Guest column: How health, housing crisis intersect
Recently, an in-depth assessment of the health and health resources of Grand County residents (completed in 2019) painted a stark picture of key health factors. One of the top actors affecting the health of our residents, is the lack of affordable housing.
We know that in Colorado the cost of housing has become unaffordable for many households. The average Colorado home price increased 77% in the past decade, but the state’s average income went up just 4.5%. A housing study was conducted in 2018 by many stakeholder groups and municipalities in Grand County that had not yet studied their own housing issues, as Fraser and Winter Park had already done. The towns included Granby, Grand Lake, Hot Sulphur Springs, and Kremmling. They found the county faces severe housing shortages.
Consider renting: The average two-person household income in GC is $60,800. Affordable housing is set at 30% of gross household income by mortgage and rental companies. That means that an average family can afford a maximum rent of $1,520/month. Rents average over $1,400 and are rapidly increasing. Because 60% of our housing stock are second (vacation) homes and only a fraction of those are available for rent, the inventory of rental homes is very low. Short term rentals increase investment opportunities for second homeowners but decrease the availability of long-term rentals for employees.
Consider buying: To purchase a home, the average family in Grand County is priced out of the market. The maximum amount that a family with two working adults earning the average income can afford for the purchase of a house is $238,400. Yet the median cost of a house, townhouse/duplex or condominium varies widely by location in the county, with no affordable houses in Winter Park. The more affordable towns farther from the Winter Park Ski resort such as Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling still have single family residences that are $100,000-$200,000 higher than the affordable limit. This means that single family homes and townhouses/duplexes are not affordable in Winter Park, Fraser, Granby or Grand Lake. The only option that falls into the affordable category are condominiums in the town of Granby, however HOA monthly dues of $400-$500 per month often make these options impossible. Condominiums are not available in Kremmling or Hot Sulphur Springs. Altogether, this puts the affordability issue in stark perspective.
So how exactly does housing affect health? People who struggle to afford a place to live often prioritize housing over health care. To keep a roof over their head they may not visit the doctor when ill, avoid purchasing medication, or even go without medical insurance to save money.
In Grand County, many families are one medical condition away from disaster. Consider a family facing a breast cancer diagnosis. After the initial shock the family would likely look into what medical services are available in Grand County. There is some help from local nonprofits and groups that provide aid in navigating the system, but a cancer treatment program could require numerous trips to Denver, which wouldn’t be covered by insurance. Plus, many working families can’t shoulder large co-pays, out-of-pocket deductibles and time missed at work.
Many residents in Grand are self-employed contractors who lose income when they have to take family members to Denver for chemotherapy. What if the family has children who can’t miss school, let alone track or cross-country ski events? What if the family has no health insurance?
Many people feel too humbled to ask for “handouts,” but they also have to wonder how they have worked so hard in professional jobs and still are failing to qualify for decent housing and health care in the county that they love. Families facing health care crises need to concentrate on healing, not be stressed out by the need to move in with family or friends, or leave the county that they love, their friends, and the school that their children love. They could max out all of their credit cards and use the debt to finance a move to a rental house if they could even qualify. The Denver Post reported that health care debt prevented mortgage or home rental qualifications more than student loan or even credit card debt.
The above scenario plays out in Grand County every day. A more fair and viable solution is to better manage the issue of affordable housing and/or increase wages, which are currently below the state average.
The good news is that solutions for affordable housing are gaining steam. As a result of these findings, Granby approved the Rodeo Apartments, which will have up to 250 attainable units. Granby is also working with the state to build affordable housing for seniors along Route 40 just north of the City Market. Fraser has made changes to their code to incentivize lower cost housing and is instituting a Deed Restriction Program to maintain affordable housing for full time residents. The proposed Mill apartment project is estimated to have 60 units of deed restricted workforce housing that will rent below 60% of the area medium income (AMI). Winter Park/Fraser have Miller’s Inn and the deed restricted Hideaway Junction providing affordable housing.
The Public Health Improvement Plan (PHIP) put forth by the Grand County Public Health Department in 2019 includes a strategy for supporting new and existing county-wide housing initiatives that will help address the many health risks posed by our housing crisis.
For more on the PHIP go to https://www.co.grand.co.us/220/PublicHealth.
Deb Thomas-Dobersen retired from 40 years working as a provider in the health care field in Denver. John Riedel retired from a career of health education and behavior change consulting. Both are residents of Grand County.
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