Giving Thought: Housing underpins every aspect of our economy

Allison Alexander
Courtesy photo

There is nothing the housing crisis in our region does not touch.

As outlined in the Colorado Newsline, “Colorado’s mountain communities have long felt the affordable housing crisis.” Yet today, this issue underpins every aspect of our economy — whether you are a business owner,  non-profit, government entity, school, or just a resident visiting a local restaurant.

Without a stable workforce, our region will cease to exist as the special place we know. This is not hyperbolic, but an accurate statement about the real trajectory of our region without creative solutions and community investment.

While one can easily point fingers about who is to blame for our current situation, the reality is that the housing challenges have been on our radar for decades. Today, we are finally at the tipping point. 

Affordable housing has been an area most citizens have long hoped governments would handle. The most recent election in Aspen has certainly highlighted the complexity of relying on government to manage this issue and underscored the difficulties in implementing processes, not to mention agreeing upon solutions.

While housing has not traditionally been a popular place for philanthropic support or investment, it has the potential to change our region’s trajectory.

Gail Schwartz, president of Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley, said she has heard from countless non-profits in our region and fields daily calls looking for support for employee housing.

Regardless of whether a philanthropist cares about the arts, environment, or education, the impact of their support is dependent on having dedicated individuals doing work. Those individuals, and their families, need stable housing to sustain the quality of life and economic viability of our communities.

“All of the issues philanthropists and others are trying to address fundamentally come down to the need for a stable workforce,” said Schwartz. A stable workforce needs affordable housing.

Hospitals and schools are also impacted by the lack of housing. Without places for health-care professionals to live, quality health care becomes less accessible. Teacher turnover due to housing struggles ultimately impacts the level of education our children have access to because administrative resources must be redirected toward near constant recruitment and integration. Without continuity of care and instruction, quality of life and long-term outcomes suffer.

Schwartz shared the story of a 12-year veteran middle-school teacher putting plywood over a bathtub in their apartment to make a bed for a new baby as a result of not having housing with appropriate space available.

When teachers, non-profit employees, health-care workers, and others who are essential to the fabric of our community grow tired of navigating impossible housing situations, many give up after realizing that almost anywhere in the country could provide them with a better quality of life.

If our region cannot find solutions to support these essential members of our community, we will all feel the impacts. According to Schwartz, “The vulnerability of our workforce impacts everyone’s quality of life in the region and ultimately our economy.”

Habitat for Humanity has partnered with a number of organizations, including school districts, to build homes for employees over the years but is also wrestling with post-pandemic shifts impacting the way they serve. Currently, each affordable housing unit built by Habitat is done with a deficit of $150,000.

“We cannot continue to build homes one 2×4 at a time anymore,” Schwartz said, which is why Habitat is seeking to build a workforce training facility and modular home factory in Rifle to not only reduce costs, but also bring industry to a part of our region that needs jobs and economic growth to bolster its economy.

This creative solution is just one of many options being explored by stakeholders in our community to help shift the trajectory of the region.

“Visionary leadership is needed now because earmarking only 10% to 30% of new housing development for employee or affordable housing will not sustain our economy,” Schwartz said.

To understand how this crisis might be touching your life in unknown or unseen ways, she recommends asking those you come in contact with at restaurants or businesses about where they live, and most often, it is not in the community where they work.

When we understand how challenging our community members’ living situations are, we will then cultivate empathy and start to identify how we might be able to have an impact in shifting our collective trajectory with scalable solutions. 

Our region cannot afford to lose even more of its workforce — and not to mention what options we have for any new employees. It is our collective responsibility to sustain our community.

To learn more about what is being done and how you can get involved in the solution, join Habitat for Humanity on March 22 at the Aspen Meadows. The objective is to identify scalable housing development solutions to address the over 4,000 to 5,000 shortfall in adequate workforce housing. The summit will give community members an opportunity to understand what is at stake if each of us does not consider where our interests might intersect with an opportunity to take action. For more information, email

Allison Alexander is the director of strategic partnerships and communicationsfor the Aspen Community Foundation, which with the support of its donors, works with non-profits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.