solution," Conn agreed. "The rising tide isn't lifting all boats. The economy and the high-tech industry that's driving it can't and won't survive if the government doesn't take some kind of action to make it possible for bank tellers, dental assistants and entry-level teachers to afford living here.

"It won't be an easy solution, and it's probably going to require some sacrifices on the part of citizens and private sector 'haves,' but it's something that absolutely has to be done --out of economic self interest if not humanitarian reasons."

Last year, a commission appointed by City Council to look into the affordable-housing issue reported that an additional 37,000 affordable apartment units are needed to meet current needs. The commission urged Council to set up an affordable-housing fund as a first step toward making that happen, but Council declined to act on the recommendation. Now, the city's Wright said the Council may revisit the continuing problem in the near future, but refused to provide any specific details.

"We can't ignore this problem much longer," said Deats. "It's getting worse, and it's not going to go away. We're not talking about a few hard-luck cases that make good help-the-needy stories at Christmastime."

214,000 households -- or 47 percent -- in this city have incomes of $60,000 and more. Of those, 29,000 households report annual incomes of $75 to $100,000. Additionally, nearly 34,000 households have incomes of $100,000 and more.

As of October, the median household income in Colorado Springs is $52,500 -- a huge jump from the 1990 median of $29,746.

The median income of house-owning households is $61,000, while the median income for renting households is $28,500. Some 53,000 Colorado Springs households make less than $30,000.

Here are the 2000 income breakdowns for Colorado Springs families in full:

5,123 households make $5,000 or less

6,030 households make $5,000 to $10,000

7,912 households make $10,000 to $15,000

13,252 households make $15,000 to $20,000

13,616 households make $20,000 to $25,000

14,573 households make $25,000 to $30,000

14,685 households make $30,000 to $35,000

9,719 households make $35,000 to $40,000

10,589 households make $40,000 to $45,000

11,667 households make $45,000 to $50,000

19,554 households make $50,000 to $60,000

28,375 households make $60,000 to $75,000

32,804 households make $75,000 to $100,0000

22,740 households make $100,000 to $999,999

Source: The Colorado Division of Housing

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