Angeles Gutierrez made herself sick working around the clock without sleep to pay rent.
Justice Wilson misses out on her kids’ sports and homework, because she’s driving for DoorDash and Instacart and Postmates all evening after working all day as a medical assistant. And she still falls behind on rent. The idea of owning a home, for Wilson, is not a dream. It’s a taunt.
Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is about $2,000 in Colorado. The average price of a home in Colorado is now above $535,000. In five years, the average price of a 4-pound whole chicken has jumped to $8.50 from $6.34, a gallon of milk to $4 from $2.99. Child care is now $1,575 per month in Denver.
In Colorado’s growing economy, fast food employees and gas station attendants can start at $18 an hour. When thousands of Kaiser Permanente workers in Colorado settled a recent strike, they celebrated winning a 21% wage increase over the next four years.
Yet from 2010 to 2021, the census index of housing prices rose 122% in the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood metro area, far higher than the U.S. average of 61%.
The portion of Coloradans listing the high cost of living as one of their “extremely or very serious” problems rose to 88% in 2022 from 63% in 2020, before easing only slightly to 85% in 2023, according to the Colorado Health Foundation’s annual Pulse Poll.
All of it adds up to Coloradans barely scraping by, or at least making big changes to their daily habits to afford to make it here.
In a series called the “High Cost of Colorado” we are exploring the ways in which the price of life in this desirable state has ballooned — from housing to eating to a day on the ski slopes or a night on the town.
From meals to mortgages to mocktails to medicine, many Coloradans are staggering under the burden of daily living that jumped on a steep treadmill after the Great Recession in 2008, and hasn’t stopped since.
“Everything is just so expensive,” said Gutierrez, who worked as a cleaner during the day and stocked Safeway shelves at night to try to make $2,500 rent in Louisville. “It gets to a point where it’s so frustrating because if things keep going up, how am I going to do it? I am literally living month to month and paycheck to paycheck.”
The portion of Coloradans paying above the recommended 30% limit of income for housing has soared from a fraction to the majority. An eviction defense project that started during COVID with one activist attorney now needs 120 lawyers and housing navigators, and still can’t keep up in court.
Over the next few months, The Colorado Sun will tell the personal stories of the growing burden, through citizen voices, photos, charts and diaries. Though the pressures of higher costs come in as many varieties as there are residents, we are starting from a common set of hard facts:
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After the necessities of housing and food, there’s expensive gasoline and utilities, and, if there’s anything left in a household budget, increased costs to see a movie or go on a hike.
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Colorado’s outdoor lovers drive farther to avoid new trailhead fees and crowded slopes, then realize $4 gas is a thrill kill. But then so is a $50,000 electric car. Even the price of one ingredient — rice — is pushing the owner of a beloved Japanese bowl cafe to consider buying a $10,000 rice-dispensing machine so as to account for every gram. His regulars notice wages and rice costs pushing up the price of a teriyaki bowl, and come in less often.
We’re looking into all of it, with an eye on what Colorado can do to curb the problem.
We’ll explore what Colorado policymakers are doing to relieve this financial pressure, and the ways in which bills passed by the legislature are contributing to it.
The legislature has passed a slate of measures in recent years aimed at making housing more affordable, and housing advocates are still pushing policymakers to lift the prohibition on local governments enacting rent control.
A robust proposal from Gov. Jared Polis this year that was aimed at driving down housing prices died in the state Senate. The land-use measure would have prevented local governments from limiting how many unrelated people could live together in one home and banned Colorado’s largest cities from restricting what kind of housing can be built near transit stops.
Proposition HH, voted down in last week’s election, would have limited property tax increases in future years, but would have given state government the power to hold on to some of the money that’s now returned to taxpayers.
Other measures have added to the cost of living in Colorado.
In 2020, voters passed a $1.3 billion statewide paid-leave program for workers who want time off to have a baby or care for a sick loved one, even after opponents hammered it as a tax increase for employers and employees. The Democratic-backed law requires employers and employees to fund the insurance pool, each contributing 0.45% of an employee’s earnings.
And in 2021, the governor signed a transportation bill that raised $5 billion for road and transit projects for the next decade. Fees to fund the measure included a gasoline charge that grows to 8 cents per gallon, 27 cents on deliveries from Amazon and other services, and 30 cents on Uber and Lyft rides.
Angeles Gutierrez and three of her children — Isabella, 6, Galilea, 8, and Juan, 11 — return home from St. Louis Catholic School Friday. Gutierrez typically works four to eight shifts cleaning homes and commercial spaces for a flat fee. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Housing prices skyrocket, Denver ranked 8th in rental unaffordability compared with wages
Colorado’s housing challenges are so complex it can be daunting to list all the reasons, as the problem quickly appears insoluble. But economists still try.
Steven Byers of the Common Sense Institute compiles a “Colorado Misery Index” on housing and has calculated the statistics on mortgages showing how many more hours of work each month it takes to pay for a modest house. After the Great Recession that began in 2008, Byers said, “builders just quit building.”
As tens of thousands of new residents moved into Colorado, and builders stayed on the sidelines, the gap in the ratio of population to available housing units grew into the hundreds of thousands.
Land prices were a major problem for developers of both single family subdivisions and apartments, Byers said. “The price of land itself has gone up, so a builder who wants to build a $300,000 home, the margin is too low. So they build a million-dollar home.”
Whenever Byers runs numbers on housing shortages, he said, “almost always they’re building too much in the more expensive homes. And they’re getting away with it because people sold their expensive home in California, moved here and paid cash for a home.”
Eviction defense attorney Zach Neumann worked solo before the coronavirus pandemic, helping people who were on the brink of losing their homes. But as the housing and rental market in Colorado went from “bad to horrible” in 2020, he founded the Community Economic Defense Project — an organization that now includes about 120 lawyers, housing navigators and policy experts.
“That alone speaks to the magnitude of the moment,” he said.
“Rent has reached such a high level that most people are dedicating somewhere between 30% and 60% of their income to their rent,” Neumann said. “You can’t save money. You can’t save for your retirement. All of your money is going to your housing.”
“An unexpected medical bill. A flat tire and being towed. You get sick and you miss work. Suddenly you can’t pay rent. There is really no flex in the budget anymore. You are brought to the brink of homelessness.”
More than half of renters in several Colorado cities, including Denver, Boulder, Breckenridge, Greeley and Fort Collins, are spending more than half of their income on rent, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.
In Colorado, a person must work 40 hours a week at $32.13 per hour to comfortably afford a two-bedroom apartment. This makes it the eighth highest state in the country in terms of wages required to rent a home.
LEFT: Angeles Gutierrez drives after picking up three of her children from school Friday. RIGHT: Juan Macias, 11, helps out with household chores at home in Lafayette. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
ABOVE: Angeles Gutierrez drives after picking up three of her children from school Friday. BELOW: Juan Macias, 11, helps out with household chores at home in Lafayette. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Cost of living is harder on single-income families
Angeles Gutierrez became a single mom a year and a half ago, leaving her home and bringing her four children with her. She found a two-bedroom apartment in Louisville for $2,500 per month, and the only way she could make rent was to take a second job — in the middle of the night.
Gutierrez, 34, cleaned houses and offices during the day, then worked three overnight shifts each week stocking shelves at Safeway for $20 per hour. “Those three days I literally had no sleep,” she said. “I was just going crazy. I was starting to feel so, so sick. It was like a kind of anxiety. I was barely living.”
She quit the Safeway job, gave up the apartment and moved in with her mother, all six of them crowded in a tiny place.
Gutierrez was able to pick up more cleaning jobs, including at a Snooze restaurant and a dental office in Boulder. The hope was that she could qualify for a loan to buy a home, and the bank approved her to borrow $260,000. But it wasn’t enough to buy a house in an area where the median home price is $650,000. “What am I going to buy?” she asked.
Instead, she found an apartment cheaper than the first one, for $2,000 per month, in Lafayette. Gutierrez, a member of the 9to5 working women’s association, barely has enough money left for rent after buying gas for her old Hyundai Santa Fe and groceries to feed her kids, who are 6, 8, 11 and 13.
She asks her kids: “Do you guys want to eat or go have fun? It’s one or the other. Sometimes it’s not even one.
“I tell the kids I don’t know what we’re going to do if things keep going up. I can’t take them out to eat. Usually we like to go camping, but everything is money. There is nothing that you would do that doesn’t cost money.”
Angeles Gutierrez and daughter Galilea make plans for the weekend. Gutierrez, who says cancer runs in her family and has caused the deaths of multiple loved ones, prioritizes saving money for family trips and vacations. The family has visited Chicago, New York, Seattle and Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., over the past few years. “I save money and then I take them on trips. I have this mentality of me saving to live it now — not to save it for later, because I don’t even know when I’m going to die,” she said. “God will say what my future is like, so I will save my money.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
In Aurora, the fees at the mobile home park where Norma Almeida lives with her four children and her mother just keep coming.
There was the newly added $35 per month per parked car, and they have two.
And the $35 per month per pet. That’s $210 per month for her three dogs and three cats she took in because they were homeless.
Then the $35 for every piece of bulk trash that the mobile home park tacked on to their monthly notices.
Lot rent was $800 when Almeida moved in four years ago. Now, it’s $1,200. And that’s in addition to the mortgage Almeida pays for her home, which is $800 per month.
“That leaves me with zero dollars to pay for food or electricity,” said Almeida, who lives in the 500-home Foxridge Farm Mobile Home Park in Aurora.
Almeida, who is a receptionist in a dental office and takes on temporary office jobs on her days off, is not planning to turn up the heat this winter. “The house will be cold,” she said.
She doesn’t use her dryer, instead leaving her clothes out to dry, saving money on the electric bill.
There is no eating at restaurants, and Almeida, also a member of 9to5, is stretching her groceries into soups so her kids get enough dinner. It helps that the elementary school her two youngest attend, Harmony Ridge, started leaving plastic sacks of food on their door handle on Saturdays. She’s grateful, too, that neighbors drop off meals or groceries if they suspect Almeida is out of food, usually because her son lets it slip while he is playing with friends.
“This year we have fear,” she said. “A lot of people who live here don’t know what they will do.”
Designed by Danika Worthington.