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Can affluence and affordable housing coexist in Colorado’s Rockies?

By Talmon Joseph Smith, The New York Times

In the recreation-fueled, amenity-rich economy of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain region, there are two peak seasons: summer, with its rafting, hiking, fishing and biking, and the cold months filled with skiing and other winter activities.

And then there is “mud season” — a liminal moment in spring when the alpine environment, slowly then suddenly, begins to thaw and only a trickle of tourists linger.

It’s a period that workers in other places might bemoan. But for much of the financially stretched workforce serving the assemblage of idyllic mountain towns across the state, a brief drop-off in business this spring was a respite.

During a slow shift on a 51-degree day at the Blue Stag Saloon — a nook on Main Street in the vacation hub of Breckenridge — Michelle Badger, a veteran server, half-joked with her co-workers that “this winter was hell.”

Crowds were larger than ever. And workers in the old Gold Rush town still enjoy the highs of the easy camaraderie and solid tips that come with service jobs in the area. But it was all sobered by the related headaches of soaring rents and acute understaffing, which left employees, managers and demanding customers feeling strained.

Working in mountain towns like Breckenridge, Silverthorne, Dillon and Frisco in Summit County would feel like a fairer bargain, Badger and her colleagues said, if they could better afford living close by.

Long commutes are common throughout America. But rent in hamlets among the wilderness on the outskirts of town are becoming burdensome too.

Job growth has severely outpaced the stock of shelter throughout Colorado. Median rent in Frisco — which a decade ago was considered a modest “bedroom community” for commuting employees — is about $4,000 a month, according to Zillow, and 90% above the national median. Homebuyers buttressed by family money abound.

The wage floor for most jobs in and around the county — from line cook to ski lift operator — is at least $18 an hour, or roughly $37,000 a year. Yet for those not lucky enough to land a rare slot in subsidized local employee housing, it’s not uncommon to live an hour or more away to attain a livable budget.

As that happens, the contingent displaced by the rich ripples outward down rural highway corridors and, in turn, displaces the farther-flung working poor.

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