EDITORIAL: Homeless in Pagosa, Part One

In the most primitive societies, they have struggled to meet these most basic human needs. It is astonishing that in the twentieth century, we are still struggling to fill these needs.

— ‘Homeless in America’ by Anna Kosof, published in 1988

The streets of downtown Pagosa Springs were deserted as I made my way out of town on Sunday morning at 3:30am. I’d gotten only a couple of hours of sleep, following a late-night performance with my rock band, the Retro Cats — and I probably shouldn’t have been driving so early in the morning in a sleep-deprived state. But the only non-stop flight to Seattle — from Albuquerque on Alaska Airlines — was scheduled for 8:55am.

It’s typically a 4-hour drive from Pagosa to Albuquerque, and I like to get to the airport in plenty of time for TSA to thoroughly inspect my carry-on luggage, my laptop, my shoes, and my leather belt — to insure the safety of my fellow passengers.

My sister Cecilie had made a recent call advising me that my mom — age 92 — was doing especially poorly and suggesting that I schedule a visit as soon as possible. Thus, my early morning drive to the Albuquerque airport, on Sunday, September 3.

Not an ideal time of the month for me to be gone to Seattle, considering my usual reporting duties for the Daily Post — which normally involve attendance at local board meetings on the “first Tuesday” of each month: Archuleta Board of County Commissioners meetings and Pagosa Springs Town Council meetings. I’m sure most people in Archuleta County have never attended these public board meetings, but I personally find them interesting… and generally worth writing about.

But I’ve set myself a different kind of task this week — to analyze and report on the draft, 68-page “Archuleta County Housing Needs Study” sent to our Town and County governments a couple of weeks ago by Denver consultants Economic & Planning Systems Inc. (EPS).

About a year ago, our two local governments were advised by the local Affordable Housing Task Force that any federal or state grants aimed at addressing our current housing crisis in Archuleta County would require an updated “Housing Needs Assessment.”  (Bureaucrats demand numbers, if you are trying to address the needs of people living in poverty.   When they are giving tax money to big corporations, however, governments require only a vague promise of ‘economic growth.’)

12 months later, the first draft of the required assessment has finally arrived.  The Town and County governments collaborated on the funding of this EPS assessment, with each government paying 50 percent of the cost. (I’m not clear if any grant funding was sought to help pay the consultants’ fee.) I believe the total price was around $35,000 — slightly more than $2,000 a page.

About four dozen local people have been invited to a “Draft Housing Needs Assessment Review Work Session” on Monday, September 18 to give input on the draft. Hopefully, most of the folks who show up for that “work session” will have studied the report carefully… and will have some useful suggestions to make, in terms of improving it.

You can download the 68-page draft report here.

The report begins with a brief summary of “economic and demographic conditions…” that reads, in part:

1. Archuleta County and Pagosa Springs have both increased in population since 2000. While growth was slower from 2010 to 2016 than in the decade from 2000 to 2010, the post-Recession recovery is established. However, an older and aging population will pose distinct challenges moving forward.

Archuleta County had a population of 12,400 in 2016; 14 percent of those residents live in Pagosa Springs. This population is significantly older than the State of Colorado overall. Median age in 2016 was 50.1 years in the County, compared to 36.9 years in Colorado. The population of Pagosa Springs has a similar age distribution to the County, with a median age of 51.1 years. Additionally, over 20 percent of the population is aged 65 and older, compared to just 13 percent of the population statewide.

A summary is not usually meant to capture all the messy demographic details. For example, the summary doesn’t mention the fact that the county population was estimated in 2007 at almost 12,500 — higher than in 2016.

Nor does EPS mention that public school enrollment in Archuleta County fell sharply after 2007 and is still considerably below what it was in 2006. (Incidentally, the word “children” does not appear anywhere in the 68-page draft report, according to my laptop’s ‘word search’ function.)

Meanwhile, it’s easy to spot evidence, this summer, that the construction industry is slowly recovering from the Great Recession, during which carpenters and other construction professionals became, essentially, an endangered species. But as we will find out later in the report, the bulk of residential new construction here is aimed at the higher end of the housing market, with very little ‘affordable housing’ included in the mix.

The draft report continues:

2. The dominant economic sectors in Archuleta County are Retail, Leisure and Hospitality, Education and Health Services, and Government. Job growth has been strong since the Great Recession and now exceeds pre-recession peaks. However, much of the growth is taking place primarily in low wage industries.

In 2016, Archuleta County had a total of just over 4,000 jobs – exceeding the 2007 pre-Recession peak of 3,700. After strong employment growth leading up to 2007, there was a significant decline in employment during the Great Recession. While the County has recovered from those losses, this recovery took place later and more slowly than the State, with employment growth in the County beginning again in 2013.

One of the curious things about the draft EPS assessment — considering the company’s status as “professional” planners — is a lack of footnotes. Perhaps those will appear in the final draft? But at this point we have no way to know where EPS found data showing a “total of just over 4,000 jobs — exceeding the 2007 pre-Recession peak of 3,700.”

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Archuleta County had an employed labor force of about 6,350 in 2007, plus about 250 workers who were unemployed.

According to the same federal statistical methods, we had 6,100 employed workers in 2016, and about 210 unemployed. In other words, we now have fewer total workers — and fewer employed workers — than in 2007.

How EPS came up with 3,700 jobs in 2007, and 4,000 jobs on 2016, I am unable to determine.

The same BLS website also shows a dramatic drop in the number of business establishments in Archuleta County over the past 10 years. Their chart indicates that we had over 600 business establishments in 2007, and barely 550 in 2016.

Near the end of the summary section, EPS comes to the following conclusions:

2. Future housing demand is likely to be driven by employment growth, and affordable housing will need to be available for these new employees. The County may struggle to continue to grow economically if its workforce cannot find affordable housing.

A number of area employers have recently expanded or are planning expansions in the near future, but many employers are struggling to attract and retain employees because of difficulty finding housing.

We then read, in the study, that nearly all of the new housing recently built in Archuleta County is beyond the financial reach of the working class:

Gaps exist for ownership housing as well; 32 new homes (constructed and sold within 5 years) were sold in Archuleta County in 2016 and the beginning of 2017, none of which were affordable to households earning less than 100 percent of AMI (Area Median Income).

To summarize, then, up to this point (page 8) in the assessment:

Economic growth is unlikely in Archuleta County, if we can’t come to terms with our complex and challenging housing crisis…

Read Part Two…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.