Hayden For Brian and Christel Houston, a 25-minute commute from Hayden is not a big deal. In Southern California, they knew people who commuted more than an hour and a half to work each way.
For the past 10 years, the Houstons have rented a four-bedroom home in Steamboat Springs. When the youngest of their four children reached kindergarten age, the family began looking for a home to buy. They knew Steamboat, where the median price of homes sold this year is $395,500, was out of the question.
So they drove west to Hayden where they quickly found a six-bedroom house with a yard they could afford.
"Gosh, imagine that in Steamboat," Christel Houston said. "I just can't. There's no way we could do that, taking the same house and the same lot and moving it 20 miles closer."
The Houstons are already invested in the Steamboat community. Brian Houston teaches at Christian Heritage School, which all of their children attend. Christel Houston teaches voice and piano to local students and also at the school and the college. The Houstons attend church in Steamboat.
"I imagine we will stay pretty well connected to Steamboat," Brian Houston said. "So sadly, (Hayden) will be more like a bedroom community for us."
The Houstons are not unlike many Steamboat workers who look to Hayden, Oak Creek, Craig and Yampa, where median home prices between $100,000 and $150,000 allow them to do what they never could in Steamboat buy a home.
But as more and more Steamboat workers move to outlying communities, questions of how long these communities will stay "affordable" and how long they can maintain their small-town character are tough to ignore.
Buying and selling
The average price of a home in Routt County has gone from about $150,000 a decade ago to more than $500,000 now. The Steamboat market has driven most of that price increase. But it is clear higher prices and demand in Steamboat have shifted to outlying communities.
South Routt Realtor Jane Stitt said that when she started working the area 12 years ago, affordable homes in Oak Creek cost between $25,000 and $75,000. Now, an affordable home in the town is between $100,000 and $200,000. The median price of the seven homes sold this year in Yampa, Oak Creek and Phippsburg is $156,000.
"The negatives are that, I suppose, some people find it impossible to get into (the South Routt) market," Stitt said. "A lot of times they are surprised (by prices). Some people I've shown properties who are from around here just say, 'Oh my gosh,' and they can't believe prices have gone up so quickly."
Indications are, such price increases will continue.
Mike Bell, a general contractor who was born and raised in Hayden, decided his hometown was ideal for new housing. With much lower land costs and fees than are available in Steamboat, Bell said he is able to build three- and four-bedroom homes that list for between $200,000 and $225,000. Bell believes the homes will attract Steamboat professionals who earn solid incomes but not enough to qualify for the Steamboat market.
"We give them exactly the same home for $100,000 less (than in Steamboat) and a 25-mile commute," Bell said. "I always try to find a niche someplace that I don't have a lot of competition and that there's a need for. That's the reason that we're doing these."
Bell's homes will list for $60,000 to $85,000 more than the current median price in Hayden.
Bell isn't the only one looking west to Hayden, which has a population of 1,634. The town has seen several new developments recently 15 single-family homes in the Yampa View Estates, 65 single-family homes in the Sagewood subdivision and the 28-home Hidden Springs subdivision.
Ron Sills of 4-S Development, who recently got county approval for the Hidden Springs development, has even bigger plans. He talks of building 1,000 homes on 900 acres of land adjacent to Hidden Springs over the next 25 years. If Sills is right, his development would more than double the 658 homes the U.S. Census counted in Hayden in 2000.
"We believe that Hayden is going to be the bedroom community for Steamboat because it's happened in Carbondale," Sills said. "We don't know the timing yet, but we're pretty sure it's already headed that way."
The Roaring Fork example
But are Carbondale and Basalt which have grown into bedroom communities of Aspen really the models Hayden and other Routt County towns want to follow? Many would say no.
Aspen, the first ski town to experience the phenomenal housing price boom, has grown into the second most expensive housing market in the nation behind only New York City, according to the 2000 Census. The median value of owner-occupied homes in Aspen and Snowmass doubled from around $500,000 to more than $1 million from 1990 to 2000.
But the changes were even greater in Basalt and Carbondale, which were relatively affordable communities 10 years ago. The median value of housing in basalt rose 160 percent from $160,200 to $417,400, and in Carbondale, the median value rose 129 percent from $104,000 to $237,700.
Many of Aspen's workers commute from Basalt and Carbondale, with some even coming as far away as New Castle, about a two-hour drive in the winter, said Scott Gordon, president of Alpine Bank in Steamboat. Recent traffic studies predict that in the next 10 years, 28,000 cars will travel Colorado 82 between Glenwood Springs and Aspen.
Gordon worked at the Alpine Bank in Aspen from 1988 to 1997, transferred to the bank in Carbondale for two years and then came to the Steamboat branch.
His work in Aspen, Carbondale and Steamboat has given him perspective on housing issues. "I think the basic core issues (in the Roaring Fork Valley) are the same as they are here," he said.
Gordon said Steamboat is about 10 years behind Aspen in housing development. He is hopeful Steamboat won't follow the exact same path.
"The vibrancy of the community changed," Gordon said of Aspen. "You'd go down a whole city block in Aspen and only half the people were there."
Gordon said there are key differences between Aspen and Steamboat. Unlike Aspen, Steamboat is not physically contained by mountains, meaning growth can go in various directions.
And Steamboat can learn from what happened in Aspen.
"We can see what the Roaring Fork Valley looks like," Gordon said, "and I don't think we want a giant strip mall to go up between Hayden and Steamboat."
Drive until you qualify
Linda Venturoni, director of special projects for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, said the reason housing prices have risen so in Carbondale and Basalt is that Aspen workers simply "drive until they qualify" for housing. Basalt is 22 miles north of Aspen; Carbondale is 30.
Venturoni has studied how mountain towns in Eagle, Grand, Pitkin, Summit and Jackson counties have grown and changed. Most Colorado ski towns including Steamboat Springs are somewhere on a continuum between being desirable places to live and being so expensive that people who work in the towns cannot afford to live in them, she said.
Venturoni said in the towns she has studied, it's apparent that the longer people have to spend driving to work, the less likely they are to become a part of either the community they live in or work in. When that happens, communities may lose out.
"Over and over again, what we're hearing in these surveys is the sense of community is incredibly important and people really don't want to see that gone," Venturoni said.
"We don't want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. We think that's the danger if you do lose your sense of community and just become a place where people come on vacation and there really aren't people living there."
Venturoni said towns that are at earlier stages of the development continuum have a better chance to avoid some of the pitfalls the towns at the other end of the continuum faced.
"There's a lot we can learn from a lot of things that have already happened in Aspen and Vail," Venturoni said.
When residents spend a portion of their day commuting back and forth from work, the real costs of transportation can grow big pretty fast, said Rob Dick, executive director of the Regional Affordable Living Foundation. Someone who has a 45-minute commute to and from work and works 49 weeks out of the year ends up spending 2.2 weeks on the road.
"The hidden costs in all of this are the transportation costs and the social costs, both of which are tremendous and get borne by the community," Dick said.
The movement of mostly young families and individuals into outlying towns can represent a loss of valuable resources for Steamboat, he said.
"Our community needs a solid group of young people that want to work and contribute to the community," Dick said. "If we push all of these people out of our community we're going to have a lot of pretty buildings that are owned by people that aren't working in the community."
And the outlying communities benefit little when their residents are spending most of their time and money in Steamboat Springs.
"I think we do see more of a lack of participation," said County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak, who has lived in Oak Creek for the past 26 years.
Former county commissioner Pat Holderness has lived in Hayden all her life and has seen her hometown change from a mostly agricultural community, to a town filled mostly by miners, to one inhabited by power plant workers, miners and Steamboat workers.
"I think there is probably less involvement in the community now," Holderness said. "I think some organizations have sort of fallen by the wayside."
Oak Creek Mayor Cargo Rodeman has lived in the town for 30 years and was a commuter to Steamboat for half of those years. "We've always been pretty much a bedroom community for Steamboat," Rodeman said. "The only way that would ever probably change is if more businesses came to Oak Creek."
Being a bedroom community isn't always bad and doesn't have to inhibit people from playing an important role in the community, Rodeman said.
"The overflow kind of keeps us populated," she said. "There are a lot of people that commute to Steamboat Springs, and they're very much a part of the community."
Chuck Grobe who has lived in Hayden for 23 years, served on the planning commission for 20 and is now mayor of the town said Hayden, like Oak Creek, already is a bedroom community.
Every morning and again every afternoon, Grobe watches the traffic build on Jefferson Avenue in Hayden. He has steadily watched it increase as more and more Steamboat commuters find housing in Hayden. He expects the growth to continue.
"It's coming," he said. "You try to manage it the best you can and hopefully it doesn't hit you that bad.
"We just don't want to lose our small town-ness in the process. That's the real problem."
Affordability isn't the only aspect drawing Steamboat residents to nearby towns.
Brian and Michelle Hoza said they simply liked living in Hayden better than living in Steamboat. The family of seven recently moved from a four-bedroom home they owned in Steamboat to a four-bedroom home in Hayden.
"Our main reason for moving was that we wanted to raise our kids in more of a tight-knit community than in a resort town," Michelle Hoza said. "When we told people we were moving out to Hayden it was like, 'Are you sure?' But it has really been good for us and our family."
Brian Hoza works at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat and serves on the Hayden School Board.
"It's a little more challenging to get involved in the community where you live, but we find ways to make that happen," he said. "You try to find a balance between collaboration in the community where you work and also investing time and attention in the community where you live."
Hayden Town Manager Rob Straebel said the Hozas are not alone.
"I think the presumption is that people live in smaller outlying communities simply because of the economics," Straebel said. "And I think the vast majority of Hayden residents make the choice of living in Hayden because of the quality of life and because they like the small-town feel."
Straebel said some growth would be good for the town, but if the town does not take a stand on managing growth, Hayden could face the same problems Carbondale has traffic that overwhelms the town's infrastructure and a cost of living that outpaces local wages.
"It is not unlike other Colorado mountain communities in that a lot of people are realizing the quality of life that Colorado has and that the Yampa Valley has," Straebel said. "So we are going to continue to grow and hopefully we'll grow in a managed and reasonable way."
Dick said it would be a "tragedy" if Steamboat and its nearby communities continued on their paths to become more Aspen-esque. Unfortunately, he fears Steamboat's affordable housing problem is something that will increasingly affect outlying towns.
"Steamboat is creating the problem," Dick said. "But the problem is getting pushed to those communities.
"If the community focuses on the problem and realizes that this is a problem we really need to solve, then they'll come together and solve it. At the moment there isn't the will, and once the will is established, the problem will be solved, but not until."
Caught between two cities
The Houstons are planning on moving into their Hayden home and keeping their links to Steamboat, but Christel Houston said she hopes the family will be more drawn into the Hayden community.
She said some of their friends moved to Hayden several years ago with the intention to stay involved with Steamboat but have since made Hayden more of their hometown by becoming involved in a church and the schools there.
"They did not go with that purpose," Christel Houston said about the family. "We are not going with that purpose either, but who knows?"
Around the Houstons' previous home in San Jose, Calif., Christel said there were a lot of smaller towns that changed when the area began to grow.
"All these little tiny communities, they have sort of lost their sense of identity," Houston said. "But they understand that and came to grips with the idea that they were part of a bigger picture.
"It's like Steamboat's arms are kind of stretching out, and what are you going to do?"