The Area According to Kara

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It’s hard to find help when “affordable” housing starts at $258,000.

Kara is my business partner, a very sharp woman 20 years my junior whom I first met when I was teaching a mini-unit in journalism at the elementary school across from the newspaper office. She was in the fifth grade.

In the years since, Kara worked for me as a newspaper delivery girl, and when I left the newspaper and went to work at the bookstore, her mother was my manager. Her older sister became a member of my sci-fi social group, and then was one of my first summer hires at Pat’s Screen Printing.

Then at some point Kara came looking for a part-time job, which turned into a full-time job, which turned into the vaunted Woman in Charge position . . . now she is my business partner, and I still maintain that was the smartest business decision I’ve ever made.

Among her many other tasks, Kara serves as my social media eyes and ears. Lately, however, it seems like the entire world around us is intersecting near Kara.

For some reason — I’m pretty sure it’s not Kara herself — a bunch of her neighbors all listed their houses for sale recently, which has provided a neighbor-eye level on the insanity pervading our small corner of the world.

A few months after one of Kara’s friends tried to put an offer in on the house across the street, only to be told there were so many offers the waiting list was full, the deceased neighbor’s daughters listed the house with a real estate company, asking $399,000 for something that may be nice inside but looks like a two-bedroom shack on an ungroomed lot from the outside.

It went under contract within a week, selling to a new college professor and his girlfriend, according to Kara. Do not ask me to explain how a college professor plunks down that kind of money. I can promise you, Western doesn’t pay that well and has, over the years, lost out on many potential hires who take one look at the housing market here and decide they can’t afford us.

Another neighbor, half a block from Kara, put his house, with an apartment over the garage, on the market for $700,000. Before I could even remark on how crazy the homeowner was and how it would sit there unsold forever, it went under contract.

To a newly-divorced woman with previous addresses in Texas and Crested Butte, who not only bought this house but some acreage closer to Crested Butte where she plans to build a house. In the meantime, having just spent $700,000 on a regular Gunnison house, she immediately started a fairly significant remodel and has moved into the above-the-garage apartment.

The house next door to Kara could have sold before it even went on the market, since Kara’s in-laws were interested in buying it. Lynn and I had toured this house as a prospective purchase the last time it sold. It was already under contract, to the current owners, when we went to the open house, but while it looks quite nice from the outside there are many rooms joined by tiny half-steps and it was scratched off our list regardless of availability.

Nonetheless, Kara’s in-laws liked the location, and I believe they agreed to two price increases out from under under their purchase offers before they got tired of being yanked around. That house is now asking in the mid-400s and is at least momentarily still for sale.

Even before these sales and asking prices, Kara found her mortgage increasing due to a previous upswing in property taxes, which is feeding into something that seems like it might be a different sort of issue altogether but isn’t.

We have a customer who owns a business in Crested Butte, and when she came to pick up shirts last week, Kara reported that this normally chill, collected woman was frazzled and on the verge of tears.

While unemployment elsewhere sits well above 10 percent, Gunnison County appears to be experiencing the opposite problem: businesses can’t find enough help. It’s why one couple here in Gunnison decided to close their restaurants for most of August; it’s why the local brewery has shut down, presumably temporarily; and it’s why a Crested Butte business owner is working herself into the ground.

Some of this appears to be obviously pandemic-related, and the county and Western are trying to generate a pool of workers from the college student population. Some of this is still pandemic-related, although less obviously so: the Crested Butte schools fielded inquiries on behalf of over 60 students whose families were looking to move from other places to the perceived safety of this area.

These are not just any families: if you want to buy a house that looks like a two-bedroom shack in Crested Butte, you shell out well over one million dollars. So these are the “haves,” and money is no object to get what they want.

Sort of: they can buy housing, which can be sold by people willing to take their new cash and pay well above market down in Gunnison. But buying everything else — additional space in the already-crowded Crested Butte schools, a meal, services and goods from businesses — depends upon everyone else around here.

Particularly in businesses already trying to get back on their feet in the middle (we’re sadly nowhere near the end) of a pandemic, there is no endless supply of money to pay people the money they need to now be able to afford rent, as Kara has also learned.

Her sister is looking to move back to Gunnison from Denver, and Kara has inspected any number of sub-par rentals asking sur-par rates. Shannon will continue telecommuting to her current job, so she doesn’t have to worry about finding a job locally that will be able to cover the basics of rent and food. But she does have a budget that is cutting her out of many places she could have afforded the last time she lived here.

This is not a new problem in Colorado — most of the resort towns have been dealing with the have/have-not disparity for decades. We’ve been creeping up on it ourselves in our slow Gunnison way, accelerated first by the acquisition of the ski area by Vail Resorts Inc. and now by Pandemia.

Kara has a friend, a real estate appraiser, who a month or two ago predicted a slow-down in the real estate market. This summer, home mortgage delinquencies across the nation hit their highest level since the housing bubble burst and then re-formed without any awareness of the lesson that should have been learned. (Perhaps by college professors buying well above their salary level, although I know nothing about this man nor his circumstances.)

That bubble may not be of concern to the second-, third- and fourth-estate owners paying the obscene prices in Crested Butte that then allows those sellers to cash out at exorbitant rates in Gunnison that raises the rental rates and property taxes to the stress point where it becomes very, very difficult to live here.

You would think the law of supply and demand would cause local wages to rise, but this hasn’t worked in Aspen, Vail, Steamboat, Telluride or Crested Butte. And it certainly isn’t going to work during a pandemic when most of the business assistance has been used up, with very little prospect for agreement on Capitol Hill.

So here we are, on the front lines on the demise of the middle class. Kara, for the moment at least, is completely surrounded by her curbside view — and it’s not looking pretty.

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