Study reveals city of good schools and amenities, but increasingly hard to buy into. The first of my growth and development stories. From the Littleton Independent.
Littleton home prices are through the roof, far outpacing income growth.
As Yogi Berra once said, “nobody goes there anymore — it’s too crowded!” Littleton may be up against a similar dilemma, as the influx of people and skyrocketing housing prices in the Front Range increasingly squeeze renters and first-time home buyers. That’s one of the main conclusions of the Littleton Housing Study, a comprehensive look at the ways and places people live in Littleton, commissioned by city council and presented at a council study session last month. To be sure, there’s plenty to be pleased about in the study: Littleton has diverse and stable housing stock, and residents report a high level of satisfaction with the town and their living quarters. The study, prepared by BBC Research and Consulting of Denver, is dense and complex. It shows that Littleton, home to roughly 45,000 people, has grown by about 10 percent since 2010. Arapahoe County’s population grew 25 percent in the same period, and the Denver metro area grew 30 percent. Assuming this trend continues, Littleton’s population may grow to more than 52,000 people by 2040. Key strengths in the city include a strong economy, low unemployment, rising incomes, good schools and a range of amenities. Rents in the city increased from a median of $709 in 1999 to $1,008 in 2015, a climb of 42 percent. Average rent by the end of 2016 was $1,303. Incomes would have needed to increase by $12,000 to keep pace, but median renter income climbed by only $6,000. The study found that, by BBC’s algorithm, Littleton has a shortage of 1,350 units priced affordably for renters earning less than $25,000 a year — a group that includes students, low-wage workers and the disabled and elderly, representing 32 percent of renters. As many as 17 percent of renters make less than $15,000 a year, many of whom are elderly or disabled, and face a shortage of 868 housing units. Real estate professionals surveyed said the city is in dire need of “starter homes” for first-time homebuyers, which they defined as those priced below $300,000. The median sales price of a single-family home in Littleton in June was $444,000, according to the Denver Metro Association of Realtors — a jump of $23,000 over the month before. In 2000, the median sales price was $189,000, according to the study. According to focus group studies, “displacement of residents and families due to high home prices can also disrupt their support network, access to health and services, and social stability. This has a particularly adverse impact on seniors, who may rely on friends and family for care/support, and on schoolchildren, for whom housing and school stability is a significant indicator of success and wellness.” Condo construction limited The report’s findings will guide the city in future decision-making processes and strategies, Littleton Mayor Bruce Beckman said, adding that he feels much of the movement on housing prices is at the whim of the market. Beckman said much of the lack of starter homes can be blamed on the infamous construction defects law, which many blame for stifling condominium construction over the past decade by ramping up builders’ liability for defects in condo complexes. “It has not allowed the normal stepladder of movement that people utilize in a solid, diversified housing market,” Beckman said. “We would normally have people who rent, they would find a community to plant roots in, and they make that entry level into home ownership at the condo or townhome level. That market area has been lacking sorely.” Among the study’s conclusions was that one of the most direct ways governments can help alleviate affordability issues is by loosening zoning restrictions on minimum lot size and housing density. Beckman is skeptical. “I know there are several ways zoning could be relaxed to allow greater density, but we really have to consider the character of our neighborhoods and our community first,” Beckman said. “I really believe we need to put the commitment of people who have purchased homes here first. Zoning is a promise to them that their neighborhoods will retain the character they’ve invested in.” Beckman said, ultimately, affordability issues aren’t up to the city. “The fact is, the market will sort it out,” Beckman said. “The bottom line is, the market will make decisions about how this plays out. What’s being built right now is rentals. Rents will stabilize and the housing bubble will ease.” Builders can help by responding to market demand, said Realtor Jessica Lentz, of Denver-based Colorado Realty Pros, who specializes in the Littleton market. “Builders need to get serious about the fact that there’s a huge demographic out there who feel like they’re being ignored in our market,” Lentz said. “They feel nobody cares about them.” Lentz, who said she has a passion for first-time homebuyers, said rising costs are hindering upward mobility. “We’re beginning to see a real issue of people being unable to move out of apartment living,” Lentz said. “We have a lot of people who get frustrated and give up and keep renting, or they give up and move out of state because they can’t afford it here anymore. If you’re looking under that $400,000 price point, it is really difficult to get into a home right now.” Lentz said that while the market will sort things out, it’s unfortunate to see longtime residents priced out. “People are from here,” Lentz said. “They’re born here and they want to raise their kids here. They have as much right to live here as anyone else. Everyone deserves access to housing they can afford.” Regulatory change suggested The city could potentially help alleviate affordability problems by changing regulations on the number of unrelated adults who can live together, said District III Councilmember Phil Cernanec.Currently, Littleton allows no more than three unrelated adults to live together without a special permit. “We need to balance identity of open space in the west with higher density necessitated by a rapidly growing population,” Cernanec said, although he added “we can’t flip a switch and see great things be done. This is a study, not a plan.” Allowing accessory dwelling units, sometimes called carriage houses or mother-in-law units could help, said District I Councilmember Bill Hopping. “That’s where things are headed in many places — those kind of adaptations. There’s also more demand for multifamily and more desire for walkability.” The problem is that Littleton is just too nice, said at-large Councilmember Doug Clark. “The horns of the dilemma is, the more desirable the place, the more demand goes up, the higher the housing prices go,” Clark said. “I don’t think anyone wants to reduce desirability in order to make the houses more affordable. Sure, we could make it more affordable with 30-story apartment towers, but that would change the dynamic of Littleton. “It’s an unfortunate circumstance, but it’ll be self-correcting. Once nobody can afford housing, then the demand will lessen, and prices will have to change.”
TAKING A DEEPER DIVE
Here’s a look at more findings in the housing study by BBC Research and Consulting of Denver:
• While the median household income in Littleton — $65,221 in 2015 — was on par with much of the metro area, it was sharply divided between renters and homeowners. Median household income for homeowners was $87,394, up 34 percent since 1999. In contrast, median household income for renters was less than half that at $37,359, and had grown only 19 percent since 1999.
• In Littleton, 9 percent of residents live in poverty, compared with 11 percent of Arapahoe County residents and 14 percent for the metro area as a whole.
• Unemployment was only 2.9 percent, lower than the metro area at 3.1 percent and the state at 3.3 percent.
• Of the city’s 45,000 residents, only 2,235 both live and work in Littleton — 92 percent of Littleton’s jobs are held by people who live elsewhere.
• A little more than 60 percent of households in Littleton are owner-occupied, and 38 percent are renter occupied. Three-fourths of Littleton’s housing is single-family detached homes.
• Scrape-offs — homes that are purchased with the intent of being demolished and replaced — are relatively rare in Littleton compared to other parts of the metro area, with only 24 completed or in process between 2007 and 2017.
• A 10 percent down payment on a median house in 1999 would have been $16,000, or 32 percent of the median household income. A 10 percent down payment in 2015 would have been $31,500, or 48 percent of the median household income. Rising rents also slow the ability of renters to save for a home.
• Half of renters spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing costs, while 20 percent spend half or more of their income on housing costs.
• Homes for sale priced under $300,000 stayed on the market for a median of four days in 2016.