Indivisible, Part 6 | Stuck in the middle: Affordability remains barrier for many in Routt County despite immense local wealth

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — “Why did you come to Steamboat if you can’t afford it?”

That was the question Kathryn “Kat” Kelly was confronted with several years ago at a meeting about affordable housing.

Kelly asked the man asking the question if he was a local. He offered no response, then turned and walked away.

It was a legitimate question but was posed in a haughty way that made Kelly feel like an outsider — somebody who didn’t deserve to live in Steamboat Springs among some of the nation’s wealthiest.

She and her two sons had moved from Houston to Steamboat in 2007. Between 2007 and 2013, the family moved seven times. When she finally moved into her “forever home” in 2013, she was more than $20,000 in debt and working four jobs.

She would often ponder that question about living in Steamboat. It wasn’t exactly that she couldn’t afford Steamboat — she didn’t come to town feeling entitled to a free ride — instead, it would seem that Steamboat couldn’t afford her.

As a full-time employee of the city planning office at the time, Kelly, now 57, was only making $15 per hour. She strived to collect hearty tips at her nightly restaurant job and hoped there would be leftover food she could take home to her kids.

Experiences similar to Kelly’s are common in Steamboat. Affordability barriers are far-reaching and create a multitude of issues affecting not only access to local housing but also to services like child care and health care. 

Steamboat is one of the wealthiest communities in the nation and in Colorado. In 2018, Routt County ranked third in the state for highest per capita income, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Per capita income increased from $69,428 in 2016 to $83,702 in 2018.

Routt County’s median income for a household of four in 2018 was $74,273, nearly $15,000 above the national median.

Still, poverty exists here.

Almost 11% of children younger than 18 live in poverty in Routt County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey.

The federal poverty level for a single person is $12,760, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. For a family of four, it’s $26,200.

In Steamboat, 11% of households have annual incomes below $20,000 while 9% have incomes $200,000 and above.

No such thing as ‘disposable income’

Kelly moved to Steamboat with her boyfriend at the time, who was from Steamboat and whose brother still lived here. Along with their two 65-pound dogs, the family signed a lease for a mobile home in Dream Island. 

Rent was $900 per month, which she was told also covered lot rent — she would later find that wasn’t true.

Eventually the family noticed the ceiling was starting to fall down in the living room and mold was growing in the walls. The family was sick on and off — they thought it was due to trading in the warmer Texas climate for life at high altitude.

Kat Kelly moved eight times in seven years before finally settling into one half of a duplex in 2013. The home was built through Routt County Habitat for Humanity in the Riverside neighborhood.
John F. Russell

They lived in the mobile home for about 13 months before moving into a duplex on Eighth Street. The new place was $1,800 per month, which wasn’t easy, but she and her boyfriend made enough between the two of them. After the pair split, Kelly couldn’t afford the higher rent on a single income.

She and her two sons then moved into a condo. But in the economic downturn of 2008, the owners were forced to move back in. Next, the family found a home to rent on Hilltop Drive. Money remained tight.

A co-worker suggested Kelly apply for a home through Routt County Habitat for Humanity. She was leary because she had a sizable judgment on her credit report, which meant a bank likely wouldn’t offer her a home loan. That was no problem, Habitat promised, because the organization financed its own mortgages, Kelly said.

It ended up turning into a two-year battle.

While the Habitat house was being built, the family lost their home on Hilltop. She and the kids then moved into the Iron Horse, a motel-turned-affordable-housing complex now known as The Flour Mill. She made sure to sleep under the part of the ceiling that had mold, and her children had two twin beds while she slept on a cot.

A friend then invited her to move in with her, but at an unexpected cost of $1,100 in rent just to sleep on couches.

Then, they were homeless until the Nordic Lodge put the family up for $900 per month during its busiest season.

Habitat then came back with a “take-it-or-leave-it” price of $185,000 for the newly built home. She grit her teeth and took it.

She now pays $1,050 per month, but the home is hers. She said her mortgage should have been $512.50 per month.

She’s now been in her home for seven years. 

“It’s my house — I dare anyone to take it away from me,” she said.

Routt County Habitat for Humanity dissolved after building Kelly’s home. Hers was the last the local organization built.

“Nobody can afford to live here and work here unless they’re making a minimum of $50,000 a year, and that’s still tough,” she said.

Kelly now works as a financial representative, not an advisor, for Wealth Strategies, based in Englewood. She helps people go through options for life, health and long-term insurance. She also sells Aflac insurance part-time and does occasional bookkeeping work. 

“There is a term that I never heard in my life until I moved to Steamboat: disposable income,” she laughed.

A thoughtful solution to housing

In 2017, Steamboat voters passed a monumental measure — Referendum 5A — to help ease the local housing crisis.

Grassroots work surrounding the ballot measure was completed the year before the election through a community housing steering community, which was a public engagement effort undertaken by the Yampa Valley Housing Authority. The group focused on understanding the scope of the local housing problem and then presented their findings back to the community and to local government.

“There was a conscious shift in the community,” said Jason Peasley, executive director of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority.

Jos Olvera with CCI Plumbing checks the sink in one of the new units at Alpenglow apartments in Steamboat Springs when it was being built. Tenants began moving into the complex in August 2020.
John F. Russell

“Going through that process, it really helped the community wrap their arms around what we were trying to accomplish and how that whole plan came about,” he said.

It was by no means a landslide win. Referendum 5A, which proposed a 1-mill property tax levy to create a dedicated funding source for the development of low-income, seasonal and permanently affordable housing, passed by a slim margin with 2,842 “yes” votes to 2,248 “no” votes.

“But we got it done,” Peasley said.

The first project to utilize funds from that tax was the Alpenglow apartment complex completed this summer near Walgreens on U.S. Highway 40 and Pine Grove Road. That project cost $25 million, and now, the Housing Authority is breaking ground on another affordable housing project, Sunlight Crossing, with a price tag of $35 million.

“We’re delivering on what we promised,” he said.

Still, there is a 448-unit shortfall in demand for local housing, and its effect is widespread. 

Michelle Gutierrez, 24, has worked in the area for a decade. She’s originally from Mexico and immigrated to the U.S. about 13 years ago when living in her home country wasn’t safe anymore.

Gutierrez initially lived in a mobile home in Craig with her parents. She would make the long, 45-minute to an hour commute from Craig to Steamboat every day for work.

“It was horrible; I hated it,” Gutierrez said.

But in Craig, housing is much more affordable. She said her family paid $850 per month in rent there.

Still, Gutierrez set her sights on moving to Steamboat.

“It’s really hard trying to find anything,” she said.

One of her co-workers told her about the new Alpenglow apartments. She applied, was accepted, paid a deposit and moved in six weeks ago. The new space comfortably fits her and a roommate.

“I feel like it’s a good size for a family,” she said.

She’s working 1 1/2 jobs to support herself and equally splits a $1,850 monthly rent bill with her roommate.

“I couldn’t afford it without her,” she said.

Gutierrez has been an interpreter and part-time medical assistant with Northwest Colorado Health for the past three years.

“People are having issues with paying rent,” she said of the people she works with.

But there are some local resources.

“I’ve always really liked helping others,” she said. “The more I can get to help someone and make a difference for them, that’s what I like.”

How much Steamboat really costs

An individual with no children would need to earn $13.85 per hour — or $28,810 annually — to have a livable wage in Routt County, according to a living wage calculator developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Colorado’s minimum wage is currently $11.10.

A single parent with three children would need to earn $41.98 per hour for a livable wage. Earning minimum wage would put them under the poverty level. The same is true for two-adult households with two and three kids but only one adult working.

Sectors like food service, accommodations, recreation and arts and entertainment traditionally offer low wages. Those industries represent around 20% to 22% of the total number of jobs but generate only 17% of household income.

“Because of their very nature, they’re not going to pay very well,” said Scott Ford, a data statistician and former Steamboat Springs City Council member who has lived in Steamboat for almost 30 years.

Arts and entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food service is the industry sector with the most full-time, year-round civilian jobs in Routt County. The second largest sector is finance, insurance, real estate and rental leasing. The smallest is management, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

When considering cost of living, Steamboat sits pretty much in the middle when compared with other similarly populated Colorado resort towns. It’s 2.2% more expensive than Breckenridge and 11% more costly than Crested Butte, 100% cheaper than Aspen and 31% less expensive than Telluride.

Steamboat is almost 12% more expensive than Denver and 26% more expensive than Chicago for cost of living.

The local job with the highest median salary is the finance and insurance sector, with a median annual salary of $98,558.

The disparity in wages also has a racial component. About 19% of Black and Latinx households earned less than $20,000 while 6% of Latinx households and virtually no Black households had incomes in the top bracket. Overall, 72% non-Hispanic whites in Routt County own their home, as do 90% of Asian Americans, yet 63% of Hispanics and more than 90% of Blacks are renters.

Millionaire second homeowners ‘should be giving back’

Steamboat is No. 22 on Phoenix Marketing International’s list of 25 cities and towns in the U.S. with populations between 10,000 and 50,000 that boast the largest concentrations of millionaire households.

Only 6.7% of total American households qualify as millionaires, according to Kiplinger, a publisher of business forecasts and personal finance advice. Of the total households in Steamboat, 7.4% of those include millionaires.

Housing prices, unlike wages, are being pushed up by the wealthy who have second homes in Steamboat. While the median income in the area — $74,273 — is roughly $12,000 above the national level, the median home value — $510,600 — beats the U.S. median by $280,900. 

On average, non-locals pay 20% to 50% more when buying a home locally, depending on the type of housing, according to an analysis of data from the Routt County Assessor’s Office.

Steamboat’s biggest economic divide is between full-time residents and second homeowners. Those part-timers own more than 40% of the total single-family residences. They also own nearly 70% of the condominiums, normally the most affordable way for people to buy a home.

Paul Brinkman, owner and founder of Brinkman Development and Construction, is a full-time resident of Steamboat Springs.
Bryce Martin

Paul Brinkman, 47, used to be one of those second homeowners.

About 15 years ago, his parents moved to Steamboat. His mom worked as head nurse of the former Doak Walker Care Center, and his father was an accountant for Kodak. Brinkman and his wife, Chresta, had a home in Breckenridge for several years. They would split time between Summit County and Fort Collins, where his company is headquartered. They then purchased a home in Steamboat with a group of 10 couples and started coming up from the Front Range more and more.

As the couple started having children, they spent even more time in Steamboat, and then 10 years ago, they moved here full-time. Brinkman would commute to his offices on the Front Range for the first six years, driving down on a Tuesday morning and returning Thursday night.

Brinkman started his construction and real estate business in 2005. The companies later separated to form independent arms. With about 150 employees, the company wouldn’t have had enough business in the local Steamboat market.

“I would go down (to the Front Range), and that was the way to build and grow a larger company but also be able to live up here,” he said.

He stepped away from the day-to-day operations of the companies — which in years prior had a real estate development and construction volume of more than $250 million — three years ago, remaining chairman of the board of directors at his construction company and as a partner in the real estate company. His brother runs the company.

Brinkman now places most of his focus on local philanthropy and business endeavors to benefit the community.

The Brinkmans acquired Yampa Valley Brewing Co. and joined with partners to restore the historic Hayden Granary. His company also purchased Sundance at Fish Creek on Anglers Drive.

While he admitted there’s still much work to be done, he believes there are many efforts underway in the community committed to eliminating the divides between the wealthy and less affluent.

“You’re always going to have people less tolerant or less inclusive, but you look at the support of the wealthy for nonprofits in this community, and it’s pretty significant,” he said.

“There’s still the perspective that if you have a second home you’re not a community member,” he added.

But he doesn’t believe that’s always true.

“I think it’s a broad generalization to say second homeowners don’t help — that they just use our services and leave,” he said. “The reality of that is how many support local businesses.”

He admitted it’s all about people coming here and how they treat both the places they stay and the overall community.

“I think we’ve been fortunate that a lot of the people that come here do see it as a place that they want to continue to come to, and it becomes more of a place that they call their second home versus just the place they go on vacation,” he said. “We’re a resort town — we’re not going to stop people from coming here.”

But those implications will need to be addressed, specifically in regards to second homeowners coming into the market and pushing up prices.

“I think it’s more the vision that’s created to address what we know is here and what’s going to continue to come versus complaining about it and trying to stop it,” he said.

As a downtown resident, Brinkman said he could recall at least 20 families with kids that have moved here, who probably are affluent, and either work here or remotely.

“I think that’s a tremendous value to the community,” he said.

That’s why school enrollment continues to increase and why, in general, funding for nonprofits also continues to rise, he said.

“In a lot of resort towns, that type of family wouldn’t feel like they could get a good education for their kids or work remotely,” he said. “I think here they feel comfortable that they can have those things.

“Not a lot of places like this have been able to pass bonds that support teachers, salaries and facilities,” he said.

Brinkman believes in a quote by famed Los Angeles restaurateur and philanthropist Roger Egger. “Too often charity is about the redemption of the giver not the liberation of the receiver,” Egger said.

“I love that quote, because I think it’s important for people who are fortunate to see it as an opportunity for them to get involved in their community, with their time or their money,” Brinkman said.

His local philanthropic work can also be seen in the expansion of two integral nonprofits, Routt County United Way and Integrated Community. He helped them organize and raise funds to realize their vision of expanding the building the two organizations share. The project will be completed in April.

Brinkman also invests his time and money in many other areas of the community, including the schools, a variety of nonprofits and cultural and historic buildings. He’s been involved with Junior Achievement for many years and helped bring it to the community. He also has a keen interest in supporting local veterans, young and old.

“We’re fortunate in that we can give back,” he said.

Cost remains barrier to accessing health care

Routt County is slightly below the national average for people without health insurance. About 8% of Routt County’s population does not actively maintain insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The national average is 9.4%.

Still, many inequities involving access to health care exist in Routt County.

Disparities include the ability, or inability, to purchase health insurance — the area has some of the highest premiums in the country — and more limited access to some specialty and other types of care not locally provided.

“Anytime a family or person has to travel outside of this area for care, it creates an inequity because not all people or families can travel due to time off work, cost of travel or the means to travel,” said Stephanie Einfeld, executive director of Northwest Colorado Health.

There are also inequities among services in Routt County based on insurance or health coverage status. 

People may be less likely to have a primary care physician, to receive preventive care or less likely to have health insurance, said Dan Weaver, spokesperson for UCHealth, the largest provider of Medicaid care in the state.

In 2019, UCHealth provided almost 700,000 Medicaid outpatient visits and hospital admissions. Across all UCHealth hospitals, Medicaid patients make up about 25% of total inpatients.

UCHealth and UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs offer many programs that are helping address the social determinants of health. These issues, including lack of adequate housing, healthy food, transportation and others, impact individuals’ health, according to Weaver.

Care that is either not covered by insurance or paid for by the patient leads to higher costs set by the health care industry.

“In short, the care has to be paid for by someone,” Einfeld said.

Consider an uninsured 26-year-old who lives in Steamboat and earns minimum wage. While out snowboarding on a blue bird day, they severely injure their knee and need emergency care. It turns out they need a full knee replacement.

“That person would likely qualify for Colorado Medicaid, so we could then help them apply for Medicaid,” Weaver said. 

If someone is not eligible for Medicaid and is uninsured, they may qualify for UCHealth’s charity care discount or a self-pay discount. 

The cost of procedures and tests can vary wildly. As there is not much transparency in health care pricing, the patient has to agree to purchase the services and obtain the services prior to knowing the price or the service, Einfeld said. 

“Think about if airlines operated this way,” she said.

A person chooses an airline to fly somewhere, but they don’t receive the bill until after they’ve arrived. There’s no indication if there’s a layover or several layovers, what will be charged for carry-on bags or even what seat they will be assigned.

“Would you agree to these terms? Probably not,” Einfeld said.

Northwest Colorado Health offers its services on a sliding fee scale based on federal poverty levels and income. 

Because language can often be a barrier to accessing care, Northwest Colorado Health maintains onsite interpreters. The organization also contracts with some providers for specialty services, and some specialists do accept low-income or uninsured patients.

In the U.S., the health care industry operates in a free market without cost control. Providers are free to charge whatever the market will bear. This leads to highly fluctuated pricing throughout the nation and region, she said. 

Complexities are compounded by the various types of payers for health care — the patient, the government and different kinds of insurance. 

The government is able to set the rates they’ll pay to a provider, “but those alone are not enough to sustain any health care business, especially with the ensuing high regulatory burden then put on the provider,” Einfeld said.

Inequities also occur based on religion, race, socioeconomic status, age, geographic location, sexual orientation or gender identity and physical disability.

“What is completely clear to me is that significant disparities exist in life expectancy and other health outcomes,” she said. “The idea of health disparities linked to demographics is something that also doesn’t happen in a silo but in intersectionality and on many different levels.”

For example, thinking about an individual through only one of these lenses does not give a complete story, as people live with multiple social identities, such as race, gender and age. Large disparities are found where several characteristics that have been historically linked to discrimination or exclusion overlap, she said.

“In the studies that I have had access to about our region, my observation is that on the population level, the largest health inequities exist when looking at income, and low-income comes in all shapes and sizes of other characteristics,” Einfeld said.

Parents forced to make tough choices over child care

Beth Melton isn’t just a Routt County commissioner, she’s also a mom.

When Melton was pregnant with her son, she struggled to find a reasonable solution for child care. She briefly considered a potentially unsafe solution: taking her son to an unlicensed child care facility.

“I have a master’s degree in early childhood education and a job that paid well — I would quit my job before I let that happen,” she said.

But that’s a problem facing many Routt County parents — access to quality, affordable child care.

Barriers to child care can be considered a “three-legged stool,” Melton said. Those three legs are affordability, availability and quality. 

“You really need all three of those things for child care to be accessible to people,” Melton said.

Generally in Routt County, quality is a strength, but there’s not a lot of availability. By some definitions, Routt County could be considered a child care desert for children from birth to age 3.

For Kim Martin, executive director of Young Tracks Preschool and Child Care in Steamboat, one of the main problems is not having enough available slots.

Kids enjoy an outdoor recess at Young Tracks on the west side of Steamboat Springs in August. The child care and preschool facility has made some innovative changes to keep students and staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as daily temperature checks and a new online sign-in system.
Derek Maiolo

Young Tracks is one of only two centers in Steamboat that accept infants and toddlers, along with a few home providers.

Young Tracks serves children from 2 months to age 5 or 6.

There are sometimes two to three times as many kids needing care than there is licensed availability. For infants and toddlers, there’s a significant shortage.

State regulations for child care centers include restrictions regarding capacity.

For example, there must be one adult for every 12 children in the 4-year-old age group, and for infants or young toddlers, there must be one adult to every three children.

Routt County was reported to have enough licensed care centers that allow infants and toddlers for only about 15% of families needed it, according to Melton. Surveys show about 77% of kids in the county 6 and younger would require child care.

For preschool, the numbers are a little better.

“On paper, we do have enough spots,” Melton said. But for some families it might not be as convenient a schedule or location.

Affordability for both preschool and child care remains an issue.

If a family is under 265% of the federal poverty level — earning $69,430 for a family of four — they qualify for tuition assistance through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, though not all centers or home providers chose to be part of the CCCAP program. Considered the local hub for all early childhood resources, First Impressions is available for those who don’t qualfty for CCCAP, mainly if they’re under 325% of the federal poverty limit — or $85,150.

For above that 325% level, there is no child care assistance.

“We have a real challenge for the ‘missing middle,’” Melton said. “You don’t make enough to qualify for assistance but don’t make enough to make ends meet.”

The cost at Young Tracks for infants and toddlers is $71 per day, according to Martin. Its preschool program is $68 per day, which Martin said is quite comparable to others around Steamboat. They require a two-day minimum, and families are asked to follow a schedule. Young Tracks has the largest number of families in the county attending a single facility.

“Living in Routt County is so expensive — there are families that have monthly mortgages that are less than child care programs,” Martin said.

Melton said her son attends preschool in Routt County for four days per week, which costs she and her husband about $13,000 annually.

“For a lot of families, that’s not realistic,” Melton said.

Even with the high tuition rates and large demand for services, those working in the child care industry still often make little money, which creates a second issue around equity.

Providers at Young Tracks are required to have completed early childhood education courses and specific training for handling infants and toddlers.

“It’s not just babysitting,” said Martin, who has been in the field since 1988 and with Young Tracks for 25 years.

Without child care, the workforce would be crippled.

It’s hard to find qualified people then not be able to pay them as much as they would make in other professions, Martin said.

“Public school teachers don’t make enough, and we make even less than that,” she said.

With those barriers combined, a generational issue is emerging, according to Melton. It’s one that affects young people’s ability to build wealth while many are taking on debt to pay for child care.

“We live in a place with a high cost of living, and you can’t always make it on one income, Melton said. “You can barely make it on two incomes.”


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