We returned from Colorado this week via blue highways, a convoluted route that detoured us north to the Grand Tetons before passing through forlorn towns strung across the high plains.
It's tempting to project gloom through the windshield when you see tiny crossroads like Lost Springs, where the bars are the last businesses to go. Or ranching towns like Lusk, where a substantial brick hotel, repurposed to affordable housing, hints at a more colorful past of railroads, silver mining and radium baths for tourists.
The gloom deepens when you spend a night in Chadron after convincing your co-pilot it has to be a decent place to stay because it's a college town. Well, yeah, a college town for kids from Lusk and North Platte, who might not notice all the downtown buildings that sport historical designation placards in lieu of For Rent signs.
Because nobody's looking to rent.
We had spent the prior day and overnight in Jackson Hole. It's in a beautiful setting, with ready access to trails, steep ski runs and open space with picture-window views of the Tetons in the distance. The streets are lively and downtown storefronts are full. The town supports a couple nice bookstores and a roller derby team. You can drop $250,000 on a grizzly bear painting or watch elk graze in the valley for free.
It's not surprising that, in a town where the median home price is $1.2 million and a 1,200-square-foot condo goes for about twice what you'd pay in downtown Minneapolis, Jackson Hole Sotheby's International Realty office occupies half a city block.
The prosperity in these uber-resort towns can be deceiving. The very money that has conserved these views, kept the streams pristine and sprinkled the town with music, art and varied cuisine has also priced out regular folk.
Forget Section Eight projects.
Here, "affordable housing" is for nurses, park rangers, teachers, housekeepers, bartenders and accountants. The president of the Aspen Board of Realtors knows 14 brokers who live in employee housing subsidized by the city to allow working stiffs to be year-round residents.
Even off-season rents have always been tight in these resort towns, but the trend is to knock down anything that comes on the market. Last July owners of Jackson Hole’s largest apartment complex notified tenants of a 40 percent rent hike.
It's not just rent that's overpriced. We saw Sierra Nevada and New Belgium beer 12-packs on sale for what was full price in Minnesota. But there's lots of work in these towns, and if you live where the economy's hurting, you might find a way.
Construction workers drive in from Idaho to Jackson. Steamboat Springs has converted two motels into man camps for the hospitality industry. Aspen collects a real estate tax to subsidize local worker housing. Vail provides some employee housing, but recently suggested workers might ease the crunch by sharing bedrooms.
During ski season, a nephew-in-law commuted from Grand Junction to Breckenridge for a part-time job delivering goods to vacationers. (If he'd stayed there for his days off, he might have found a couch to rent for $200 a week.) Other service workers may live in their cars, sleep in shifts in moldy rentals, shiver in unheated basements or camp during the summer. In Crested Butte, 12 percent of the seasonal workforce summered in tents last year prompting a local biological research station to complain its research sites were being compromised.
Meanwhile, million-dollar homes sit vacant for long stretches of the year.
Most of the time, I blog about homelessness. This is pretty damn close.