Housing crisis intensifies in the West

Jonathan P. Thompson
Feb 24, 2021

I’m worried. Maybe a bit disgusted, too. 

It’s no secret that housing prices in many of the “best” places—particularly those at the gateway to public lands and outdoor recreational opportunities—have been climbing for years. Nor is it news that homeownership for the working folks in these places grows more and more elusive with each passing year. 

Now, on top of that, there’s the Zoom Boom. Pandemic-spurred remote work is freeing folks from the office and the cities and they are buying up remote work-centers, aka houses, in places far away from cubicles. The effect has been akin to throwing gasoline on an already raging fire, and real estate markets from Bozeman to Bend to Tucson to Truckee have exploded. 

wrote about this phenomenon for High Country News a couple of months ago. With more end-of-year data available, it’s clear that the phenomenon is more than a momentary flare-up, that it goes deeper than a mere Zoom invasion, and that the real estate fire appears to be getting hotter and even spreading to previously lower-priced markets. 

It’s the spread that has me worried. 

I resigned myself a long time ago to the fact that I may never be able to afford to buy a house in my hometown of Durango, Colorado, and that I will always be an economic exile from the place of my birth. In the years since I made that realization, home prices have continued to flame uncontrollably (my income, meanwhile, is burning about as hot as rain-sodden cardboard). 

But I could always find a little bit of comfort by moving that Zillow mouse a few miles away from Durango proper, as home prices tended to drop in direct proportion to the distance from the town’s historic center. Things would always be affordable over on the Dryside, I thought, or out Arboles-way, where my wife and I bought a very groovy home twenty years ago for a whopping $84,000 (but sadly had to let it go). It’s the old “drive till you qualify” non-policy of affordable* housing, leaned on by communities from Jackson to Aspen to Durango to ensure that they have workers to keep the places running. 

But now even those far-out places are getting pricey. According to the latest statistics, prices are going up everywhere, and the stock of affordable** homes throughout the entire county is vanishing. The following graphs really drive it home, so to speak: 

Up until just five years ago, houses under $240,000 made up the bulk of countywide sales, most of them being outside of Durango city limits. Now, less than 10% fall into that category and more than half of all sales have been for prices above $500,000. Someone making La Plata County’s median household income ($68,000) could “afford” a $290,000 home—if they had a $20,000 down payment and $200 monthly debt payments (e.g. student loans, credit cards, etc.). Sources: Durango Land & Homes (who unfortunately did not break out the critical $240k-$500k category in graph on left); and Zillow affordability calculator. 

In other words, you could drive all night and still not qualify unless you make significantly more than the median income for the region. Even a couple of veteran Durango school teachers making a combined salary of $100,000, and with $500 in additional monthly debts, such as kids’ college tuition or student loan payments, only could afford a $370,000 house—far below the median home price—and that’s only with a $20,000 down payment. And who has $20k lying around? 

Similar patterns are appearing everywhere, not just in so-called Zoom towns. The median home sales price in the Los Angeles metro area climbed from an already astounding $644,000 at the beginning of last year to over $720,000 now, out of reach of even relatively well-paid Angeleno workers; Denver’s prices shot up by 11 percent over the last year. Rental rates follow home prices. 

Median home sale prices in Santa Fe shot up by more than 25% in one year. Note scales are different between graphs. Source: Redfin. 

Something is bound to break. As housing costs climb further out of reach of the average worker, the abyss between the wealthy and the poor widens. When drive-till-you-qualify breaks down, the non-Zoom workers have little choice but to crowd into substandard housing, move into tent-towns, or set up camp in the backseat in the Wal-Mart parking lot. And even those who already own a home see their property taxes rise, making it more and more tempting to sell out, take that equity, and hightail it to Greece, thereby gutting the community of its core members. 

Sources: Zillow affordability calculator, Redfin, Jackson Hole Real Estate Report, US Census Bureau, and Albuquerque Association of Realtors. 

Perhaps the most maddening part of all of this is that the Zoom Boom isn’t the half of it: The biggest real estate action is happening in the ultra-high end luxury markets. Given the prices folks are forking out, it’s hard to imagine that these are one-time office workers becoming telecommuters. The Aspen market saw 90 sales over $10 million last year and the average home price shot up to more than $11 million. San Miguel County, home of Telluride, had a record-smashing year for real estate sales volume. “The lifestyle provided by our quaint town in the San Juan Mountains … was the prevailing force driving an extraordinary influx of demand,” crowed the Telluride Properties real estate activity report. 

Half a million people have died in the U.S. due to complications from COVID-19 and the U.S. economy shed nine-million jobs during 2020. Yet the super-rich kept getting richer (WARNING: clicking this link may result in rage). And many of them, apparently in search of that “quaint” lifestyle, spent their excess cash on palatial resort-town refuges, even as businesses in those same communities struggled and local governments suffered from revenue shortfalls. 

There is no vaccine against unfettered greed and Congress long-ago abandoned the progressive tax policies that kept runaway-wealth in check through the 1970s. Given that many members of Congress are multi-millionaires, meaningful change on that level may prove elusive, no matter which party is in power. 

But there is a local and/or state level policy tweak that could, at the very least, allow communities to capture some of the huge volumes of cash being shuffled around in real estate deals: a real-estate transfer tax on high-end sales. It would have to be progressive. So, for example, the rate would be 0% for sales below $300,000; 1% for $300,000 to $500,000; 2% for $500,000-$800,000; and then the rate would ratchet up from there. 

Naysayers will try to claim that this will dampen sales. It won’t—Aspen and Telluride both have one†. Nor is it a radical idea. A number of states have implemented them and others are considering it. Meanwhile it would bring in millions of revenues that could be used for affordable housing. A 2% tax on Teton County property sales would have brought in nearly $50 million last year, which could build a lot of affordable housing units.

Such a tax is not the solution. It merely would be an incremental step toward the massive overhaul of policy, tax structure, and even worldview that is needed to tackle the twin crises of unaffordable housing and wealth inequality that threaten to crush our communities, especially the “best places.” 


On a somewhat related note: More than two decades ago, some New York real estate folks proposed building Cloudrock, a new town of sorts at Johnson’s Up on Top, a swath of mesa-land southeast of Moab, Utah, with stunning views of the La Sal Mountains. It would be anchored by a luxury “wilderness” lodge and include pricey condominiums, some of which would be Tuscan-themed, others built in the “spirit of the Anasazi Cliff Dwellings of Mesa Verde,” according to marketing material. 

Cloudrock got mired in controversy and court cases and seemed to have vanished after the financial crisis of 2008. But then, a couple of months ago, it emerged from the dead, sort of: Sotheby’s International “marketed for the first time” Cloud Rock-Parcel One, a 175-acre “cliff edge development opportunity, ideally suited for a luxury wilderness resort or private estate.” It goes on:

In the center of our mesa, world-renowned Urban Planner Andrés Duany has designed our small village in the wilderness, a jewel in our landscape. A center for makers, creators & dreamers and the best off-the-grid coffeeshop in the world, for when you just want to take a short bike ride for good coffee and conversation.

Apparently it’s up to the purchaser of the land to build this stuff. Anyway, if that description makes you a bit nauseated, I’d suggest not looking at Cloudrock’s Instagram bio (close your eyes now!) 

What the … !? Anyway, if you’re interested, the parcel’s asking price is a mere $22.7 million. But hey, that’s a small price to pay to be “Connected to the Stars,” no? 


*It’s no longer so affordable when the costs of commuting long distances are factored in. In the Durango area, for example, the average person spends more than half of their income on housing + transportation
**For this post I’m using the standard definition of “affordable,” meaning that no more than one-third of one’s total income is spent on housing. 
†Colorado lawmakers prohibited communities from implementing real estate transfer taxes as part of the short-sighted, fiscally-idiotic TABOR reforms of 1992, which continue to plague state and local budgets. It’s time to throw TABOR out, for once and for all. Arizona also has a ban on transfer taxes.


February 23, 2021


~~~ LISTEN ~~~

Poet and author Lawrence Ferlinghetti, pictured above in 1960, was born on March 24, 1919.AP

Lawrence Ferlinghetti has died in San Francisco. He was 101. Ferlinghetti is probably best known for three things: his Beat poetry, his San Francisco bookstore and small press, and his defense of the First Amendment in a famous court case. 

His most famous work is a 1958 collection of poetry called A Coney Island of the Mind. In it, he compares the horrors depicted in Francisco Goya’s paintings of the Napoleonic Wars to scenes of post-World War II America.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem

A Coney Island of the Mind was translated into nine languages and sold more than a million copies. Despite his popularity, Ferlinghetti was never considered on par with some of the other Beat writers he called his friends — Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg.

A Coney Island of the Mind
A Coney Island of the Mind


by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Paperback, 93 pages purchase

Even though Ferlinghetti was raised in New York, he said he never met those East Coast writers until he moved to San Francisco and opened his bookstore, City Lights.

“A bookstore is a natural place for poets to hang out,” Ferlinghetti said in a 1994 interview. “And they started showing up there right from the beginning.”

City Lights became a magnet for West Coast intellectuals, and later a tourist destination.

Ferlinghetti also started a small press called City Lights Books. In the fall of 1956, he published a little 75-cent paperback, the first edition of Howl by Allen Ginsberg.

Howl was a new type of poetry that gave voice to an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in Eisenhower’s America. It became an anthem for the nascent counterculture.

“Before Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the state of poetry in America is a little bit like the way it is today: poetry about poetry,” Ferlinghetti said. “Howl knocked the sides out of things. Just the way rock music in the ’60s knocked the sides out of the old music world.”Article continues after sponsor message

Howl included passages describing sex — both between men and women and between two men — and Ferlinghetti was arrested in 1957 on charges of publishing obscene material. At the end of a long federal trial, the poem was found to have redeeming social importance, and therefore not obscene.

Literary critic Gerald Nicosia says Ferlinghetti’s two greatest accomplishments were fighting censorship, and inaugurating a small press revolution.

“Up until that point, getting published was a difficult thing,” Nicosia says. “If you were a radical, an innovative writer, you would be rebuffed by New York, by mainstream publishers. By creating this press out of nothing — City Lights Press — he said: Look, you don’t need these big publishers in New York. You can do it, and you can get the books out, and not only that, you can make waves.”


At 96, Poet And Beat Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti Isn’t Done Yet


I Found My Inner Beat Poet On ‘Coney Island’

Ferlinghetti was always an advocate for the underdog, in part because of his own life story. He was born on March 24, 1919, in Yonkers. His father died shortly before he was he was born, and his mother was committed to a psychiatric hospital shortly after. He was raised by an aunt, and then by foster parents.

Ferlinghetti enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, and served as an officer at Normandy on D-Day and at Nagasaki after the atomic bomb. That experience turned him into a lifelong pacifist.

After the war, he got a master’s degree at Columbia University, and a doctorate at the Sorbonne. He began writing poetry about America in the 1950s.

Ferlinghetti began his career at a revolutionary time in arts and music. In 1994, he still believed art could make a difference. “I really believe that art is capable of the total transformation of the world, and of life itself,” he said. “And nothing less is really acceptable. So I mean if art is going to have any excuse for — beyond being a leisure class play thing — it has to transform life itself.”

Through more than half a century of writing and publishing, Lawrence Ferlinghetti did.


An unapologetic proponent of “poetry as insurgent art,” he was also a publisher and the owner of the celebrated San Francisco bookstore City Lights.

~~~ WATCH ~~~

By Jesse McKinley

  • Feb. 23, 2021

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a poet, publisher and political iconoclast who inspired and nurtured generations of San Francisco artists and writers from City Lights, his famed bookstore, died on Monday at his home in San Francisco. He was 101. 

The cause was interstitial lung disease, his daughter, Julie Sasser, said.

The spiritual godfather of the Beat movement, Mr. Ferlinghetti made his home base in the modest independent book haven now formally known as City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. A self-described “literary meeting place” founded in 1953 and located on the border of the city’s sometimes swank, sometimes seedy North Beach neighborhood, City Lights, on Columbus Avenue, soon became as much a part of the San Francisco scene as the Golden Gate Bridge or Fisherman’s Wharf. (The city’s board of supervisors designated it a historic landmark in 2001.)

While older and not a practitioner of their freewheeling personal style, Mr. Ferlinghetti befriended, published and championed many of the major Beat poets, among them Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Michael McClure. His connection to their work was exemplified — and cemented — in 1956 with his publication of Ginsberg’s most famous poem, the ribald and revolutionary “Howl,” an act that led to Mr. Ferlinghetti’s arrest on charges of “willfully and lewdly” printing “indecent writings.”

In a significant First Amendment decision, he was acquitted, and “Howl” became one of the 20th century’s best-known poems. (The trial was the centerpiece of the 2010 film “Howl,” in which James Franco played Ginsberg and Andrew Rogers played Mr. Ferlinghetti.)

In addition to being a champion of the Beats, Mr. Ferlinghetti was himself a prolific writer of wide talents and interests whose work evaded easy definition, mixing disarming simplicity, sharp humor and social consciousness.

“Every great poem fulfills a longing and puts life back together,” he wrote in a “non-lecture” after being awarded the Poetry Society of America’s Frost Medal in 2003. A poem, he added, “should arise to ecstasy somewhere between speech and song.”

Critics and fellow poets were never in agreement about whether Mr. Ferlinghetti should be regarded as a Beat poet. He himself didn’t think so.

“In some ways what I really did was mind the store,” he told The Guardian in 2006. “When I arrived in San Francisco in 1951 I was wearing a beret. If anything I was the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats.”

Mr. Ferlinghetti, standing, in 1957 at a poetry reading. He was a prolific writer of wide talents and interests whose work evaded easy definition.
Mr. Ferlinghetti, standing, in 1957 at a poetry reading. He was a prolific writer of wide talents and interests whose work evaded easy definition.Credit…Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

Still, he shared the Beats’ taste for political agitation. Poems like “Tentative Description of a Dinner to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower” established him as an unapologetic proponent of, as the title of one of his books put it, “poetry as insurgent art.” 

He never lost his zeal for provocation. “You’re supposed to get more conservative the older you get,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1977. “I seem to be getting just the opposite.”

His most successful collection, “A Coney Island of the Mind” (1958), attracted attention when one of the poems was attacked as blasphemous by a New York congressman, Steven B. Derounian, who called for the investigation of a state college where it was being taught, saying the poem ridiculed the crucifixion of Christ. The poem, “Sometime During Eternity …,” begins:

Sometime during eternity

some guys show up

and one of them

who shows up real late

is a kind of carpenter

from some square-type place

like Galilee

and he starts wailing

and claiming he is hip

Despite the controversy it generated — or perhaps, at least in part, because of it — “A Coney Island of the Mind” was a sensation. It became one of the most successful books of American poetry ever published. It has been translated into multiple languages; according to City Lights, more than a million copies have been printed.

A life as a provocateur would have been hard to predict for Lawrence Monsanto Ferling, the youngest of five sons born in the placid environs of Yonkers, N.Y., on March 24, 1919, in the wake of World War I. His father, an Italian immigrant who had built a small real estate business, had shortened the family name; as an adult, Lawrence would change it back.

His parents had met in Coney Island — a meeting he later fictionalized as happening in bumper cars — but the veneer of normalcy quickly deteriorated. His father, Charles, died before Lawrence was born, and his mother, Clemence Mendes-Monsanto Ferling, was admitted to a state mental hospital before he was 2.

Lawrence was taken in by a relative — he called her his Aunt Emily, though the family connection was complicated — and she took him to Strasbourg, France, where he learned French, speaking it before he did English. When they returned to the United States, hardships returned as well. He was briefly placed in an orphanage while Aunt Emily looked for work.

A turning point came when she began working as a governess for Presley and Anna Bisland, a wealthy couple who lived in nearby Bronxville, N.Y., and who saw promise in the boy.

Left in their care, Lawrence bloomed. According to “Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Time,” a 1990 biography by Barry Silesky, he became a voracious reader, devouring classics in the Bisland library and earning silver dollars for memorizing epic poems. When he dabbled in juvenile delinquency — he was arrested and charged with shoplifting about the same time he made Eagle Scout — he was sent to Mount Hermon, a strict private high school for boys in Massachusetts.

“I was getting too wild,” Mr. Ferlinghetti recalled in a 2007 interview with The New York Times. “Or beginning to.”

That sense of abandon informed his taste in literature. Among his favorite books was Thomas Wolfe’s coming-of-age novel “Look Homeward, Angel”; Mr. Ferlinghetti applied to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he said later, because Wolfe had gone there.

He graduated from North Carolina with a degree in journalism — “I learned how to write a decent sentence,” he said of the impact that studying journalism had had on his poetry — and then served as a naval officer during World War II, spending much of the war on a submarine chaser in the North Atlantic.

Mr. Ferlinghetti in 1970. He lived in the North Beach section of San Francisco for most of his adult life. 
Mr. Ferlinghetti in 1970. He lived in the North Beach section of San Francisco for most of his adult life. Credit…Sam Falk/The New York Times

After the war he enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University, where he earned a master’s degree in English literature, writing his thesis on the art critic John Ruskin and the artist J.M.W. Turner, which fostered a lifelong love of painting. After Columbia, he headed to Paris, the classic breeding ground for postwar bohemians, where he received a doctorate in comparative literature from the Sorbonne.

Mr. Ferlinghetti went west in early 1951, landing in San Francisco with a sea bag and little else. After months in a low-rent apartment he found North Beach, even as San Francisco itself was fast becoming fashionable among intellectuals and a generation of young people for whom “establishment” was a dirty word.

“This was all bohemia,” he recalled.

He was surrounded by a politically and artistically charged circle, but he did not buy into the Beat lifestyle. “I was never on the road with them,” he said, noting that he was living “a respectable married life” after marrying Selden Kirby-Smith in 1951. They had two children, Julie and Lorenzo; the marriage ended in divorce.

In addition to Ms. Sasser, Mr. Ferlinghetti is survived by his son and three grandchildren.

Mr. Ferlinghetti’s life changed in 1953, when he and Peter Martin opened the City Lights Pocket Book Shop, which originally carried nothing but paperbacks at a time when the publishing industry was just beginning to take that format seriously. The store would soon became a kind of repository for books that other booksellers ignored and a kind of salon for the authors who wrote them — a place “where you could find these books which you couldn’t find anywhere,” he said, crediting Mr. Martin with the concept. Each man put in $500, and City Lights opened.

“And as soon as we got the door opened,” Mr. Ferlinghetti later remembered, “we couldn’t get it closed.”

In 1955 Mr. Ferlinghetti, by then the sole owner of City Lights, started publishing poems, including his own. In his first collection,“Pictures of the Gone World,” his style — “at once rhetorically functional and socially vital,” in the words of the critic Larry R. Smith — emerged fully formed in stanzas like this: 

The world is a beautiful place

to be born into

if you don’t mind happiness

not always being

so very much fun

if you don’t mind a touch of hell

now and then

just when everything is fine

because even in heaven

they don’t sing

all the time

Mr. Ferlinghetti in 1993 in his bookstore. Age brought him honors; in 1998, for instance, he was named the first poet laureate of San Francisco.
Mr. Ferlinghetti in 1993 in his bookstore. Age brought him honors; in 1998, for instance, he was named the first poet laureate of San Francisco.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

A year later his City Lights imprint published Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems,” and before long he was in court defending poets’ free-speech rights and helping to make himself — and the Beats he had adopted — famous in the process.

Over the years he would work in other mediums, including painting, fiction and theater; a program of three of his plays was produced in New York in 1970. But poetry remained the art form closest to his heart.

San Francisco remained close to his heart as well, especially North Beach, the traditionally Italian-American neighborhood where he lived for most of his adult life. In his 1976 poem “The Old Italians Dying,” Mr. Ferlinghetti spoke to both the city he loved and the changes he’d seen:

The old anarchists reading L’Umanita Nova

the ones who loved Sacco & Vanzetti

They are almost gone now

They are sitting and waiting their turn

City Lights bookstore, on Columbus Avenue, has become as much a part of San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge or Fisherman’s Wharf.
City Lights bookstore, on Columbus Avenue, has become as much a part of San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge or Fisherman’s Wharf.Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

For Mr. Ferlinghetti, age brought honors. In 1998 he was named the first poet laureate of San Francisco; in 2005 the National Book Foundation cited his “tireless work on behalf of poets and the entire literary community for over 50 years.”

Age did not slow him down; he continued to write and giveinterviews. In 2019, Doubleday published Mr. Ferlinghetti’s “Little Boy,” a book he had been working on for two decades, which he characterized as the closest thing to a memoir he would ever write: “an experimental novel” about “an imaginary me.”

Its publication coincided with Mr. Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday, which San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, proclaimed Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day. A choir serenaded the writer from below his apartment with “Happy Birthday” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” while at City Lights, poets like Robert Hass and Ishmael Reed read aloud from Mr. Ferlinghetti’s works.

In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, City Lights closed and started an online fund-raiser in which they announced that they might not reopen. The store received more than $450,000 in four days. Its chief executive, Elaine Katzenberger, told Publishers Weekly that the money gave City Lights the ability to plan for the future.

Even at the end of his life, Mr. Ferlinghetti still composed poetry — “In flashes, nothing sustained,” he told The Times in 2018. The anthology “Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems,” published in 2017, included new work.

“My newest poems,” Mr. Ferlinghetti once told an interviewer, “are always my favorite poems.”