Affording to buy in: The challenge of retaining talent in desirable communities

The following is a reprint  – with permission – of a guest column that Jillian Sutherland of the Sonoran Institute wrote for the Aspen Daily News.  This issue is truly a “sticky wicket.”   The idea that one must live and work in the same community to have a true commitment to the community may be very valid.   How to get there is another story.    Is inclusionary zoning the answer?  How about incentives?  There are plenty of tools in the toolkit, but which ones work the best and do not overburden one entity? I would be very interested in hearing your ideas. Please leave us a comment.  Thanks!  Kathy Trauger


Affording to buy in: The challenge of retaining talent in desirable communities

 Jillian Sutherland

Special to the Aspen Daily News

A strong local economy needs strong business. Strong business needs a skilled workforce. That’s why a current hot topic in the economic development world is the importance of attracting talent for sustained economic success. For any community, attracting talent requires amenities, cultural identity, and placemaking, all of which are critical components of communities where people want to live.

But what happens when your community is pretty good at all of the above, but has become so desirable that very few can afford to live there? Call it what you want: gentrification, progress, displacement or affluence — the reality is, when a place transforms into something really special, real estate prices begin to soar beyond the reach of many.

I recently had a conversation with Don Ensign, one of the founders of Design Workshop, a landscape architecture and urban design firm that got its start in Aspen. He said one of the main challenges he faced as a business owner was retaining talent once his employees built up a few years of experience with his firm. Here’s what he had to say:

“The perilous economic upshot of disappearing affordable housing is the impact on public, non-profit and low-wage employee retention, key ingredients for a healthy local economy. Absent proximate affordable housing, employees are obliged to go ever greater distance seeking affordability. These folks sacrifice family life quality, incur additional commuting expense and endure unproductive commuting hours — the unhappy predicament resulting in high worker turn-over.”

To recruit and retain businesses (and the talented individuals that will make that that business grow) a community has to be special, but it has to be attainable. Plain and simple: If a person cannot afford to “buy-in” to the community where they work, they’re not going to have much commitment to that community.

That leads to Ensign’s next point: Recruiting and training new people is enormously expensive,” he said. “In addition, the new employees are the least experienced and most stressed, inevitably delivering less than optimum performance.”

This is a special concern for communities like Aspen, and others here in the Intermountain West, not only because of the high costs affiliated with being a resort community, but also because of the geographic restrictions caused by the mountainous surroundings. This makes new residential development difficult or impossible, which further drives up the cost of the existing housing stock.

If home ownership is an impossible expense for an average worker in a given community, getting them to stick around may prove to be a challenge and can negatively affect that community’s workforce. High transportation costs only add to this burden.

My point is that if your community is in the process of developing an economic development plan, affordability is a critical consideration — albeit a complicated one. Along with affordable housing, transportation alternatives are very important. Even if people can’t live in downtown Aspen, they need to be able to get to and from their jobs there with ease, and without great expense.

That means reducing commuting costs and providing a diverse housing stock are two cornerstone components of a community’s economic development strategy. A community should think beyond recruitment, and create a place that allows young professionals the opportunity to plant roots in town and make a commitment and grow there. Businesses — and community — will benefit greatly.

Jillian Sutherland is a project manager with the Glenwood Springs-based Sonoran Institute, a non-profit organization that seeks to inspire and enable community decisions that respect the land and people of western North America.