Amy Roberts: Middle class crisis
February 19, 2014
When I moved to Park City from Nebraska many years ago, there were a few cultural differences I had to get used to: People with advanced, Ivy League degrees bussing tables; owning an entire wardrobe of clothes stuffed with feathers; my sudden longing for a conversation about current events that didn’t include the extended forecast.
But perhaps the biggest shock I was in for was the cost of living. I moved here when I was 27 and had owned a house since graduating from college. But I’d owned in the Midwest, where you can buy a custom-built, 5,000-square-foot mansion on a 10-acre lot for $200,000. My first house cost me $79,000. My second and third: $105,000 and $110,000 respectively. (Both of which were much larger and nicer than the house I have now.)
But I needed a place to live and didn’t want to rent. So even though it was almost triple what I’d ever spent on a home, and I couldn’t afford the payment without roommates, I sat in a mortgage broker’s office on Park Avenue and signed my life away.
Almost a dozen years and two serious remodels later, I still struggle with the monthly payment, it’s well over half of my income. I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the idea I’ll be house poor for another couple decades. But despite the financial stress, I know I’m lucky. Most people my age, who, like me, didn’t hit the DNA lottery and aren’t on the mom and dad lifetime scholarship plan, can’t afford to build a life here. Our middle class is going the way of the wooly mammoth. Extinction looks likely.
I live in Prospector, which used to be described as a "working-class neighborhood." Right now, the cheapest house on the market there is $996,000. Almost one-million-dollars for a house built on toxic soil.
Certainly, the capitalist in me in thrilled with this news. The equity in my house is my retirement plan. But I recognize it’s a huge problem for today’s working class who actually run this town, and didn’t have the opportunity to buy property a dozen years ago. You know, because they were still in middle school then.
In Saturday’s paper, there was an article about the resort housing market recovery, stating the median property price in the Park City area is $415,000. But that includes studio condos in Coalville, Kamas, Heber and other nearby areas. In Park City, the median home price is about $765,000.
But let’s say a determined ski instructor or server or maintenance worker or hot tub fixer or bartender finds his or her dream home on the outskirts of town for the median price of $415,000. At today’s rates, that mortgage payment is still over $2100/month. Add in taxes, insurance, electricity and all the other costs of owning a home and well, I’m no math whiz, but those tip jars need to be pretty full to make that work each month.
And that’s exactly why our middle class is disappearing. Even the "cheaper" areas aren’t affordable for most people who work in Park City.
I don’t know what the solution is. Nobody wants affordable housing in their backyard. Those who do own rightfully want to see the price of their real estate investment increase. And there’s the very valid argument that not everyone gets to live where they want. Otherwise, we’d all have second homes on a private island in the Caribbean.
But I also know our town can’t run without the worker bees. Those who plow the snow, refill beers, teach students, clean hotels and respond to 9-1-1 calls — they all need a place to call home. And it needs to be nearby, for a lot of reasons. For many, commuting isn’t sustainable. It also adds to our already heavily congested roads and pollution concerns. The city has tried offering a solution with subsidized bus transportation from Salt Lake City. But every time I pass one of those UTA busses, it’s nearly empty.
So for now, I’m caught in the paradox of wanting my home value to shoot skywards and wanting to stop attending going-away parties for my middle-class friends who just can’t afford to live here anymore.
Here’s hoping our new mayor and city council have a plan to keep them.
Amy Roberts is a longtime Park City resident, freelance writer and the proud owner of two ill-behaved rescue dogs, Boston and Stanley.