Locals: The Trick to Living and Working in the Upper Valley

Apr 20, 2014

Credit Tracy Olson/Flickr

   Has Aspen become too expensive for middle class residents? We’ve examined what it takes for retail shops to survive downtown. as business owners are facing challenges like rising rents and increasingly slow off-seasons.  Next, we talk with locals to find out how they're balancing life in the Upper Valley. For many, living in a different town is one of the solutions.

   Karla Hernandez lives and works in Aspen. I ran into her on a weekday morning out on the mall. She grew up here, and explains how she manages the high rent and cost of living.

 “Well it’s usually more than one job. So sometimes even full time, two jobs, if you can manage like in the morning and in the evening. And lots of preparation for the off season. Yes!”

Poli Hristova follows a similar strategy.

“Yeah, I work, so my first job is here, at L'Occitane [en Provence], I’m a part time sales associate. And then I work at downvalley Tavern in El Jebel, as a waitress.”

Hristova is good natured about her busy schedule… but she’d like to have a simpler one.

 “I would really like to have just one job, laughs, and like a set schedule, so I know when I’m working, when my days off are, I think that would be better.”

Affording to live in Aspen can be tricky. A study last year found that personal wages have been going down over the last decade. In a place where purchasing a home easily runs in the millions, the median income for workers in Pitkin County is about thirty thousand dollars. That's according to the US Census. The Aspen based Next Generation Commission has found affordable housing is a key roadblock to settling in Aspen long term.

"You know we’ve tried to keep the employee housing rent at no more than 30% of someone’s pay, and what, what we hope to do with that is allow them to just work one job."

Jeff Hanle is with Aspen Skiing Company, one of the biggest employers in the Valley. Subsidized affordable housing has long been an Aspen tactic to make living here more within reach. There's the city and county program in Aspen, as well as other government programs. Aspen Skiing Company and some major employers have also gotten into the game. Hanle says it’s common for employees to talk about figuring out where to live.

“You know I’ve been here 26 years, where I started out in free market rentals, and then I was in deed restricted rentals through Pitkin County Housing, and then I bought into the affordable housing program, and then, as I kept, things kept changing, I moved down to Basalt.”

Also out and about on a recent weekday morning was Dan Coleman. He’s is a contractor in Aspen. Coleman agrees that locals often graduate from affordable housing in Aspen to purchasing a home, down valley.

"New people to the Valley like to live in town, single people and so forth. And as you get established, and you have a family and would like to have a yard and maybe a garage, it’s basically almost impossible to live in Aspen."

Which, for Coleman is OK, because he prefers the amenities in the mid Valley. Like getting to Whole Foods easily and playing golf in the off season.

“You know, it’s like a rock concert. You know once you’ve heard enough you want a break and let your ears adjust. Aspen does rock, but do you want it 24-7’s?"

But that switch to purchasing a house or condo down valley, doesn't always work out. Ginny Haberman handles Human Resources for the Aspen School District, which also provides a cheaper way to live.

“The District provides employee housing, initially created as a springboard so people could find their own residence or some other housing after about a year in their employee housing -- after they’ve settled into the valley, talked with some realtors. They’ve found over the years, esp after last few years, that housing fills up and then stays there, because they can’t afford most of the housing that becomes available.”

Like Ski Co, the District tries to offset other costs-- including transportation. Still, there are cases where that's not enough to make a difference. Some teachers have second jobs… or they decide to teach in other towns:

"Sometimes easier for people to move to the metro area or other places they can purchase a home, be within the district area, and have an income that’s maybe a little a lower, but the cost of living is lower, so you don’t have that struggle."

Jeff Hanle says it comes down to the sacrifices someone is willing to make, and whether they're willing to make being in Aspen, in the Valley, a priority.

“You know when you first come here as a young person and you start raising a family and you’re like I’ll never be able to afford to live here, but you love the place, you love what you’re doing, it just works out. It’s karma or something.” Laughs.

But at the same time for many people, those sacrifices are much harder now than than they were decades ago.