Kelli Bohl, 36, believes she is living the American dream. Born, raised and working in the Roaring Fork Valley, she’s having a tough time paying her bills. She’s battled homelessness and reluctantly sent her two boys to live with her sister in Idaho so they could have a more stable life, all while working two or three jobs at a time, when she can get them.
This June she expects to get a temporary gig doing security at the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival, where pundits and politicos will gather to discuss the “Endangered American Dream” and examine the “widening gap between haves and have-nots and explores the range of policies and practices to restore economic mobility.” A pass to the festival, which runs June 28 through July 1, costs $3,100. It is sold out.
That this would be the topic of conversation in Aspen of all places would seem to be the height of irony. This is, after all, the community with one of the highest levels of income inequality in the nation, according to the U.S. Census. It’s where Bill Koch, brother of the more politically active Koch brothers, recently put his 28-bedroom, 43,000-square-foot ski retreat on the market for $100 million. It’s in Aspen and surrounding Pitkin Country where 50 billionaires own property. And it’s where the locals joke that you “either have three jobs or three houses.”
For those Aspen Institute attendees staying at iconic Aspen hotels such as the five-star Little Nell, or the historic Hotel Jerome, or who are simply sleeping at their own often empty mega-mansions, it will be those very “have-nots” who will be turning down their beds, serving the finest wines, and making sure the flowers outside look perky.
Many of these workers, like Bohl, live down valley, as far away as Parachute, 83 miles away. In April, Bohl was living in a double-wide trailer by the river in Glenwood Springs, with her boyfriend, who has been in and out of work, and his two small kids. The couple has to juggle the jobs they can get with the kids’ school schedule, figuring out for example what to do with them on Wednesdays, when the school day ends at 2:00 p.m, using a combination of after-school programs and friends to fill in the gaps.
In the families spread among the towns along the river — Basalt, Carbondale, New Castle, Rifle, Parachute — 40 percent of the parents commute more than an hour to work, according to the Aspen Community Foundation. Kids are often left home to fend for themselves after school while parents make the long trek from home to work and back again. Many of these workers are from Mexico or Central America, and their kids don’t speak English well, or at all, and need extra help to catch up in school.
Aspen is a poster-town for changes that have been happening across the country in recent decades, as the top one percent of the one percent has grabbed the greatest share of wealth. Economic inequality is greater now in the nation than it has been at any time in the last century. And studies show that kids born into poor families stay poor. Nearly half the kids born in the lowest fifth of households by income stay there when they grow up. For the rich kids, the trend is exactly opposite. Those who are born wealthy tend to stay wealthy, according to data analyzed by the Pew Charitable Trusts. This inequality exists in the big cities, in New York City, Los Angeles, no question. But because Aspen is so small, and so unbelievably wealthy, these contrasts stand out in harsh relief, as if exposed by the strong Colorado sun.
The good old days
It wasn’t always like this.
Dave, 54, who prefers not to give his name for reasons of privacy, grew up in the town of Aspen. He moved to town in the late 1960s with his mom and his sister. He says he was the only Mexican in his public school class.
At that time, Aspen was undergoing the first big population surge since the silver rush; the town’s residency doubled between 1960 and 1970. The ski industry, established after World War II, when the 10th Mountain Division practiced on its slopes, was attracting people to the town perched between Ajax Mountain and the Roaring Fork River. The attraction is easy to understand. While the planet boasts many spectacular spots, Aspen is one of its gems. And since it’s just a four-hour drive from Denver – though faster by private jet – it’s just far away enough from the big city to feel like a retreat.
Dave wears work clothes: jeans, grubby boots, a dark shirt. He’s a mechanic who has been picking up work in North Dakota and the polar regions. When he’s in town, he helps out friends with catering businesses as a bartender at high-end parties. He lives with his 80-year-old mother in a trailer home in Basalt, where two-out-of-three residents commute nearly 20 miles to work in Aspen.
At the Basalt Mountain Family Health Center, 85 percent of patients have incomes of $23,500 or less, or 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Dave sits in a room there, talking about the way Aspen used to be and the way it is now.
“The good old days,” he says, “you could hang out and talk with a millionaire. And now the billionaires, they don’t even want you standing by their car….it’s quite concerning, because back in the…70s, 80s, and 90s, you wouldn’t know if it was a ranch-hand sitting next to you or a guy who had millions of dollars.”
That was back when Jack Nicholson, Chevy Chase, John Wayne, Lee Marvin and, of course, the redoubtable Hunter S. Thompson either made their homes in the town or were frequent visitors. This was before John Denver’s simple ode “Rocky Mountain High” was replaced by a sleek sign for Silverpeak, a marijuana store: “Move over Merlot. Cannabis has arrived!” Silverpeak’s customers may still wear blue jeans, like John Denver did, but they could have purchased them around the corner at Dolce & Gabanna, Pradia, Gucci or Dior.
What were the forces that transformed Aspen? For Mick Ireland, former Aspen mayor, demonstrating the underlying trends through Census data has become an obsession.
Like many folks in Aspen, Ireland arrived in the 1960s. He worked as a dishwasher, bus driver, waiter, journalist, graphic designer and a host of other jobs. Later he earned a law degree and set up a tax business in town, before running for mayor and serving from 2007 through 2013.
Powerpoint presentations at the ready, Ireland makes charts that show how tax breaks passed by Congress in the 1980s created a climate that encouraged billionaires to park money in Aspen.This coincided with the concentration of wealth in the upper 1 percent of the 1 percent of the population nationwide.
“That began to transform Aspen in a radical way,” he says.”Before, you had residential real estate. A real town — it wasn’t ersatz like Vail. There were a lot of homes. People lived in those homes and others owned them as second homes that they rented… for $400 a month.”
It was a symbiotic relationship between those with money and those without. Things were more casual than in the big cities. After all, everyone’s equal skiing down double-black diamonds or up fourteeners. To the mountains, wealth has no bearing.
But after the 1980s tax-code changes, people started to buy homes not as much for the mountain destination but as a place to put extra cash they didn’t know what to do with – a lot of it. “It didn’t make any sense to rent it out… to have three or four hippies knocking over the Ming vase. It wasn’t worth the hassle or the risk.”
The result, says Ireland, is that certain areas of town have emptied out; people live in them only a few weeks out of the year. And as this happened, it created a distorted economy. It’s not just housing prices that are high; so are costs for all sorts of goods and services, from groceries to home repair. The closest big-box stores are down valley in Glenwood Springs, which hosts a Target and a Walmart. Workers move down valley to where living is, if still expensive, more affordable.
Ireland ran for City Council this spring on a platform supporting Referendum One. The measure requires voters have the final say on any deals made with developers where they get certain sorts of special treatment. Without voter approval, developers no longer get a break on requirements to provide affordable housing or buildings high enough to interfere with the view.
The measure passed by 53 percent. Tuesday, Ireland lost the election in a run-off with another candidate who also supported Referendum One, Bert Myrin.
Both Ireland and Myrin are part of a vocal and active group of Aspenites who have repeatedly challenged developments that they believe would further degrade the character of Aspen.
But they are still on the inside. For Bohl, Aspen is a place she sometimes works but where she couldn’t dream of living.
Her finances are so tight that she wasn’t sure where she’d get the money to buy presents for her boyfriend’s kids last Christmas. Help came her way through a $250 gift card, an anonymous donation from a teacher recruited by Betty Lucas, 26, who manages a family support program at Sopris Elementary School in Glenwood Springs, where Bohl’s boyfriend’s kids are students.
Bohl can’t even hope to live in any one place for long. She just recently moved for the fourth time in five years, from Glenwood Springs to New Castle. The owner of the double-wide trailer she and her boyfriend had been renting had decided to take advantage of rising real estate prices and sell it. Bohl couldn’t possibly afford the $419,000 asking price.
But she doesn’t begrudge the billionaires.
“They have the same problems we have,” she says. “They are trying to make their lives better for their families.”
Photo credit: Darin House, Creative Commons, Flickr.