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As Outdoor Recreation Drives Western Economies, It's Also Driving Up The Rent

Park City, Utah.
Wayne Hsieh
Park City, Utah.

Everyone knows that living in the Rockies can get expensive. Headwaters Economics wanted to know why. The non-profit published new research this week that examines what causes housing to become so expensive in places where outdoor recreation is a main economic driver.

The researchers say the answer is in some ways predictable: More people are moving to outdoorsy towns, and when housing supply doesn't keep pace, that drives up the cost of renting and buying. But Megan Lawson said there's something else. 

"Even after you account for all the economic factors that we can measure, recreation communities still charge a premium," said Lawson, an economist with the Bozeman-based organization. "It still costs more to live in those places, because they have a quality of life, because they have, in some cases, this social cache."

In that sense, unaffordable housing is actually a "symptom of success," she said – scenic, outdoorsy towns are desirable. "In a lot of these places, they're also experiencing rapid growth in earnings. So, wages are increasing in a lot of these places and people are moving to these communities, which has its trade offs, but it also means that there's folks moving to town to support local businesses, keep schools open."

It all translates to many residents funneling big chunks of their wages to pay their rent or mortgage – in some places more than half. 

As an interactive map that accompanies the research shows, in Wasatch County, Utah, and Park County, Colorado, for example, the average worker spends almost half of their wages on rent. In Carbon County, Montana, almost two-thirds of residents' wages go to mortgages. 

Such unaffordable housing, according to the study, "has created a baseline of financial hardship that makes residents less able to weather" crises like natural disasters, or pandemics. 

"It's really important to anticipate these challenges and … recognize that unaffordable housing is going to come along with a lot of typical measures of economic success," said Lawson.

Especially right now, as layoffs – and people fleeing to the hills – are both expected to sharpen those inequalities.

"We're starting to see data on this," she says. "People are looking to a lot of these mountain towns – a lot of the less-densely populated, the rural Mountain West – as a place with less exposure, and so we're already seeing an uptick in long-term Airbnb rentals and people moving to these communities. So I think that's one way in which the pandemic is going to exacerbate this."

Lawson says there are a number of ways towns are trying to counter the unaffordability problem – like setting minimum wage standards, requiring employers to provide housing for their employees, or building homes on land owned by the community or by non-profits.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Copyright 2020 KUNC

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.
Rae Ellen Bichell
I cover the Rocky Mountain West, with a focus on land and water management, growth in the expanding west, issues facing the rural west, and western culture and heritage. I joined KUNC in January 2018 as part of a new regional collaboration between stations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. Please send along your thoughts/ideas/questions!
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