DENVER — Elizabeth Williamsberg once dreamed of a detached house, an acre of land and space for animals to run around.
But as the years went on and housing costs in the Denver metro area continued to increase, Williamsberg continually adjusted her dream: A house with a smaller backyard. A house with no backyard. A townhome.
Even a small condo to call her own sufficed for Williamsberg, so long as she could beat the cycle of skyrocketing rents, having to move each time a lease was up and the crushing weight of knowing a rental was simply making someone else richer, rather than building her own equity.
“As time has gone on, the dream has gotten less and less,” Williamsberg said. “It's not even the American dream of the white picket fence. I don’t care about that anymore, it's just wanting something that I can call my own, and that doesn’t even seem possible now.”
Williamsberg currently lives in Louisville, but after a $200-per-month rent hike for her apartment, she scrambled to find a place she could afford and move into quickly to avoid couch surfing or homelessness. After weeks of searching, Williamsberg found a place in the Denver Technological Center, which is on the opposite side of the metro area from where she built a community in Louisville.
A dying dream
Marilyn, a single mother, recent college graduate and a Denver resident who asked not to have her last name identified to protect the privacy of her child, wants nothing more than to provide a space for her two-year-old to run around, meet other kids and play in the backyard.
“I don’t think I’m asking for much,” Marilyn said. “Two bedrooms and a backyard; that’s all I really want.”
After years of moving every six months to keep up with rent increases at the end of each lease term, Marilyn grew fed up and began saving for a house. By the time her savings crossed the threshold of what many realtors told her was necessary for a down payment, the bidding wars began.
The pattern seemed to repeat itself: Marilyn found a home that suited her needs, she scheduled a showing and before she even had a chance to see it, the house sold for nearly $100,000 over the original asking price.
As a single mother, Marilyn feels the odds are stacked against her.
“I'm competing with so many people who have dual incomes and they just continue to outbid,” Marilyn said. “It's sort of a hellish process that you can't win unless you have $500,000 lying around.”
The latest report from the Denver Metro Association of Realtors shows the median home price in the metro area is $575,000, a 21.5% increase since this time last year.
Tiffany Everett, an Aurora resident who has lived in various parts of Colorado over the last decade, first paid $700 a month for a two-bed, two-bath apartment in Colorado Springs when she moved to the state in 2011. Everett has noticed subtle increases each year, but the rise in rent was dramatic when COVID-19 hit the state in 2020.
“It’s just been impossible,” Everett said. “It feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”
Everett also uses medical cannabis to help manage her chronic pain, and she one day dreams of growing her medicine from home, though that goal is often impossible as a renter, as many landlords she has found explicitly ban cannabis usage, let alone cannabis growth.
Everett now works three jobs, making more money than she ever has before. That has allowed her to save money for a down payment on a house, but every time she thinks she’s crossed the threshold for affording a home, her dream is crushed. She said she had been repeatedly outbid on home offers, which has killed her morale and made her wonder if staying in Colorado is feasible.
“It just feels like a rat race where nobody wins, and it feels worse than a rat race because you can never get ahead,” Everett said. “I genuinely feel like I’d have to win the lottery in order to be able to buy a house.”
Trying to do the impossible
Despite the income from three jobs, Everett said her financial status feels worse than ever before.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Everett said. “It’s really depressing to know that I make more money than I ever have in my whole life and I'm just barely getting by because rents keep going up.”
Many people attempting to buy a home for the first time feel the task is near-impossible because rents in Colorado have shot up over the last several years, making it difficult to save for a down payment.
The Zumper National Rent Report — which measures housing cost increases across the most popular cities in the United States —estimated Denver is the 20th most-expensive city in the country, right behind Sacramento, California. The report found the average two-bedroom apartment in Denver costs around $2,290 each month, a 14.9% increase since 2020.
“It’s a nasty bidding war out there, and people are just getting outbid,” Everett said. “It’s a lose-lose situation … and I’d have to pick up another job if I had any hope of saving up.”
Everett also recognizes she has a privilege many in her shoes do not: she has received several promotions at work and if an emergency were to come up, she could rely on family members for help.
Without that added income each year and the comfort of knowing a trip to the hospital would not bankrupt her, Everett knows she likely would no longer be able to afford her ever-increasing rent in the Denver area.
“If you’re not getting increases to your income, it’s pretty much impossible to save,” Everett said. “That isn’t feasible for a lot of people.”
The problem and the solution
Between 2010 and 2020, Denver grew by nearly 20%, adding 115,000 residents to the city, with the surrounding counties seeing their own explosive growth, according to the 2020 United States census.
Affordable housing advocates and the city's planning staff members say the census data backs up their hypothesis as to why Denver’s housing costs have boomed: too much demand, not enough supply.
You can explore Colorado's 2020 census data below: