Work Force Being Priced Out Of Payson

Week 1: The economics of affordable housing

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Like dominos knocking each other over from one side of the country to the other, the housing market has changed.

Real estate prices in Payson have shot up, while salaries have not.

In many ways, Payson is still the desirable small town where the weather is good, the crime is low and everyone knows your name at the grocery store. In other ways, it is changing to a less desirable place where young people cannot get a foothold and where businesses cannot keep employees.

A woman who grew up in Payson and wants to stay in her hometown has to commute to the Valley every day in order to pay for her home. A man joins the local police force, moving his wife and children to town, and finds that he must pay more than he can afford for a house far outside town limits.

For the next six weeks, the Payson Roundup will look into the faces of those who are struggling. We will ask how this happened and turn over every rock trying to find a solution. Most importantly, we will try to explain why affordable housing matters.

Below is the first story in this six-part series:

by Teresa McQuerrey, Roundup staff reporter

The numbers tell the story of Payson's economy.

The median income in Payson is approximately $33,600.

The median price of housing for the "work force" making that median wage in Payson is $232,500, according to information from the Central Arizona Board of Realtors.

To understand what kind of a gap that represents, consider that a two-income family bringing in around $60,000 per year might qualify for $220,000 in financing provided their credit scores and existing obligations made them a good risk for a lender.

On paper, the situation may seem bleak, but sit across the table from someone struggling to make a life in Payson and the reality is far worse than the numbers can ever tell.

Meet Payson Police Officer Reed Watson.

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Reed Watson of the Payson Police Department and his wife, Becky, looked for a home to buy in the town limits 2-1/2 years ago, but what had cost $150,000 when they'd gone to Mesa a few years earlier, was going for $300,000 or more.

"The average salary for a Payson patrolman is a base of $41,000," Watson said. "Working a whole lot of overtime, that might be brought up to $51,000.

"That would qualify someone with no credit card debt and an excellent credit rating for a mortgage of $155,000 to $175,000. And there are none of those for sale, most (that would be big enough for a family of six like Watson's) are $350,000 and above."

Watson and his wife, Becky, both work. She is a teacher's assistant at Rim Country Middle School. The couple have four children, 13, 11, 5 and 4 years old.

He worked for the Payson Police Department five years ago, making about $28,000. His wife took care of children in their home.

Financial struggles made them pull up stakes and move to the Valley, where they bought the house Watson had grown up in from his brother, and he went to work for the Mesa Police Department.

"However, market adjustments were made (in town salaries) and I came back believing the situation had improved," Watson said. "This would have been a more than accurate assumption had the housing costs not skyrocketed out of control. What were $150,000 homes when we left, are now $300,000 and above."

Upon returning to the area from Mesa, Watson and his family rented for seven months before they found a house to buy in Beaver Valley for $210,000. The price was "more than what we felt was comfortable," Watson said.

"And this was done based on advice from local Realtors to, ‘buy more than you can afford now because it will only get worse.' I would not have been able to qualify for the house had it not been for my salary at Mesa PD, but it was still considerably less than everything that would have been big enough for us in Payson."

With both Watsons working, one entire salary (his) goes to the mortgage and utilities and the payment on the one car the family owns. His wife's salary buys the groceries, gasoline and other household necessities.

"Ultimately, I think that the most frightening picture is not my situation, but that of some of the officers that have been here for over 10 years," Watson said. "I know of several examples within our department of officers that purchased homes at a time when their families were younger and financial situations were very constraining.

"They settled for below middle class-type homes with the hopes that an investment in a career as a police officer would eventually lead to an improved lifestyle. After what are years of invested lives, their hopes of improved housing and lifestyle have not increased, but diminished. They are less likely now to be able to afford a better quality of life than they were when they were rookies."

Who will take this job?

Watson said he sees another problem arising in the near future as veterans on the PPD retire and others move on.

"Right now, the Payson Police Department is unsurpassed in its professionalism and the level of service it offers residents," he said.

He believes the town government will be hard pressed to bring in the experienced law enforcement leadership it will need in coming years at the salaries it is able to pay, because ... Payson's police salaries are not enough to make it possible to afford a home in the area.

"My biggest concern is that in 10 to 15 years, when my children want to buy homes of their own, I will have to tell them, ‘Sorry. Owning a home is only for the rich.' It's disheartening," Watson said.

Trying to live in your hometown

Jackie Speer and her husband make their home in Tonto Basin because they could not afford to live in Payson, though both are graduates of Payson High School. Speer commutes to the Valley for work in order to pay the mortgage on their home.

"Like many young parents, my husband and I like the idea of raising our children in a small community," Speer said. She has been commuting daily for two years, but has continued to look for work in Payson.

"I think that the problem is not only with real estate prices, but with the job market in general," she said. "I make over $60,000 per year with full benefits and retirement. I have not been able to find a job for $10 per hour in Payson. The couple of times I did get a call I was told there were no benefits offered."

In her job search, she has found openings in banking, service, retail, construction/manual labor or health care.

"Payson has no real industry," she said. "I guess we are going to have to force all the service workers out of town before employers realize that the demand for employees has risen and therefore they must raise their wages. And it's not only the private businesses. The county and town wages are just as bad."

Salaries for the "professional work force" -- police officers, firefighters, government and school employees, casino workers -- range from approximately $21,000 for the average casino employee to about $64,000 for sergeants in the police department, according to representatives from those employers.

Payson School District pays an average of $43,508 to a member of the teaching staff, in Pine the average is $34,224.

"The average is somewhat misleading," said Mike Clark, superintendent/principal of the Pine Strawberry School. "Two of my teachers have been on staff 20-plus years, placing them at the top of the salary schedule. If I pulled them out of the formula, the average would be $31,837."

At some point, workers have to ask themselves if they can really afford to live in Payson. For someone who grew up here, that can be a painful decision.

"Telling someone if they don't like what they're making they can just move is not the answer," Reed Watson said. "I have heard many people in this community say, ‘You should have to sacrifice to live in Payson.'

"That is an insulting and ignorant point of view."

The numbers: Payson and surrounding areas

In most towns where housing costs have outpriced the local workforce, the working class moves into the outlying towns and commutes. But in Northern Gila County, housing in the nearby communities is almost out of reach.

The housing situation in the Pine and Strawberry area shows the median price of a work force home -- one with approximately 1,750 square feet, three bedrooms and two baths -- at $277,450.

When Michael Hughes, chairman of the Central Arizona Board of Realtors' Work Force Housing Committee, checked listings for the Payson Roundup on April 20, 52 homes were available in the Pine and Strawberry area. There were 121 listings for "work force" housing in Payson, with a median price of $232,500 and an average of $252,857.

The lowest priced home in the northwest quadrant of Payson (a two-bath, three-bedroom manufactured home, between 1,250 and 1,500 square feet) was $154,800, Hughes said. On the other side of Beeline, in the northeast quadrant, the lowest price was $109,900, which was for a 1966 mobile home. Star Valley had 13 "work force" homes available. The median price is $188,900, the average is $242,731.

As for buildable lots: Payson had 85 on April 20, excluding the Chaparral Pines and Rim Club areas. The median price was $94,500. Of the 23 lots available in Pine and Strawberry, nine were active, with a median price of $100,000.

Coming up

Week 2: How did this happen?

Week 3: How do retirees fit into the Payson affordable housing equation?

Week 4: Why does it matter if there is no affordable housing?

Week 5: Solutions

Week 6: Community round table. Open to the public. RSVP to (928) 474-5251, ext. 115.

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