BIDLACK | Rocky Mountain-high housing costs

Author: Hal Bidlack - April 13, 2018 - Updated: April 13, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

One of the great good fortunes of my life was that I had the honor to be a friend of one of Colorado’s favorite sons, John Denver. I got to know John from the environmental side of things and ended up on the Board of Directors of his Windstar Foundation for a while. I loved his music when I first heard it in the 1970s and continue to love both it and John’s message and vision, to this day. I felt very grateful in 1985, when the Air Force decided I could teach at the Air Force Academy and thus come to Colorado to live. I moved here in 1987 and stayed on after my retirement from active duty, because, well, Colorado!

So, it was no shock to me this week when it was widely reported that Colorado Springs, my town, was named the second-best place to live in the entire country. We trail only Austin, Texas, I’m guessing because they have bigger hats? But regardless, Colorado is an amazing and wonderful place to live, just like John sang about.

John’s Windstar Foundation put on an annual conference on environmental topics every August for a number of years, and I was involved in most. One of my great pleasures in attending these yearly events was going to Aspen and just walking around. It’s a lovely town, and I urge you to visit. But visiting is likely all you can do, because of a problem that used to be seen as a problem only for places like Aspen but is increasingly a problem for much of Colorado – unaffordable home prices.

I remember walking around Aspen, looking at the beautiful homes, but wondering where the folks live that build, paint, and fix the furnaces of these expensive homes could afford to live. A dear friend of mine, who bought a home at the base of Ajax Mountain in the 70s for less than $50,000 now finds his quaint little A-frame home next to McMansions that run from a few million to tens of millions of dollars. He could never afford to buy an Aspen home today.

And that brings me to the business section of the April 11 Gazette, which reported that home prices in Colorado Springs, America’s 2nd-best place to live, hit an average price of $340,000 in March of 2018. Aspen’s problem seems to have come home to roost, not only in Colorado Springs but up and down the Front Range, and it is spreading east and west. My daughter in Fort Collins now pays more to rent a one-bedroom apartment than my monthly mortgage. My own home, purchased in the late 1990s, has roughly doubled in value. And while part of me wants to yell “yippie,” I can’t help but think that if I were the same Air Force Lieutenant Colonel I was then, but in today’s market, I could not afford to buy this home. And what does that imply for today’s Captains and Majors, to say nothing about the vastly underpaid enlisted ranks of our military. What are the implications of a “military town” like Colorado Springs becoming unaffordable to most of the military?

What does that imply for the teachers, the plumbers, and the other good people who make life bearable? We live in a society which emphasizes a college education as the best path to success in life, and I agree with many parts of that point of view. But frankly, which would you rather not have in your life – a college professor like me who can teach about American Government, or a person who can fix you plumbing when it springs a leak, or fix your home A/C when it is hot outside? We need to honor and respect tradespeople, but that is an idea for another column. (Dan the Editor: you keep saying that. Are you ever going to write these “other columns?”) Shut up Dan.

My other daughter is a public school teacher, to whom the good people of Yuma, Arizona entrust their 8-year-olds. I wonder why people like my daughter have to spend hundreds of dollars (or more) each school year to buy supplies for their students. A gift card to her often turns into markers and notebooks for kids whose parents can’t afford them. How big a Colorado Springs or Denver home do you think most teachers can afford?

It’s great to live in a special place. Nonetheless, such success is not without cost. As home prices rise, so too do challenges for many, many of our fellow citizens – citizens without whom life would be very difficult. I don’t have a solution, but the problem merits much more consideration and discussion. When the people that make life livable can’t live nearby, perhaps we need to think about housing policy more broadly.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.