June 2021
No Place to Lay My Head
Acute housing shortage pinches local workforce, families

The Academy Award-winning movie Nomadland depicts a woman who loses everything in the recession of 2008, including her company-owned home and teaching job. To adapt, she lives in a van and wanders the country taking seasonal jobs.

Debra Owen greets a visitor to her home in Prescott, a 21-foot fifth-wheel travel trailer.

While Debra Owen, 70, recently moved into fifth-wheel trailer when she was unable to find an affordable apartment in Prescott, her home for 11 years, she has no plans to travel. She wants to stay put in her Chino Valley RV park.

“I’m invested emotionally and creatively here,” said Owen, an artist who has many connections in the Prescott arts scene. “The next time I travel, they’re hauling me out on a stretcher.”

Owen is just one example of hundreds of people who’ve suddenly found they’ve been priced out of the rental-housing market after living in the area for years — some since birth. It’s a trend that reflects increased demand for houses and a dearth of rentals, say local realtors. The sale of longtime rental houses, the elimination of many trailer parks and increased demand in general are contributing to a housing shortage for lower- and middle-class people.

High demand, low supply

The Prescott Area Association of Realtors reports that the average home price in the area rose from $379,000 in 2020 to $437,000 in April 2021; apartment rents have gone up too. The inventory is incredibly low, and at this writing one-bedroom apartments are listed from $825 to $1,525 per month.

Most of the lower rents are for rooms in shared homes. In Prescott Valley the “absorption rate,” or average time before a house sells, is less than a month.

Paul Aslanian, director of business development for Better Homes and Gardens Bloomtree Realty Group, calls it a “housing crisis” the likes of which he hadn’t seen in his 40 years in real estate. He attributes it to several factors he’s gleaned from reports by the National Association of Realtors, the National Association of Home Builders and economists.

“First there’s the ‘Covid Shift,’ because many people realized during the pandemic that they needed a different house,” Aslanian said. “People living in cities decided they needed a yard, from working at home they needed a home office, and the kids needed a place to do their homework.”Many people also realized they wanted to live close to their families — 16.8% of Americans plan to move and buy a home in the next year.

A Millennial Boom is the second factor. “The leading edge are turning 40 this year,” Aslanian said. “During the Great Recession, a lot of Millennials went back home, and that created pent-up demand.”

The third factor was the Great Recession and the shortage of houses due to suspension of construction for several years. “We would need four times the number of houses for sale to meet buyer demand,” Aslanian said.

As a result, in spite of years of talk about creating workforce housing, much of what’s being built in the Prescott area is out of reach financially for young families seeking starter homes. The housing market is so tight in Yavapai County that even middle-class people are turning down jobs and moving elsewhere to find better opportunities. Here are a few examples:

  • An educator with four children, recruited by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, turned down a job because he couldn’t find a house he could afford that would accommodate his family.
  • The 33-year-old daughter of a local resident is still living with her mother with her five-year-old because she can’t afford a two-bedroom rental despite making a better-than-minimum-wage salary. She also has a 50-pound dog, which puts her at the bottom of most rental lists.
  • A realtor who wanted to downsize sold her large house in Skull Valley, but is still trying to find something in Prescott to buy.
  • A teacher can’t afford a house anywhere in the area because her income is too low.
  • Renters in the Verde Valley are getting food boxes from Manzanita Outreach because their rents are so high they can’t afford to buy food. 
  • Would-be home buyers who want to settle in Prescott have given up because they can’t afford anything. Instead, they’ve moved elsewhere, say several realtors.

Young people hit hardest

High-school and college graduates have had the hardest time finding housing in Yavapai County, according to a March 2020 report by Lattice Publishing. Among small US metropolitan areas, Yavapai County ranks 14th for having the most adults between 25 and 34 living with their parents. But even if they make enough to pay the rent, those who have any kind of disadvantage in terms of their rental record or life history are likely to be searching for a long time.

Aurora Miller, 24, has been looking for housing for herself and her four children for several months. She had a drug problem, but has been clean for eleven months and works at a restaurant. Still, trying to find a place to live for her whole family has been daunting. She only earns minimum wage.

“Either I’m on a waiting list or they don’t accept me,” said Miller, who currently lives in a sober house. Her ex-husband was recently released from prison, so he can’t help financially until he’s on his feet. She said that even though she is determined to find a place, she’s only making enough to pay the rent — and she’s spending half of that on the application process.

“It costs $40 to $100 for an application,” Miller said. “Catholic Charities is willing to help with the moving costs, but they aren’t willing to help with the applications.” Her boyfriend, the father of the youngest child, said he would help out, but first they must find a place in the Quad Cities. Miller must stay local because she’s on probation for a drug offense. She sees her children three days a week.

Hiring and retention challenges

According to several officials, the City of Prescott and towns of Prescott Valley and Chino Valley are all having a tough time attracting and retaining employees to work in police and fire departments, as well as in government support positions, because of the cost of housing.

John Heiney, Prescott’s Community Outreach Director for Economic Development, said the lack of workforce housing is a topic of discussion throughout the region. It’s been in each of the General Plans for at least ten years, and the city approved plans to build what it thought would be workforce housing in the Deep Well Ranch Saddlewood subdivision, near the airport. However, market forces — cash buyers from out of state — have bid prices up from the original proposal of about $200,000 per house to about $400,000 per house.

“We are working with developers and property owners on bringing multifamily housing online, and currently 750 units are being developed,” Heiney said. “We think that’s a great step and will help put pressure on the rental prices we’re seeing right now.

Impact on school districts

School districts feel the pain, too, of losing teachers who are unable to afford to live where they work. According to Mike Fogel, a member of the Chino Valley School Board, the problem has reached a critical level.

“We can’t hire young teachers out here because there are hardly any rentals in any form or fashion,” Fogel said. “The same has happened for young families who have police or fire workers or who are running a business and need to hire people. They’re having problems because workers have to travel so far, because there’s no workforce housing.” Fogel said that personnel turnover is a thorny problem for CVSD.

“We hire and train people and then they go off to greener pastures in three years,” Fogel said. “Housing is one part, and salary is another animal.”

Young families already living in the CVSD district are struggling, too, and one in ten students are in families defined as homeless, Fogel said. That means they’re living with relatives, in cars or wherever they can find a place to sleep. He said the count has been the same for many years. Half the students attending the district, too, are in the free and reduced-cost lunch program.

Home is where the heart is

Owen shows how she's adapted to the small space.

For Owen, who lives in the fifth-wheel, leaving Prescott was not an option. She moved from the San Francisco area to Prescott in 2010 after she came to help her sister with her niece’s wedding. She recently lost her uninsulated, but cheap, rental cabin when the owner decided to tear it down to build something bigger. After a fruitless search for a comparable rental that would accept her with two cats, she gave up and a couple of friends helped her buy an RV that’s 21 years old.

The travel trailer is cozy, with an office/sitting room and bedroom. She put a piece of plywood over the dinette to turn it into a desk. She also took the couch out and put in a table for her textile work. She anticipates using the outdoors for work in an area enclosed by canvas walls during the summer.

Social Security is Owen’s main form of income, though she sells artwork. She worked in the fashion industry and as an arts director for her entire career prior to being forced to retire after her Bay-area arts center was hit hard by the '08 recession.

Owen said she hopes the City of Prescott and Yavapai County do something to change the situation. “I’ll be OK, but I feel sorry for a lot of people who are much worse off than me.”

Toni Denis is a frequent contributor to 5enses.

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