In Pueblo, Colo., Rising Housing Prices Without Wages To Match
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
I'm Ari Shapiro in Pueblo, Colo., as part of NPR's election year project Where Voters Are. From now through Election Day, we'll be talking to voters about where they are on the candidates and on the issues. Colorado holds its primary next Tuesday. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports that one of the biggest issues here is not one you're hearing the presidential candidates talk much about.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: When Alexis Ellis and her partner decided they were ready to leave frigid Wisconsin, they wanted to find a place that was sunny and still affordable. Leaning toward Colorado, they quickly found that Denver and Colorado Springs were too big, and the housing prices were out of reach.
ALEXIS ELLIS: We decided that Pueblo, Colo., was the place we wanted to move to.
SIEGLER: So in 2017, they bought a three-bedroom, 1 1/2 bath fixer-upper in Pueblo's historic Northside neighborhood. It cost 125,000.
ELLIS: A good reason for that was the affordability of the community and that we would be able to have a similar lifestyle when we moved here.
SIEGLER: But things here on Court Street have changed dramatically in just three years. Ellis points to her next-door neighbor. When she first moved in, this house was abandoned with squatters. Then it was condemned and sold at auction.
ELLIS: Long story short, fast forward to this past summer in 2019, and the house sold for $216,000.
SIEGLER: That's almost double what Ellis paid for her house in what was once thought to be one of Colorado's last affordable cities.
ELLIS: I make a pretty decent living. You know, I'm middle-class. You know, if it were today, I wouldn't be able to afford to move here.
SIEGLER: I report from a lot of off-the-beaten-path towns like this. And when I'll ask folks what the biggest issues are facing them, there's one consistent thing I hear all the time. It's that people can't afford housing. Every month in Pueblo, housing prices continue to rise much faster than wages.
ASHLEIGH WINANS: But one of the things that really bothers me is constantly, when I see candidates - is where's their stance on housing? And nobody really has any stance on housing, or although they feel it's important, they have these other priorities.
SIEGLER: Ashleigh Winans works in affordable housing in Pueblo. She runs the housing and poverty nonprofit NeighborWorks of Southern Colorado. Winans says most of the presidential candidates' plans on housing are vague, and they don't bring them up much in stump speeches or debates.
WINANS: If I was solely looking at housing, there's not a single candidate on any side of the aisle that I would support because there's nothing being discussed on how to make real change for people around affordable housing.
SIEGLER: Affordability is a big issue in Pueblo. About half of all residents are considered lower-income by federal standards.
People like Anne Cabello live right on the margins, always worried about losing their housing.
ANNE CABELLO: You know, and evicted because a lot of the landlords won't work with you, like, if you had a bad luck or something happen, you know, and you had to use your money for an emergency while you don't pay your rent. Bye.
SIEGLER: Cabello found a job working at the city's main homeless shelter, which only recently reopened. She's recovering from addiction and has been in and out of homelessness herself. She feels lucky to have gotten into a recovery program that includes subsidized housing. Cabello says there's no way she or most people in her world could rent out on the open market.
CABELLO: They want, like, three sets of income, plus enough to cover your rent, your first month's rent and deposit - last month's rent. You mean - and it's like, that's ridiculous. How - who could even do that?
SIEGLER: The vacancy rate in Pueblo's rental market is about 2%. The city has struggled with a lot of things since the major steel mill operation shut down in the 1980s. President Trump narrowly won this traditionally union Democrat stronghold in 2016. Longtime locals remember fondly a time when you didn't have to work multiple jobs to afford rent or even buy.
Skeeter Medina first moved to the area in 1969 and is worried today watching his son struggle to make rent.
SKEETER MEDINA: Prices have gone up. You go to the grocery store - his thing are double what it used to be 10 years ago. So here you've got a young couple wanting to come in here and get married and have a family while they're struggling.
SIEGLER: Medina, who's retired, is having lunch and a beer near the old steel mill at Gus' Tavern. It opened right when Prohibition ended in 1933. Memorabilia of Old Pueblo adorns the walls. But Medina is also optimistic about the future. Overall, the economy is good, he says. And that means the private sector will fix the housing issue.
MEDINA: And I don't like talking politics, but we've got a man in office right now who's trying to make it right. His hands are tied. They're trying to tie his hands.
SIEGLER: Politics aside, there's general agreement that Pueblo needs to build more and rehab some of its existing housing stock. But whether the federal government should get back in the business of building low-income housing or give more tax breaks to encourage developers to build it is up for debate. Housing is complicated. Fixing it could take years. And Ashleigh Winans at NeighborWorks figures that's why we're not hearing presidential candidates talk much about it, which frustrates her to no end.
WINANS: Once you fix housing, almost everything else can be fixed or addressed. And yet housing isn't at the forefront of any conversation that I've heard.
SIEGLER: Even though the candidates may not be saying much about it, housing will be a big issue facing voters in Pueblo, Colo., on Super Tuesday.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Pueblo.
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