Just how bad is it?
And is there any hope?
Those questions lie at the heart of a just-approved $50,000 study of Payson's housing needs.
The study by housing expert Martina Kuehl will provide a wealth of statistics on the workforce, cost of housing, rents, vacant lots and impact of high home prices on employers.
The town hopes the study will provide the statistical foundation for its affordable housing strategy -- and the baseline information necessary for most grant applications.
On the face of it, the veteran housing consultant faces a daunting task. Payson's median income is an estimated $34,000, based on census data. That's enough to qualify for a $111,000 mortgage at 6.5 percent.
Unfortunately, the average house in Payson costs $220,000 to $232,000, according to various estimates.
If someone put 20 percent down on the average Payson home, they'd need to borrow at least $200,000 -- and that would require an income nearly double the Payson average.
The town has been grappling with the resulting specter of a community dominated by wealthy retirees where teachers, police officers, fire fighters, forest rangers, nurses and most town employees can't afford to buy a house -- never mind restaurant workers, shop clerks, carpenters and mechanics.
The town council approved the ambitious study to fill in the statistical details and develop an action plan at last week's meeting. Kuehl, based in Humboldt, Ariz., has done similar studies for Sedona, Prescott, Prescott Valley, Pinal County and others.
The town had originally planned to spend $70,000 on the study, but Payson Housing Program Manager Bethany Beck said that the staff had stripped off all the "bells and whistles" to get the cost down to $50,000, with $20,000 due immediately and $30,000 when Kuehl completes the study in November.
"This will give us the foundation from which our housing goals would be set," said Beck. "We have not, to this point, committed many resources" to affordable housing, but this study would make it possible to develop a strategy and apply for grants in an organized way.
Councilor Su Connell noted, "I was very impressed with the layout of this -- with the housing inventory, vacant lots, input from local employees. I'm very excited about the layout and the deliverables as presented."
The town has tried various stopgap approaches to encourage builders to provide more "workforce" housing. That includes offering federally subsidized grant programs to help low-income residents upgrade homes and mobile homes, voluntary contributions of land and money by developers to groups like Habitat for Humanity and various other grant-based housing assistance programs. However, the housing downturn has stalled a number of project that had made commitments for such contributions.