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by Lyle SmithGraybeal

Jim is 76; Ella is 75. He has congestive heart failure with a pacemaker; she has epilepsy with grand mal seizures. For many years, Jim worked in Weld County as a paramedic and law enforcement officer. The couple was sharing a rental home with their son when the landlord decided to sell. On a limited income, they were unable to find a new affordable place. As a result, Jim and Ella, both aged 70+, lived in their car for three years during warm times and cold.

What causes this to happen, for our elders in their 70s, who have navigated decades of life successfully, to lose their housing and live outdoors in a Buick? Did they make a bad decision? Are they not motivated? Or is it because of a situation imposed upon them that they didn’t have the ability to escape?

The high cost of housing in Colorado and throughout the United States leads to circumstances where this kind of story is too typical, and in many instances for older adults like Ella and Jim. Rental prices are so high nationally that, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there is no county in the U.S. where a person working full-time at minimum wage can make enough to pay less than 30% of their income on housing, which is a standard of affordability used in the housing industry.

Locally in the Carbon Valley in 2019, close to half (45%) of our renter households were spending 30% or more of their income on rent alone, not including other costs like utilities and furniture. And almost 3 in 10 (27%) of homeowners with a mortgage in the five Carbon Valley municipalities were spending 30% or more on housing. This means that about a third of our neighbors are living paycheck-to-paycheck, one illness, accident, or income disruption away from a housing crisis.

The situation is so bad here that the firm ATTOM Data Solutions recently identified the Greeley MSA, which includes all of Weld County, to be the area in the United States most likely to experience a housing crisis.

Why is housing so expensive in Weld County?

• The lingering effects of the 2008 Great Recession, which slowed new housing starts for half a decade.
• The loss of 500+ Weld County homes during the 2013 Northern Colorado floods, most of which were extremely affordable.
• The cost of water, which is a significant factor in Colorado home pricing. In 2019 water from a farm in Mead sold for $55,000 a unit; three years earlier, the price was closer to $27,000.
• The cost of building materials. A shortage of construction workers. Older adults are living in their homes longer (which is better for them). And more.

Compounding the difficulty is that as housing prices have risen, wages have not kept pace. Over the past 20 years, local incomes have grown around 55% while rents have gone up 69%, the cost of a pound of ground beef has increased 140%, and health care premiums are at 179% of their former price.
When families can’t afford housing and have to work two or more jobs to survive, everything else suffers: student achievement, mental and physical health, savings for retirement. Even local municipalities are impacted. The more people pay for a mortgage, which does not incur sales tax, the less they have to purchase everyday items, which do. Town and city budgets suffer, and it is harder to deliver the services that residents expect.

What can we do to address this situation?

We can have a way to respond to families that are close to losing their homes. According to Matthew Desmond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book Evicted, and his Princeton University-based Eviction Lab, in the vast majority of evictions, less than one month of rent was owed at the time of filing. Team sufficient money for one-time rental assistance with a capable case manager, and a lot of families will stabilize their situations and keep housing. Thankfully, we have such a way to deliver this support locally: the Carbon Valley Help Center (www.CarbonValleyHelpCenter.org). All of us in the Carbon Valley with sufficient means should support this cause. (I just gave $42.)

Our local officials can bring about more housing opportunities by pursuing an “all of the above” approach to development. We can change codes to allow for the use of accessory dwelling units (aka ADUs or “granny flats”). We can let people live in tiny homes. We can build more traditional units, from condominiums to 5,000 sq. ft. executive housing to 1,000 sq. ft. cottage homes such as those offered by Mission Homes Colorado of Berthoud (www.MissionHomesCO.com). We can construct more market-rate apartments and more projects for older adults and families like Brigit’s Village in Frederick (www.BrigitsVillage.org). We can create spaces just for people who have experienced homelessness and need supportive housing. Manufactured homes. Co-housing. We can do “all of the above.”

The high cost of housing resulting from the lack of living opportunities in the Carbon Valley and throughout Colorado has been the primary community challenge of the past decade and will be for the foreseeable future. Can we see this as an opportunity to help resource a great life for everyone through planning for and enacting a solution? This is the responsibility of elected officials, nonprofit organizations like Habitat for Humanity and United Way, faith communities, school districts, businesses and corporations, and service clubs such as Rotary and Optimists. By all of us, for all of us.
While names were changed, the story that began this article is real. I hope that knowing of it brings us some discomfort. Ella and Jim are now staying at a United Way-run shelter and are back on the path to housing. Google “9News Greeley Bonell” to hear more of their story.

About United Way of Weld County

In Weld County, there are persistent challenges; some of our neighbors lack the opportunity to thrive. The United Way board of directors has identified and is resourcing five initiative areas that, with our support, can solve Weld County’s long-term challenges.
• Reading Great by 8: Children are entering kindergarten ready and reading at grade level by the start of 4th grade.
• Thrive by 25: Youth are graduating high school and transitioning to successful adulthood by age 25.
• Weld’s Way Home: Households are attaining and maintaining stable housing.
• Aging Well: Older adults are aging well in community.
• Connecting Weld: Human services are increasing in visibility, accessibility, and capacity.

Lyle SmithGraybeal serves Weld County as the United Way vice president of Community Development‭. ‬He can be reached at Lyle@UnitedWay-Weld.org‭.‬