Convincing people they don't need a single-family home
A Colorado town tries the unthinkable
When I was in college, I took a class about the American West that ended with the famous ‘frontier thesis’ by Frederick Jackson Turner, who in 1893 argued that the westward expansion of American settlers helped form a rugged American identity and shaped uniquely democratic institutions. Which of course raised the question of what happens to American identity when there is nowhere left to expand.
I reference this idea, as it relates to housing, in my latest story:
I thought about Turner’s thesis in April when I was sitting in a brewery in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, talking to a rancher and a city worker who were arguing that their mountain town was getting too crowded, and that if high housing prices stopped people from moving there, so be it. They were both themselves transplants to Steamboat Springs, but had moved there decades before. Yet they worried that more people moving to town would use up the water, create more traffic, and do ecological damage to the landscape they loved.
If the westward expansion of settlers defined the first half of American history, today might be defined by the people who got there first saying there’s no more room (which is particularly ironic given the demographic headwinds I’ve written about before.) You can see it in the longtime Berkeley, California resident who sued to block Cal from building housing in his bucolic neighborhood, in the towns in Idaho telling California transplants to go home, and even in immigration policies that have pushed net migration numbers to their lowest numbers in decades.
All of these examples have a ‘we got there first’ mentality from the people trying to prevent growth. My editor and I had been looking at how western mountain towns, which saw surges in population during the pandemic, were handling this, because there were lots of stories about overcrowding and frustrated longtime residents. Since those stories had been covered by a few different publications, we didn’t want to do yet another ‘This Mountain Town is Becoming Unaffordable and Locals are Mad” story. (If you read just one of these stories, I’d recommend How to Save a Ski Town, from Outside magazine.)
What I wondered was if anyone had come up with a solution. Then, when I was talking to an expert who followed housing in Colorado, I learned of a town called Steamboat Springs that had just received a gift from an anonymous donor—536 acres of land to build as much affordable housing as it could. This was a unique situation for resort towns, because most have mountains and other geographic features that make it hard to build more housing. But Steamboat had an opportunity to build, and a leg up in that it got the land for free. I started talking to them about their efforts.
This is a story that took a long time to report—I started talking to Steamboat last December, but their plans were in flux and there wasn’t really a story to be done about their hopes and dreams. Then Steamboat started having community meetings in February to hear what people in Steamboat thought the development should look like. Planners told me the city was having lots of interesting discussions with residents about what they wanted and what they didn’t want, and that the discussions were informed and civil, even if residents completely disagreed.
I ended up visiting in late March, when there was still snow on the ground, and found myself in some sort of military-grade Caterpillar tank rolling over hills to see the housing site (and you wonder why it is so expensive to build housing). Then I moved across the country, my editor left TIME, then my other editor switched sections, and lo and behold, in June, the story is finally up.
Here it is one more time, with a photo I took from said tank:
A few shorter pieces
TIME, like every other media organization, is still trying to “figure out what works online,” which is something editors were saying even when I was at the LA Times more than a decade ago. It basically means trying all lengths and formats of stories to try and attract fickle readers. I also had two shorter stories publish this week, in case you prefer that type of thing.
For one, I looked at how the rising prices of diesel ripple across the economy, since diesel powers trucks and boats and cars and tractors. There might even be a diesel shortage in the Northeast this summer, which is going to lead to big headaches.
And I did a Q&A with Sara Menker, the CEO of Gro Intelligence, who says that 400 million people have become food insecure in the last 5 months because of rising food prices. (Which is the same amount of people that China brought out of poverty over two decades.) Menker created her company to use AI and data to make predictions about climate change and food security.