I hadn’t been in Flagstaff long when it became really obvious that there are a lot of people in plain sight here who need help. I’d been living on the East Coast where there are easy places to find cover and duck out of sight beneath a bridge or alongside the river. It’s different here – people sleep by the side of the road – living out in the open.
“That’s why we call it ‘poverty with a view,” she said.”
Our homelessness isn’t invisible – it’s a visual problem here but it’s set against a backdrop of beautiful snow-covered mountains and Ponderosa pines. Within days of arriving in Flagstaff five years ago, I mentioned that to a local and she sighed knowingly. “That’s why we call it ‘poverty with a view,” she said.”
“Poverty with a view.” That was the first time I’d ever heard the phrase but it was far from the last.
Coming to terms with the income gap
The difference between the haves and the have-nots is stark in Arizona and especially in Flagstaff. Two, three and four-million-dollar houses are never very far from apartments where several generations of family members squeeze into a few small rooms. Residents experiencing homelessness sleep next to freeways traveled by luxury cars on their way to and from the ski slopes. And for everyone, rich and poor, there is always the view – one of the best in America, but laced with irony for the have-nots.
Flagstaff, AZ: the cost of living in one of the nation’s most beautiful cities
“Poverty with a view” is part of the vernacular here, coined — or possibly only popularized — by the affordable housing problem that ballooned into a crisis in the 1970s.
Why is Flagstaff so expensive to live in? Living in Flagstaff, Arizona is expensive because housing is a complicated issue here – much more so than in most American cities.
Surrounded by Northern Arizona University, Native American reservations, national forest, and mountains, there isn’t much room for the city to expand. We can’t just build bedroom communities further out. What housing we do have has to be divided, not only among our teachers, police officers and other year-round residents but also among college students and seasonal visitors who understandably want second homes near our spectacular mountains.
That short supply and high demand drive up our housing prices. A one-bedroom apartment in Flagstaff costs about $1,300 per month. That’s about the same as a one-bedroom in Brooklyn. The difference is salary. A master’s degree in Brooklyn is easily worth $60-80,000 a year with good benefits. In Flagstaff, a master’s degree is only worth $24-36,000 in a job with no health insurance.
The rule of thumb for modern American budgeting is that you shouldn’t spend more than 1/3 of your income on rent. By that guideline, if your rent is $1,300 a month, your household income needs to be more than $50,000 a year — more than $24 an hour.
A full-time minimum wage employee in Flagstaff earns $13 an hour — $27,040 a year before taxes if you don’t miss a single hour of work all year.
Remember that $1,300 a month apartment? It costs $16,800 a year – far more than half of the pre-tax salary for a minimum wage employee. So it’s easy to see why there are so many people living in poverty here. The people experiencing homelessness here are only a small fraction of the people living in poverty here.
Small-city jobs, big-city prices
Why don’t the jobs pay more? Because Flagstaff is a small city without a lot of major employers. Our population is only 72,000 (of which 30,000 are students) – it’s a very small city and we don’t have enough industry jobs: white or blue collar – to support higher wages. In most cities like ours, the cost of living would also be low. It’s our unique housing constraints that cause the discrepancy.
The Point-In-Time survey
And they’re not unemployed: they are grocery store cashiers, fast-food workers, gas station clerks and baristas. Many work two or three of these jobs. They just simply cannot afford the average cost of living in Flagstaff, Arizona.
That’s not conjecture – we ask people experiencing homelessness why they are on the streets.
On a specific week each January in cities across America, volunteers gather to spread out onto the streets for the annual Point-In-Time survey, which aims to get a count of the number of people experiencing homelessness.
In January 2018, volunteers from various nonprofits in Arizona talked to 86 unsheltered people in Flagstaff, the largest percentage of them aged 45 to 54. They listed loss of job and no affordable housing as their reason for being homeless.
The following year, the number stayed consistent at 86 but they were far younger: 35-44. Underemployment and inability to pay the rent or mortgage were still the top cause though.
The 2020 statistics haven’t been released yet but we expect to still have a significant population unsheltered because the situation is similar: affordable housing in Flagstaff, AZ is still a problem and the overall cost of living in Flagstaff, Arizona is still higher than the average income can keep up with.
Finding a balance
It sounds hopeless, but it’s not – there are solutions and there is help. Charities in Flagstaff and charities in Arizona as a whole go a long way toward assisting people. Even our politicians are trying to help, pushing hard for wage increases and better social support programs.
“Other cities have struggled with income inequality, housing shortages and the balance between the environment and the poor. Other cities have found solutions and we can too.”
We aren’t without solutions to the housing shortage either; there is space in Flagstaff where affordable housing could be built but it comes with a sacrifice that many feel is too high a price to pay – the view.
Building affordable homes would mean taking over open space and quite literally blocking many people’s view of the mountains they moved here to see.
It’s a problem but not an insurmountable one. Other cities have struggled with income inequality, housing shortages and the balance between the environment and the poor. Other cities have found solutions and we can too.
Chipping away at the problem
As we work on the big picture though, we must also keep chipping away every day at the individual problems that are more easily solved — a man working three jobs lost one and can’t make the rent this month. A woman and two children fled a violent home and have nowhere to go. A young couple was evicted after spending the rent money on their child’s insulin too many months in a row.
Compared to the larger problems of the Flagstaff cost of living, affordable housing and income inequality, getting a few people each week into stable housing is a relatively easy fix – all it takes is money and Flagstaff Shelter Services is only one of the nonprofits in Arizona ready to help.
About $2,500 will get a family off the street and into stable housing. Once they’re stabilized, 86 percent of people don’t return to homelessness.
That doesn’t lift them out of poverty of course, but it lifts them into permanent, stable housing. Healthcare, transportation and food will likely remain difficult and nonprofits in Flagstaff work overtime to help.
But once a family has housing, they’re likely to keep it. People are more inclined to stay housed than not and they’ll give up their medication, food, healthcare – almost everything, to keep from losing their homes.
Getting people into homes
At Flagstaff Shelter Services, there are a lot of ways we can help end homelessness in Flagstaff. A one-bedroom apartment may go for $1,400 a month in Flagstaff but we can find a single person a room for $400. A person making $700 a month and paying $400 of it in rent is still living in poverty, but they’re living in poverty in a home, not on the side of the road.
And as we have to remind ourselves every day at Flagstaff Shelter Services, “we’re not trying to solve poverty; we’re trying to solve homelessness.”
“It’s a win-win and it’s one of many promising solutions to the Flagstaff, Arizona cost of living problem. It’s one of the ways we’ve been putting two families a week into permanent, stable housing.”
An individual or family who needs a place to live can find one much more easily through Flagstaff Shelter Services because we have relationships with many of the landlords in town. Many landlords prefer renting to our clients rather than to individual families or students because we’re responsive to problems. If the rent isn’t being paid on time, the landlord can call us. If neighbors complain about noise, the landlord can call us. If one of our clients moves out and leaves the apartment trashed, the landlord can call us.
That peace of mind is worth a lot to landlords so they’re often willing to rent to our clients for a lot less than they can get on the open market.
It’s a win-win and it’s one of many promising solutions to the Flagstaff, Arizona cost of living problem. It’s one of the ways we’ve been putting two families a week into permanent, stable housing. That’s 300 plus people a year who move from homelessness into homes. Sometimes even with a view.
Ross Altenbaugh is the executive director at Flagstaff Shelter Services, the largest emergency shelter in northern Arizona. The nonprofit is open around the clock to anyone in crisis, regardless of faith, mental health or sobriety. In addition to offering emergency shelter for individuals, the organization also provides permanent, stable housing to families experiencing homelessness. An average of two families a week are moved into permanent housing and more than 85 percent of them do not return to homelessness.