A Call to Action for Attainable Housing from a Local Small Business Owner

Carol Cochran’s Story

I grew up in Boulder and visited my grandparents in Fort Collins many times a year. Then my parents moved here after I left home – I went to university in California and moved overseas shortly after graduating. Every year, throughout 10 years in Asia, 10 in Milwaukee, and 2 in Bogotá, Colombia, we returned to Fort Collins for “home leave” and vacation, often multiple times a year.

When we started looking for where to form our long-dreamed-of company, Fort Collins rose to the top of the list for so many reasons – sentimental attachment and family connection, of course, but also for its fantastic climate and accessible outdoor activities, friendly populous, and our thought that we could carve out a niche for our small business here.

Thanks to previous home ownership in other places we lived, we had some equity to help us buy a home when we arrived here in our 40s (we currently live in and own a single-family home). However, that was 2012. Both of our adult daughters and several of our team at Horse & Dragon Brewing Company have searched for their first homes in the NoCO market and it is wickedly difficult for them to save enough for a down payment and afford the mortgage on “starter” homes that are priced now well into the 400’s. One of our daughters looked for 1.5 years, lost out on the two homes she could afford to bid on and finally got into the third, but only with an additional personal loan. That’s unrealizable for most young people in the market.

We have been committed to paying our employees as much as the business can bear since shortly after we opened. When we opened, we had a few part-time front of house folks at minimum wage and quickly realized that there was no way that wage could help someone fully support themselves (even as a second job, which it is for much of our tasting room team, it’s not a good supplemental wage). We also didn’t accept tips, but realized over time that consumers are willing to tip $1 on a pint, though not willing for the price of a pint to be $1 higher, so now our ability to pay our hourly-wage team members rests on the uncertainty of a tip pool.

A small manufacturer of consumer goods that have low margins is never going to be able to pay enough to make even the Average Median Income here, which is currently pegged at $75,200. For a full-time job, that translates to $36.15/hour. We have not one employee making that amount – including us as owners (we are the lowest-paid people in our company), and we have several salaried full-time employees. 

The minimum exempt wage in Colorado is $50,000 in 2023. It’ll be $55,000 next year. We have people at and a bit above that. That salary is a full $20,200 ($1,683.33 a MONTH) below the AMI ($75,200/year) here in Fort Collins.  

I understand that many folks would say we don’t need so many breweries here (or restaurants, or nonprofit organizations, or musicians, or gas stations).  I’m open to the idea that there may be a glut of any of these. However, we need SOME of us to

continue contributing to the incredible livability, enjoyment, and charm of Fort Collins. On a more basic level, do we want teachers and firefighters and the like to feel like this is their home? Do we want all of these folks to feel like they have some vested interest in the long-term success of the community and feel a real part of it? Do they add enough to the quality of life here that we should make sure there is some stable, secure housing available to them? 

My vote is: absolutely yes. 

If we don’t, we risk becoming a disconnected community, with service providers commuting in but not feeling a part of the community in which they work. This is a horrible solution for these workers, but in my opinion it’s an even worse one for folks who are affording to live in the community – why would anyone want to live in an economically isolated community?  How bland and unrealistic is that?

The Fort Collins area is not accessible to everyone who needs a home. Homes are not affordable to a large majority of the folks who make this community a wonderful and interesting and fun place to live. They are affordable to folks who’ve already made their contribution and are relaxing into just living. They are affordable to folks who work for large corporations but not smaller, community-entrenched businesses. (I’m not saying we don’t need these people; I’m saying that having *just* these people able to afford to feel secure here damages the overall fabric of our community.)

We need more housing, please, of all types, but particularly at a lower price point, with increased density in some areas. And affordable (or “attainable”) housing for folks who are working full-time in this community but are earning well under the AMI (these people usually don’t qualify for housing for which “people experiencing homelessness” are eligible). We need to find a way to build and make available housing for folks who are earning 50-70% of the AMI.

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It’s important that every member of our community has a safe and stable home.