Steamboat Springs Chris Thompson planned to make Steamboat Springs her home for many years.
But after three years as an English teacher, she abandoned Steamboat in May for the Front Range, where she will earn $10,000 more per year and pay less for housing.
Thompson will miss the lifestyle Steamboat offers. It's why she moved here in the first place and why she desperately wanted to stay. But when her son turned 5 last fall and no longer qualified for Head Start funds, Thompson, a single mother, faced a $700 monthly bill for preschool. That came on top of a mortgage payment on her home in Copper Mountain Estates, where residents must also pay rent on the lots.
Thompson did the math. Financially, staying made no sense.
"It was a very difficult decision, but I just couldn't make it anymore," she said.
"It really became a struggle, and I thought, 'This is ridiculous.'
"That really was the breaking point."
Thompson is not the first teacher to leave Steamboat because of housing costs. It's one of the top reasons for turnover in the district, Superintendent Cyndy Simms said.
And even though voters approved a salary increase last fall that allowed the district to pay starting teachers $29,075, Simms knows many will continue to leave.
"Even by making our salaries more competitive, they are not enough for beginning teachers, and frankly, for many teachers, to be able to buy a house at current prices," she said.
"It is really the challenge for our town and our community.
"People that want to make a community need to be able to buy a home and raise a family where they work."
The school district's problem in recruiting and retaining workers is shared by nearly every employer in Steamboat. And the magnitude of the problem is growing it's not just workers in low-paying service sector jobs who can't afford homes here, but those in professional, upper-middle class occupations as well.
"That's just part of the reality of this town being a resort town," Assistant Police Chief Art Fiebing said. "It's difficult for police officers, school teachers and nurses to afford a $200,000 or $300,000 house."
Salaries versus housing
Using 2000 Census Bureau statistics, the Steamboat Pilot & Today compared average salaries to median home values for every city and county in the country.
What the analysis showed is the average annual salary in Routt County, $31,787, represents just 11.84 percent of the median home value of $268,500. Only 19 of the 3,141 counties in the United States including five Colorado counties had bigger gaps between salaries and housing costs.
The median of all counties is an annual salary that is 27.3 percent of the median home price.
In Steamboat Springs, the gap is even greater. Steamboat's average salary of $31,890 is only 10.34 percent of the median home value of $308,100. That's nearly half the statewide average of 20.3 percent.
Largely because of that gap, 15 of the 22 police officers who work for the Steamboat Springs Police Department live outside the city limits.
A $36,000 starting salary just doesn't go very far for the officer who wants to purchase a home here, Fiebing said.
Often, officers who inquire about openings at the police department lose their enthusiasm after glancing at home listings.
"They find out what the housing costs here are," Fiebing said, "and that's the end of that."
Fiebing said he tries to be as blunt as he can with potential hires about the disparity between wages and the cost of housing. The police department does not want to invest money in hiring and training new employees only to lose them a few months later when they realize they couldn't afford local housing.
Officer Nate Morton, 25, feels fortunate to be living and working in Steamboat. He was able to purchase a condo in town thanks to a loan from his family that helped him make the downpayment. Morton knows many of his fellow officers don't have similar options.
"Most of the people I've talked to can't get that downpayment," he said. "I was one of the lucky ones. I wouldn't be living here if I didn't get some help. I would be living in Hayden or Oak Creek."
Fiebing said those officers who do choose to come to Steamboat often don't stay long.
"What it all comes down to is you have a high cost of living over salaries that do not compete with the Front Range, which has a lower cost of living," he said. "When you have a high cost of living and low salaries, it magnifies the problem. Put those two factors together, and that becomes a huge deal."
Ten years ago, potential employees needed little coaxing to work at Yampa Valley Medical Center, said Keith Lightfoot, the hospital's human resources director. But a 157 percent increase in housing prices the past decade nearly twice the pace of salaries changed that.
"In the last four or five years, it has become much harder to get them out here," Lightfoot said. "(Housing) is by far the biggest challenge in recruiting."
The hospital has addressed the problem with housing assistance programs, including one that helps employees buy homes. Full-time hospital workers who have worked at least a year qualify for a pay advance of up to 20 percent of their first-year earnings to help them make a downpayment on a house.
The hospital recovers its loan by deducting a certain amount from each paycheck over a three-year period. Of the 12 employees who have enrolled in the program, six have paid off the loans, Lightfoot said.
The hospital also assists employees who choose to live in more affordable communities. Those who commute from as far away as Walden and Craig receive up to $40 a month to help cover fuel costs.
Lightfoot said the hospital is also considering a shuttle service to and from Craig.
The hospital's programs are among the most innovative ways a Steamboat employer has helped its workers with housing. But other employers have programs as well, from purchasing housing and offering it for rent to matching employees with roommates to help share costs.
Margi Missling-Root came to Steamboat 15 years ago and worked as a dorm parent for Lowell Whiteman School. Today she directs the school's experiential education program. Her husband, Brick Root, teaches math and science.
Their commute to work is short. The couple lives about 100 yards from the school in one of the homes Lowell Whiteman provides on campus for faculty and their families.
Walt Daub, head of Lowell Whiteman, said faculty housing helps to compensate for salaries that might otherwise prevent teachers from living in Steamboat. "We can't afford to pay a lot in salary, so we try to make it up to people in other ways," he said.
The school houses faculty in three single-family residences, a cabin and the new Lockwood Building, which consists of two townhomes, two efficiency apartments and a quad that includes four bedrooms and a common living area.
Thirteen educators live on campus, in addition to six dorm parents and interns who live among the students.
Most of the faculty members would like to buy their own homes, Daub said. Free housing hopefully allows them to put aside enough money to make that purchase, he said.
"It's not a golden solution, but it's a good one," he said. "We want to hold on to these people."
If her family didn't have housing on campus, "I wouldn't be in Steamboat," Missling-Root said. "I truly wouldn't be here if it weren't for the housing. If we were to leave Lowell Whiteman, we would most likely leave Steamboat."
Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. doesn't provide free housing but does work with Central Park Management to find affordable housing for employees during the ski season.
Central Park Management places four Ski Corp. employees into furnished, two-bedroom apartments for $300 per month each. Because most of the employees arrive in Steamboat with few contacts and little or no money to cover first and last months' rent as well as a security deposits, the Central Park program can be a lifesaver.
Kurt Weiss, owner of Central Park Management, decided to offer the same deal to local employers this summer. Some businesses already rent out entire units for their staffs, but employers who need housing for one or two employees now have some recourse.
Employers can co-sign a lease with their employees, who must pay a $100 security deposit and $275 a month in rent.
"We're trying to put people in units and give them good housing at the least amount of expense," Weiss said.
Making the transition
Finding rental properties for those who work in the array of service sector jobs in Steamboat Springs often is not difficult. The problems come when many of those workers decide they want to stay and buy a home.
Jen Echan, 27, is a team coordinator for Horizons, an organization that helps the mentally disabled.
She came to Steamboat five years ago to pursue an active lifestyle. At the time, she thought Steamboat was a short-term stop, a lifestyle she would enjoy for a couple of years before getting on with her life and career in a less costly city.
Now, she wants to stay. "I want to own a home," Echan said, "and at the same time, I want to have that lifestyle."
Two years ago, Echan visited a loan officer with two other friends to determine how close they were to home ownership. The three women left disappointed. Their incomes left them well short of what they needed to buy a home. They did not even earn enough to qualify for a condo.
The loan officer "all but laughed us out of the room," she said.
For now, Echan gets some help with housing from her employer. She lives in one of the six two-bedroom apartments Horizons purchased in 1991. The organization rents the units for $530 a month to its employees.
Living in the apartment allows Echan to save money toward a home purchase.
She and her friend, Lauri Bradt, 28, hope they can put together enough money to make the investment jointly.
"I'm basically losing money every year that I don't do it," Bradt said.
Bradt, a fourth-grade teacher at Christian Heritage School, is hoping to build on one of four empty duplex lots in Heritage Park. Christian Heritage School has made the lots available to teachers and staff.
Echan and Bradt think their plans will work out. Thea Kent, 23, who lives adjacent to Echan in the Horizons apartments, knows she will have to put her plans on hold for a few years.
Kent came to Steamboat for the same reasons as Echan and also wants to stay. But when she adds up her bills and weighs the cost of housing, it just doesn't seem practical. She plans to eventually go back to school in Massachusetts to get her master's degree in deaf education.
Then, she said, she will return.
"I would love to just stay out here," she said. "But I can't afford it."
Lynne Cleveland-Swanson, director of administration for Horizons, said the apartments are a great asset for the agency.
"It's more or less a service," Cleveland-Swanson said. "It's a way to help our employees."
But Cleveland-Swanson knows that in the long-term, subsidized apartments won't be enough to hold on to workers. She estimated that, like Echan and Kent, 75 percent of Horizons employees would like to purchase homes of their own but can't do so in Steamboat.
"I really wish there were more affordable housing options," she said. "It would really help many of our local employees."