Workers Priced out of FoCo Market, Traffic Gridlock Intensifies

(COLORADOAN) - An old adage tells prospective homeowners to drive until they can buy. So every day, that’s what Kate Vardiman does, driving from her home outside Ault to her job in Fort Collins.

Three years ago, when she first started thinking about buying a home, Vardiman lived in a two-bedroom rental in north Fort Collins, paying $900 a month. When she started house hunting in city limits, she hoped for something similar: A place with a yard and a 15-minute commute to her job.

But, in a story familiar to many people who have looked to settle in Fort Collins, she found herself outbid on home after home. She waited a few years and started looking again, quickly realizing if she wanted to stay in Fort Collins, she'd likely end up in a condo, and that wasn't the home she wanted.

"I don't see the point in spending $200,000, $250,000 to get no yard and have to pay a HOA," she said.

The impact of skyrocketing housing prices in Fort Collins has created another emerging problem: traffic.

While high home prices are forcing more people to move to outlying communities, their jobs aren't moving with them. That means more commuters are racking up more miles, which in turn creates increased congestion on Interstate 25, state highways and Fort Collins streets.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, two-thirds of working adults in Northern Colorado commuted to another city or town to get to work in 2014, the last year for which data is available, creating wear and tear on humans as well as highways.

In Fort Collins, where the median home price is $386,912, about half of the people who are employed commute out of the city to work, which equates roughly to what Hughes Stadium holds. Ten miles away in Wellington, where the median home price is $311,200, 93 percent of those employed commute out of town to work.

Pick your poison

The dilemma between driving until you can buy a house or downsizing your idea of home ownership to a condo or townhome in Fort Collins isn't going away soon.

"The population in the northern Front Range region is expected to double by 2040,'' said Terri Blackmore, executive director of Northern Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization. "If housing doesn’t also double, those people will be driving from farther away.”

New home construction isn't keeping pace with population growth, a situation that has further increased existing home values and forced more people to look outside cities like Fort Collins and Windsor, which has a median home price of $376,405, for housing options.

Last year, new home construction in some parts of the region leveled off, at least in part because there were so few affordable and available building lots. In Windsor, however, new home construction boomed. The town issued 690 new single-family building permits last year, exceeding the number of permits issued by the much larger cities of Fort Collins (522) and Loveland (390).

Vardiman considered all this when she was looking for her home — her search took her to Wellington, Loveland, Severance and Timnath — before she eventually settled on a small house on 2 acres just outside of Ault, with its views of the snow-capped mountains and the Ault landfill.

She wanted a yard for her dog to roam and a place without a homeowners association that could tell her what to do with her yard or what color to paint her house.

And she definitely didn't want her commute to involve I-25.

"I basically avoid I-25 like it's the plague," she said.

On her 15-mile commute to work in Fort Collins, Vardiman pulls out of a long gravel driveway, underneath the high-voltage power lines strung over the dirt road where she lives, and then heads west rolling past miles of idyllic farmland dotted with horse stables.

At I-25, the country feel of Colorado Highway 14 turns into a busy Mulberry Street in the city. For now, the commute isn't so bad, Vardiman said, and it doesn't take her much longer than she spent in the car when she had to take College Avenue to get to work.

Kate Vardiman commutes from her home in Ault to her
Kate Vardiman commutes from her home in Ault to her job in Fort Collins on Thursday, April 20, 2017. (Photo: Valerie Mosley/The Coloradoan

"I call people a lot," she said. "It's my talking time. Bluetooth has helped my life out significantly. ... You kind of just adjust and get used to it."

 She's seen new houses spring up around Ault and suspects eventually the congestion on Colorado 14 will make her commute less than idyllic. That change in scenery is already playing out several miles south of Colorado 14, where Harmony Road east of I-25 has seen a sharp rise in congestion due to new neighborhoods springing up along the mostly two-lane road as it heads past the growing communities of Timnath, Windsor and Severance. And many more houses are planned for the area.
For Ryan Unangst, a part-time music teacher at Shepardson Elementary School in Fort Collins, the booming housing prices in Fort Collins have meant he and his wife live in a rental in Timnath.
Unangst is able to avoid much of the major congestion when he drives in on Harmony Road because he works odd hours, staying later than the usual rush hour traffic jam to teach private music lessons. Still, he and his wife wish they could live in Fort Collins.

“All our friends, everyone we want to hang out with is in Fort Collins,” he said. “We don’t want to live out in Greeley (where the median home price is about $117,000 less than Fort Collins), however, Fort Collins isn’t particularly affordable.”

They could afford a house in Fort Collins that went for up to $280,000, which is a sliver of the market in the city, he said. Unangst teaches private drum lessons, so he can’t live in a home with shared walls, which rules out options like townhomes.

“If we were to purchase, it would probably be in Wellington, Windsor, Severance,” he said. “One of those places that’s close enough where we can still be a part of Fort Collins, but actually afford it.”

Casey Peitz and her husband, both teachers in the Poudre School District, decided to look for a home last year. They faced a similar dilemma. To stay within their approximately $250,000 budget, they had to decide whether to leave Fort Collins and commute in, or buy a house that wasn't the small single-family home they imagined.

Even when they would bid $10,000 or $15,000 above the asking price, they were outbid by one of the other 20 or so offers on the house.

"We were writing cover letters, saying we're teachers in town who want to live in the community," she said.

After about 10 fruitless offers, their real estate agent told them if they wanted a house they would likely need to leave the city. If they wanted to stay in Fort Collins, they would need to shift their focus to a condo. They eventually found a two-bedroom, 1 ½-bathroom condo reasonably close to work for $175,000.

"I feel like so much of school is building a community," she said. "And I just think it's a shame that we might be getting to a point where we might have to have people commute in from outside the community. I think it could have a negative impact.''

The new normal

Although many people used to balk at the idea of sinking more than 30 percent of their income into housing, Blackmore said that is becoming more of a norm on the northern Front Range. The only way to possibly avoid that for a growing number of people is to distance themselves from their employment location.

But while they are saving on a mortgage payment by heading to bedroom communities, they, and all Northern Colorado residents, are paying for it in transportation costs to vehicles and infrastructure.

“I think they’re very surprised with the amount of congestion they’re facing because people rarely go look at houses during the peak hours,” Blackmore said. “They go on Saturday or Sunday when traffic is not terrible. Then on Monday morning after they move, they’re shocked at traffic.”

In Fort Collins, about half of working adults who called the city home commuted to work outside of the city, according to the Census Bureau. In most Northern Colorado communities, that number is much higher. In Loveland, about 74 percent of employed residents work outside city limits. In Windsor it's 92 percent, in Wellington and Johnstown it's 93 percent and Severance 98 percent.

And the traffic jams don't stop once people get off the highway. As the number of people driving to work spikes, so does the time you're likely to sit in traffic once you get into Fort Collins, one of the major cities that attracts commuters. The result is a city where the daytime population swells well beyond its nearly 160,000 residents.

"People who need to come to Fort Collins don't leave their car at the I-25 ramp," Blackmore said. "They have to use local streets and roads to get to their final destination. The increase in I-25 traffic translates to an increase on local roads as well."

In recent years, the I-25 on- and off-ramps from Wellington to Windsor have backed up so much during rush hours that vehicles create a parking lot in a lane of the interstate. That has resulted in an increase number of rear-end crashes. It also prompted the Colorado Department of Transportation to install traffic signals at the on- and off-ramps at Colorado Highway 392 (Windsor exit) and on-ramp of Harmony Road. The stop lights, which allow for staggered entry onto the interstate, go live Monday.

When CDOT studied traffic patterns on I-25 in 2014, only those two roads qualified for the new traffic signals. Now, every on-ramp in the Fort Collins area has enough vehicles to qualify.

“Obviously, we do know people are driving farther distances to get to work,” CDOT spokesman Jared Fiel said. “It’s fairly clear that people want to live where they want to live, and they’ll work wherever they have to. It has, in a sense, shrunk the way we look at the world.”

Continue reading the full story on The Coloradoan.


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