In resort towns, working class squeezed out as rich move in

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Resort Towns Wealth Gap
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In resort towns, working class squeezed out as rich move in
In this Dec. 2, 2014 photo, Loly Garcia works on a computer at her home in El Jebel, Colo., a small community about 20 miles northwest of Aspen, Colo. Garcia has taken lower-paying jobs in order to work closer to home. (AP Photo/John Locher)
This Dec. 1, 2014 photo shows the Aspen Mountain ski area by Aspen, Colo. Resort towns like Aspen dramatically demonstrate an unnerving trend: Across the country, the rich are getting richer while the rest of the country is essentially treading water. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Robin Lloyd, walks off the hill and thru the Gondola Plaza at the bottom of Aspen Mountain in Aspen, Colo., on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006. Aspen has recorded more than 21 feet of snow this season with many longtime residents saying its the best they have ever seen. (AP Photo/Andrew Wilz)
Chris Klug snowboards through fresh powder on Aspen Mountain in Aspen, Colo., on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2006. The town of Aspen can be seen below. Aspen has seen more snow this season than its had in twenty-five years. (AP Photo/Andrew Wilz)
USA, Colorado, Aspen, elevated town view and Aspen Mountain, winter, dusk
USA, Colorado, Aspen, Aspen Mountain Ski Area, Silver Queen Gondola.
USA, Colorado, Aspen, downtown shoppers at dusk
The City of Aspen is a Home Rule Municipality that is the county seat and the most populous city of Pitkin County, Colorado, United States. Founded as a mining camp in the Colorado Silver Boom and named because of the abundance of aspen trees in the area, the city is now a ski resort and an upscale tourist center.
USA, Colorado, Aspen, Rocky Mountains and buildings at winter
Group of people at a market, Aspen, Colorado, USA
ASPEN, CO - SEPTEMBER 17, 2011: A window display at a Dior women's clothing shop in Aspen, Colorado - a town known for it's upscale shops. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
ASPEN, CO - SEPTEMBER 17, 2011: Visitors walk past the Ralph Lauren clothing shop in Aspen, Colorado - a town known for it's upscale shops. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
ASPEN, CO - SEPTEMBER 17, 2011: A window display in a Fendi women's handbags and accessories shop in Aspen, Colorado - a town known for it's upscale shops. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
ASPEN, CO - SEPTEMBER 17, 2011: A window display in a Prada women's clothing shop in Aspen, Colorado - a town known for it's upscale shops. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Old Town Park City, Utah, USA, is nestled in a mountain valley flanked by Park City Mountain Resort on one side, and Deer Valley Resort on the other. It is a world-class travel destination and host to global events such as the 2002 Winter Olympics and the Sundance Film Festival.Seen here, stunning fall leaf colors accent the mountain sides above the town.
PARK CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 2: Flags fly on condos at the Park City Mountain Resort on September 2, 2014 in Park City, Utah. The Park City ski resort is locked in a real estate legal battle that could prevent it from opening this coming winter. Many businesses in Park City are predicting catastrophic consequences if the ski resort doesn't open for the winter season. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 2: Restaurants and ski shops sit mostly empty waiting for winter at the base of the Park City Mountain Resort on September 2, 2014 in Park City, Utah. The Park City ski resort is locked in a real estate legal battle that could prevent it from opening this coming winter. Many businesses in Park City are predicting catastrophic consequences if the ski resort doesn't open for the winter season. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 2: People walk across a ski bridge and relax outside businesses on historic Main Street on September 2, 2014 in Park City, Utah. The Park City Mountain Resort is locked in a real estate legal battle that could prevent it from opening this coming winter. Many businesses in Park City are predicting catastrophic consequences if the ski resort doesn't open for the winter season. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 2: People walk up and down historic Main Street on September 2, 2014 in Park City, Utah. The Park City Mountain Resort is locked in a real estate legal battle that could prevent it from opening this coming winter. Many businesses in Park City are predicting catastrophic consequences if the ski resort doesn't open for the winter season. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 2: People walk up and down historic Main Street on September 2, 2014 in Park City, Utah. The Park City Mountain Resort is locked in a real estate legal battle that could prevent it from opening this coming winter. Many businesses in Park City are predicting catastrophic consequences if the ski resort doesn't open for the winter season. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 2: Visitors enjoy the last part of summer at the base of the Park City Mountain Resort on September 2, 2014 in Park City, Utah. The Park City ski resort is locked in a real estate legal battle that could prevent it from opening this coming winter. Many businesses in Park City are predicting catastrophic consequences if the ski resort doesn't open for the winter season. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
Shops on Main Street in downtown Park City, Utah, USA
PARK CITY UTAH USA - Main Street Park City a historic mining town in Wasatch mountains
NANTUCKET, MA - AUGUST 9: A general view of downtown Nantucket on August 9, 2014 in Nantucket, MA. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)
NANTUCKET, MA - AUGUST 9: A general view of sailboats in Nantucket Harbor on August 9, 2014 in Nantucket, MA. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)
NANTUCKET, MA - AUGUST 9: A general view of downtown Nantucket on August 9, 2014 in Nantucket, MA. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)
NANTUCKET, MA - AUGUST 9: A general view of the Jared Coffin House on August 9, 2014 in Nantucket, MA. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)
A shingled building housing a gift shop and juice bar on a street on Nantucket, Massachusetts
Shingle houses on Nuntucket, USA
NANTUCKET, MA - JUNE 28: View of atmosphere at The Screenwriters Tribute at The 19th Annual Nantucket Film Festival on June 28, 2014 in Nantucket, Massachusetts. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Nantucket Film Festival)
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ASPEN, Colo. (AP) - At first, Loly Garcia didn't have to travel far to her jobs in the chic hotels of this fabled tourist town. She shared a tiny studio apartment with her father, brother and a cousin after arriving from El Salvador more than 20 years ago.

But after she married and wanted a home of her own, she had to drive 23 miles west, past tracts of empty land and vacant mansions whose owners visit only a couple of weeks a year, to the mobile home park where she now lives.

The drive eventually wore her down, and she decided to take lower-paying work closer to home. "That commute - it becomes 10 hours a week. It's like working an extra day," said Garcia, 49. "It's hard to live here."

Resort towns like Aspen dramatically demonstrate an unnerving trend: Across the country, the rich are getting richer while the rest of the country is essentially treading water. From 2009 to 2012, inflation-adjusted income for the wealthiest 1 percent of U.S. households surged 31 percent, according to economist Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley. For everyone else, income inched up just 0.4 percent.

In Aspen, the division is especially stark because it goes beyond mere money. The wealth gap is also a geographic divide.

The people who clean the vacation homes, maintain the mansions' gardens and work in the hotels must find housing in mobile home parks or subdivisions squeezed into the few acres of developable space dozens of miles to the west. A lucky few - about half of Aspen's year-round population of 6,700 - are able to score units in the town's unusual affordable housing program that, on the open market, would sell for millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, residents who struggle to find affordable real estate watch an increasing number of houses in town become rarely inhabited vacation properties.

"It's a mirror image of Detroit, where wealth, not poverty, is driving population down," said Mick Ireland, a former three-term Aspen mayor.

Aspen's dilemma is similar to that of other resort towns, from Nantucket, Massachusetts, to Park City, Utah, especially those nestled in the jagged terrain of the western United States. In the West, vast tracts of public land and sheer mountain faces prevent the easy development of suburbs to house workers, pushing clusters of more affordable housing many miles away.

The jobs in these communities are largely in the lower-paying service industry, yet the resort towns are a destination for the global upper class, said Bill Hettinger, author of "Living and Working in Paradise," a book on resort towns.

"In New York City, you can house your resort workers in the Bronx or Queens. But in Aspen, they're in Rifle, (about 70) miles down an icy mountain road," Hettinger said. "That's the problem any resort community faces. It has no middle-income base to build on."

Aspen's median family income of $71,000 is higher than the state average. But the further "down-valley," or to the west, you drive, the more incomes drop until you hit Glenwood Springs, 51 miles west, where the median family income of $54,000 is below average and carpenters, plumbers and other laborers regularly spend hours commuting to Aspen.

The situation would be worse had Aspen not gone to extraordinary lengths to try to avoid being hollowed out by the departure of middle-class and working-class residents. Financed by a 1.5 percent charge on real estate sales and a mandate that any new projects include affordable housing, the city and county run a 40-year-old program that allows people who have worked for one year or longer in Aspen to rent, or buy, cheap residences.

Some of these properties are in prime position, like one-bedroom ski-in, ski-out units at the base of the lifts downtown, added to a new development to comply with the city's regulations.

The properties are allocated in an online lottery. Before the Internet age, the whole town was riveted by suspense over who would win a cherished affordable home. Names were drawn out of a hopper, and the event was broadcast live on the local radio station.

Doctors and lawyers, as priced out of most homes here as carpenters and bartenders, take advantage of the program. Everyone in town praises the program for maintaining a critical mass of year-round families that give Aspen a more lived-in feel than many of its competitors.

"Most ski towns are 20 and drunk, and 75 and retired," said Adam Frisch, 47, an Aspen city councilman, father of two and former banker who was able to buy a house outside the affordable housing program -- what's referred to as a "free market" property.

The housing program has helped maintain part of Aspen's legend, a place where ski bums and teachers rubbed shoulders with rock stars and millionaires in the 1960s and 1970s - and today with billionaires and hedge fund titans.

But many in town grumble about inequality. The mordant joke is that the billionaires are pushing out the millionaires.

Cheaper eateries frequented by locals are relentlessly replaced by upscale restaurants and high-end shops, and even the Aspen realtor's association office was pushed out of town because it couldn't afford to pay the skyrocketing rents in a place where the average property sale is $5 million.

Frisch said he doesn't feel the town has changed, just income inequality nationally, which shows up here in a concentrated form.

"In the 1970s, that upper, upper, upper echelon, they were making 10 times more than the $40,000-a-year teacher," Frisch said. "That same group that shows up here, they are 100 times wealthier than the painter, than the teacher, than the ski bum, than they were in the '80s. The homes are bigger, the jets are bigger."

Ireland, however, warned that Aspen's feel is different than a decade or two ago, when year-round residents lived in all parts of town.

"When I moved to town, you could rent a room one of those houses on the west end, and the owner would come out for the music festival in the summer," said Ireland, who arrived in 1979. "Now the guy doesn't need your $400-a-month and doesn't want you trampling on the carpet."

Some here say living amid rampant inequality is just the price one pays for residing in what locals sometimes call "Disneyland for adults."

Elizabeth Milias, a former official in President George W. Bush's administration who writes a blog critical of Aspen's political establishment, said she has grown tired of complaints.

"There's that sense that, my God, their lives would have been so much better if they lived in Cleveland," she said. "Aspen can't exist without high-end tourists. They signed up for that."

That's why Jose Herrera moved to these mountains from Mexico. The 25-year-old construction worker can't afford the prices in town and lives dozens of miles away in a mobile home park. But he doesn't resent the wealthy.

"The company where I work builds houses for rich people, and because of that it pays well," Herrera said. "One way or another, we help each other out."

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