My Colorado: What One Fort Collins Home's 15-Year Tale Tells Us About Housing Affordability
I once saw a cartoon in The New Yorker that said, “I love everything about the neighborhood except the people who can afford to live here.”
Over the last few decades, I've had the privilege of calling Northern Colorado my home. I'm very proud of my adopted state. But at the same time, I worry about some of the change I'm seeing. There's a joke about mountain towns today, whether it be Telluride, Steamboat, Aspen or Jackson, Wyoming — when it becomes popular enough, the billionaires push the millionaires out.
Historically, many of these towns had fallen on hard times. Often the mining dried up, but they were in beautiful, picturesque places. At some point, hippies, ski bums and artists discovered the place and started moving there. Then the word got out about how cool these places were and the competitive buying scramble was on. Eventually, the key to entrance was simple: Can you afford it or not? I'm fond of saying this is actually the last legal form of discrimination, and I fear that Colorado has now become the mountain town for the entire country.
This is a glimpse of one house over the last 15 years or so and what it tells us about the housing affordability of Fort Collins, my city, for almost 30 years. The house is located on a nice tree-lined street, the kind that makes you want to walk around and wave to your neighbors as they're sitting on their front porches. And when I got married, like most people, I wasn't expecting it to end in divorce. I also wasn't expecting that job security could sometimes be as dicey as marital security.
So in 2007, I was still married, but I was in a particularly rough stretch, bad enough to leave me to pay attention to houses that were for sale in case I actually needed one for myself. I found a great one for sale and it was $175,000. This was actually something I could swing if it came to that. Sure, it was a little rough around the edges, but I was all about the sweat equity and I could live in it while I was fixing it up. It was small by today's standards, but it had an old house charm, or what I like to call "soul."
Well, a few counselors and a few years later, my marriage ended in 2011. Of course, that house had sold. But by 2013, I could have bought it for $272,000 — 155% more. Except I could no longer afford it as a single person. That was just out of my price range. Then in 2014, the house was again for sale, having been bought this time by an investor as a flip. Now the selling price was $619,000. That's a 354% increase.
Six years later, in 2020, the house sold again for $725,000. 414% in 13 years. Although not currently on the market, its estimated value is $784,000 — basically a 450% increase since that little house first caught my eye. You could say, "Yeah, but that's only one house." But if you do a little research, you'll find the story is becoming more and more common.
For six years, I worked with the city on housing affordability, so I can attest it's a very complicated subject. There's market forces, zoning, banks, buyers and entire industries involved. The land itself with permitting and development fees can easily reach a quarter million dollars per house. This is money spent before you even get to hammer a nail into the first board. Understanding this, however, doesn't keep me from worrying about homeownership becoming attainable for fewer and fewer people, and out of reach for people we now call essential workers.
My peers aren't making four times what they were a decade ago. Honestly, most of my friends bought their houses long ago and couldn't afford to buy their houses today. Fort Collins' current children are likely to be the first generation who grew up here just a bit too late to buy a house in their adulthood. Maybe they'll come visit, ride the trolley and get an ice cream cone with the grandparents, telling their own kids about when they grew up here. But then they'll return to wherever it was they could afford to buy a house.
Regarding housing prices, a colleague from my time working on housing affordability matter-of-factly once said, "Greeley is going to become Fort Collins. Fort Collins will become Boulder. And Boulder will become San Francisco."
This essay comes to us from Curt Lyons, who lives and works in Fort Collins, Colorado.
For the My Colorado essay collection, KUNC and Colorado Edition want to create a space to hear from each other and to share voices, thoughts and opinions on our Colorado experience. These short audio essays will focus on a specific topic. We welcome all Coloradans to submit their essays — whether you've lived here your whole life, or just moved to the state a week ago.