EDITORIAL: Homeless in Pagosa, Part Three
“If San Francisco decides to compete effectively with other cities for new ‘clean’ industries and new corporate power, its population will move closer to standard white Anglo-Saxon Protestant characteristics. Selection of a population’s composition might be undemocratic. Influence on it, however, is legal and desirable for the health of the city.”
— From ‘Prologue for Action’ published by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association in 1966, to justify the demolition of low-income housing in the city’s South of Market neighborhood.
The story of homelessness in America took a dramatic turn during the 1970s, when developers and financial interests in the nation’s larger cities trumpeted the call for “urban renewal” as a way to replace neighborhoods of low-income housing with new (highly profitable) commercial and residential developments.
It’s been estimated that here in the U.S. during the decade of the 1970s, over 1 million SROs — Single-Room Occupancy units — were demolished or converted. These SRO sites, also known as ‘Residential Hotels,’ had been serving the poorest residents: the elderly, immigrants, laborers and other low-wage workers, and people with mental illnesses. A typical SRO unit is about 8×10 feet — 80 square feet — with no kitchen and a shared bathroom down the hall. In New York City alone, over 100,000 SROs were demolished during the 1970s to make way for “urban renewal.” Many of the low-income residents who had lived in these tiny but very affordable units ended up living on the streets.
We have our small share of homeless people here in rural Archuleta County — the working poor, the unemployed poor, the handicapped poor, the elderly poor — but the affordable housing crisis we currently face in Pagosa Springs is the result of rather different dynamics from what’s been taking place in, for example, San Francisco or New York.
Some of our local dynamics are documented in the first draft of the Archuleta County Housing Needs Study, assembled by Denver-based Economic and Planning Systems and released late last month for review and comment by local housing activists. We note, for example, that about 41 percent of the homes in the unincorporated county are classified in the study as “vacant.”
A complex series of government and private developer decisions have brought about this condition, where 4 out of every 10 homes in the community are “vacant.” That number, by itself, suggests pretty dramatically that we don’t have a shortage of housing in Archuleta County — we have a shortage of available, affordable housing.
Reading through the draft document — and coming from my bias as an affordable housing advocate — I find much of the study to be an collection of data developed by third-party agencies, such as the U.S. Census, Region 9 Economic Development, and other federal and state agencies. This doesn’t lessen the value of the study, but I wish the well-paid consultants had done more “first hand” research. Boot on the ground research.
One of the few attempts at ‘boots on the ground’ research mentioned in the 68-page draft report was a “survey” of local businesses. To quote from the draft report:
An online survey was distributed to local employers to better understand the needs that they see for housing for their employees, and how these housing needs affect their business. The survey was distributed through the Chamber of Commerce, as well as direct contact with major employers. Additional direct outreach was done with large employers to further understand their experience of housing needs in the region.
Overall, 41 survey responses were analyzed; 44 percent of respondents represented service businesses (e.g. food, beverage, hotel, retail) and 34 percent of respondents represented professional businesses (e.g. education, medical, Town/County, financial).
While the response rate for the survey was not high enough to make statistically significant conclusions from the data, some qualitative findings are important to note, summarized in Table 16.
Let’s consider this closing comment, for a moment:
The response rate was not high enough to make statistically significant conclusions. Our EPS consultants are charging local taxpayers $35,000 for a professional study… but are apparently unable to collect survey data from more than 41 of the 550 local business establishments identified by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics? We might dare to suggest that EPS go knocking on some doors, and gather enough survey information to make their conclusions significant.
Which is not to imply that the draft report is devoid of significant data. A few pieces of data that I personally found interesting:
1. About 40 percent of the workers in the Archuleta County workforce commute to jobs located outside the county.
2. Until 2010, the most common rental units had been priced between $500 and $750 per month. But by 2015, the average rents had surpassed the $1,000 level, with one-bedroom units going for an average of about $900 a month.
3. During the same period — from 2010 to 2015 — that average rental rates were increasing by about 100 percent, average wages increased by about 4 percent, from $36,116 to $37,786.
4. Since 2010, the median age within the Town of Pagosa Springs has gone from 40 years to 51 years. In Archuleta County, about 25 percent of the population is over 65 years of age — compared to about 13 percent in the state as a whole.
5. The stock of additional homes built since 2000 have been heavily weighed towards homes that spend most of the year ‘vacant’ — that is to say, second homes and vacation homes — as shown by the following EPS graph:
Unfortunately, all of the above data is built around “averages” — and people are not “averages.” People are unique, and live in unique situations.
Take my own personal situation, as one example. I’m 65 years old, and I live with my daughter (age 30) and her husband (age 43) and their two young children, in a smaller four-bedroom house on the edge of downtown. All three adults are self-employed, meaning that the total monthly income can be highly variable.
No one in the family has a retirement account. But the mortgage on the house has been paid off, and no one is making loan payments on their vehicle.
I suspect very few Pagosa families are in this precise situation. I suspect, for example, that many working class families are paying more than 50 percent of their income for mortgage or rent. I suspect that many single parent families with young children are struggling to get by. The draft report by EPS supports some of these suspicions in a statistical manner, but the report does not identify the exact families who are struggling most — the families who are one paycheck away from being homeless, or who are already homeless.
Since our Affordable Housing Task Force began researching the housing crisis 18 months ago, I’ve spoken to several people who are homeless in Archuleta County — in the sense that they are living in dwellings that are ‘illegal’ according to our local building codes and regulations. You cannot, for example, legally live in your car or RV in Archuleta County except on a temporary basis (for no more than 120 days) and only on property you yourself own.
As a friend suggested to me a couple of weeks ago, “It’s illegal to be poor in Archuleta County.”
Which leads us to a curious detail about the 68-page Housing Needs report. There’s no data about homelessness…