Liz Kistler: The Many Faces of Jeffco’s Affordable Housing Crisis

The scarcity of affordable housing in Jefferson County affects a wide range of people in a variety of situations. Who are they? People who work service jobs, college students, retirees, people with disabilities, people who have left homelessness behind, people making Colorado or Denver minimum wage, and people who work in certain professions, like teaching, or are at earlier points in their careers. This blog series gives insight into how a range of individuals are experiencing Jeffco’s affordable housing crisis.

“We thought we were good-paying employers and we still have quite a ways to go to get our employees up to where they need to be to live and work in Arvada."

Liz Kistler says she has had an awakening in the last six months about the Jeffco affordable housing crisis. As she has learned more about how costs have skyrocketed for employees of her audio/video event and installation company, she has become convinced she needs to become politically involved in solutions.

Kistler, who owns Equalized Productions in Arvada, says fully half of her employees are struggling in one way or another to find decent, affordable housing situations. One rents a room from a family. Another lives with his parents to be able to save money. Another commutes 40 minutes.

“We thought we were good-paying employers and we still have quite a ways to go to get our employees up to where they need to be to live and work in Arvada,” she said.

Kistler has set a stretch goal around employee pay. In the next five years, she wants to bring the lowest-paid employee in her eight-person company up to a wage that allows them to live in Arvada, not just making a living wage in Colorado.

“No business owner wants to be the guy who’s not paying their employees enough to live,” she said.

As an Arvada native – and someone who started her working life making just above minimum wage – she has a unique vantage point.

Twenty years ago at age 18, Kistler moved out of her parents’ home to strike out on her own. She worked as a cashier at a local store making $9 an hour. She paid $450 a month for a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Arvada that was 600 square feet, and still had enough for utilities, food, and a little bit for extras.

Out of curiosity, she looked up what the rent is at that modest apartment.

“That same apartment is still available for $1,455 a month. So, 22 years later, it has tripled in price.”

And other costs have gone up substantially – food, cellphone service, car payments and more. By her calculations, that apartment might be barely affordable for someone in a lower-wage or even Colorado minimum wage job, she said, but it would be very tight.

“The wages just haven’t gone up commensurate with the cost of living here in Jefferson County and Arvada,” she said. Minimum wage in Colorado in 2024 is just $14.42.

Research from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, shows that the ratio between housing prices and wages has increased substantially in the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood metropolitan statistical area since 1980. That means that home prices relative to income are higher than they have ever been.

That’s not a surprise to business owners – or employees – in Jeffco.

Kistler praised the Arvada Chamber of Commerce for informing and mobilizing the business community. She believes solutions are available, but there must be investment – by business owners, the city, the county and the state.

“We know what it takes,” she said. “It takes money”