The population in Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties is expanding and becoming more diverse, with the Latino population growing faster than the white population between 2010 and 2020, according to data published last month by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But the 2020 census also indicates discrepancies in diversity and occupancy across the region and shows how the fates of the resort towns and their nearby locales are intertwined.   

Colorado has become more populous, according to the 2020 census, with a population increase of 14.8% between 2010 and 2020, making it one of the fastest-growing states in the country.

Locally, the three-county region has gained a total of 9,040 people over the past decade.

Garfield County’s population reached 61,685 people in 2020 — a 9.4% increase from 2010. Eagle County’s population rose 6.8% from 52,197 in 2010 to 55,731 in 2020, while Pitkin County had the lowest population growth among the three counties, with a 1.2% increase since 2010, from 17,148 to 17,358 in 2020.

“This actually is a decrease from the 2019 estimates that the state demographers shared out,” Kara Silbernagel, Pitkin County’s policy and project manager, said at the board of county commissioners work session on Aug. 24. The state’s 2019 estimates showed the county’s population reaching 17,756.

While resort towns such as Aspen and Vail have seen their share of vacant homes rise, the population in many of the towns located downvalley of the resort centers has boomed, the 2020 census shows.

High vacancy rates in resort towns

Aspen’s population grew by 5.2% from 2010 to 2020 — 6,658 to 7,004 —  but the census data doesn’t provide a full picture as part-time residents aren’t part of the count. 

Meanwhile, the city gained 268 housing units. During the previous decade, the housing market in Aspen added 1,575 units. 

“I don’t think it’s a lot,” said Ben Anderson, Aspen’s principal long-range planner. “It’s representative of the fact that in Aspen there’s always been kind of a real concern about growth.”

Most of the 268, Anderson said, are deed-restricted housing units, including Burlingame Ranch Phase II and Ajax Condominiums, both built in the past 10 years. 

“I don’t think that there’s going to be much opportunity to find free-market opportunities for workers to be in Aspen. It’s going to be through a deed-restricted product,” Anderson said. “I think that’s one of the big questions for the community right now is how much we want to facilitate affordable-housing units to meet this continuing demand to house our workers.”

While the number of housing units increased by 4.5% in the past 10 years, vacant units increased by 10.1%, from 2,413 or 40.7% of the units in 2010 to 2,657 or 42.9% of the housing stock in 2020. This increase was, according to Anderson, driven mostly by the conversion of existing housing units from full-time residences to second homes or vacation rental units. 

The vacancy rate for the free-market units reaches 75% to 80%, according to Anderson’s calculations, based on vacant units and existing deed-restricted homes, which he assumed are nearly 100% occupied. 

“It confirms some of the things that we understand anecdotally,” he said. “Free-market multifamily (homes) that may have housed a working local and then in the last 10 years have — because of the prices of these products — gotten so expensive that when they went to sell, they weren’t being sold back to people who were living here.” 

Single-family and duplex homes have been following this same trend. Fewer are occupied year-round and are typically sold and used as second or third homes, he said. 

Mick Ireland, a former mayor of Aspen, also supported the idea that vacant units in Aspen and Pitkin County are predominantly made up of vacation rentals and second homes. In his analysis of the 2010 census for the city, Ireland found that 58% of the single-family homes in Aspen were second homes in 2012, compared with 45% of the single-family homes in 2003. 

This trend has continued since 2010. Ireland said that some neighborhoods, especially in the downtown core of Aspen and the West End, have lost their permanent local resident population over the past decade because homes have been converted into vacation rental units. This could cause a loss for the community, Ireland said, as local homeowners are more likely to volunteer and invest time in local nonprofits and charities.

house for rent
The West End of Aspen has been losing its permanent local resident population over the past decade as more homes are being turned into vacation rental units and second homes. The city of Aspen saw its vacancy rate increase to 42.9% of housing units in 2020, up from 40.7% in 2010, according to census data. Credit: Laurine Lassalle/Aspen Journalism

Snowmass Village followed the same pattern, with a 10.5% increase in housing units but a high vacancy rate increasing from 43.7% in 2010 to 46.6% in 2020. In Vail, 67.3% of residential units were also vacant in 2020. Ten years ago, the vacancy rate for Vail was at 64%. 

Ripple effect on downvalley communities

While Avon and Vail lost a significant part of their population, with decreases of 5.8% and 8.9%, respectively, according to the census, Gypsum saw its population increase by 24.1% along with its occupancy rate, which grew from 91.1% in 2010 to 96.9% in 2020.

Avon Town Manager Eric Heil wrote in an email that he believes “most of the decrease did not actually occur and is a result of substantial underreporting by the Hispanic community in Avon.”

In the email, Heil added, “We also suspect that we are experiencing a net outflow of full-time residents when real estate is sold due to housing prices where most real estate sales are to second-home owners and investors. Our total number of short-term rental tax licenses has remained fairly consistent, around 350 licenses for the last three years.”

In Pitkin County, occupied housing units represented 60.6% of the housing stock in 2020, while Garfield County had an occupancy rate of 92.8%. 

The population in Carbondale, located downvalley from Aspen and usually presented as a more-affordable housing option for locals, increased only by 0.1% over the past 10 years. Glenwood Springs’ population increased by 3.6%.

“With new housing completed since the 2010 census, we were anticipating to top 10,000 residents with the 2020 census,” Bryana Starbuck, public information officer for the city of Glenwood Springs, wrote in an email.

Glenwood Springs gained 163 units between 2010 and 2020, a 4% increase for a total of 4,276, with multiple housing projects in West Glenwood.

The increase in housing demand and the affordable-housing shortage in the Roaring Fork Valley have pushed local workers and families farther downvalley and to the Colorado River Valley.

“While the portion of residential properties (single family and multifamily) in local ownership (in the greater Roaring Fork Region) decreased from 73% to 72%, nearly 60% of new residential property valuation added between 2005 and 2017 was in the hands of non-locals,” according to the Greater Roaring Fork Housing Study from 2019.

This report also stated that nearly 40% of the region’s population growth between 2001 and 2017 occurred in the New Castle-to-Parachute area, and nearly 30% of the region’s growth happened between Eagle and Gypsum.

RFTA bus at Ruby Park
RFTA buses allow the local workforce living downvalley to commute daily to Aspen. While Pitkin County saw the lowest population growth in the last decade, at 1.2%, among the three counties making up the Roaring Fork Valley, Garfield County grew 9.4% and Eagle County’s population expanded 6.8%, according to 2020 census data. Credit: Laurine Lassalle/Aspen Journalism

Families are more likely to find affordable-housing options downvalley, which leads to Garfield County having a younger population. 

In 2020, people younger than 18 represented  25.2% of Garfield County’s population while  accounting for only 16.6% in Pitkin County. 

Aspen School District has seen its school enrollment decline between 2010 and 2020, according to the Colorado Department of Education. For the 2010-11 school year, there were 1,727 children enrolled, while for the 2019-20 school year, that number dropped to 1,653 (and to 1,594 for the 2020-21 school year, which was impacted by COVID-19).

The Roaring Fork School District — which covers Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs — saw its enrollment fluctuate over the decade, from 5,212 students for the 2010-11 school year to 5,647 for 2019-20 (and to 5,292 for 2020-21). 

Yet, Glenwood Springs’ population under the age of 18 decreased by 4%. The number of non-Hispanic white teens and children dropped by 17.5% in town, while the number of their Latino counterparts increased by 5.8%. 

The Garfield RE-2 school district, which serves the communities of New Castle, Silt and Rifle, counted 4,980 students for the 2010-11 school year and 4,802 students for 2019-20 (down to 4,526 last year). 

In Parachute, 30.7% of the population was younger than 18 in 2020 — a 24.1% increase since 2010. Battlement Mesa also saw its youth population grow by about 15.9%, with youths accounting for 27% of its population.

Parachute and Battlement Mesa are among the Western Slope towns that have seen the largest overall population increases, with Parachute up 28.1% and Battlement Mesa up 21.6%. This increase corresponds to an addition of 305 people for Parachute and 967 people for Battlement Mesa over 10 years. 

Parachute Town Manager Stuart McArthur and Parachute Town Mayor Roy McClung said most of Parachute’s population growth was due to the reopening of two buildings at the Cottonwood View apartment complex. According to the 2020 census, Parachute’s housing market only added three new units over 10 years. That is probably because the two buildings were being refurbished during the 2010 count and were therefore registered as vacant, according to the census definitions. In 2010, 31.2% of the units in Parachute were vacant, but in 2020, vacant units represented only 7% of the housing stock. 

“Parachute is the affordable-housing solution for Garfield County,” McArthur and McClung wrote in an email. 

Meanwhile, the local school district, Garfield 16, saw its enrollment increase from 1,133 students in 2010-11 to 1,341 in 2019-20 (and to 1,159 in 2020-21). 

“A year or so ago, the school district had to add several kindergarten classes,” McArthur and McClung wrote. “Finding additional teachers is always a challenge here.”

The Latino population is growing but seeing geographic shifts 

As the local population increased, it also became more diverse, with Latinos outpacing all other racial groups. In Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties, the Latino population grew from 33,228 in 2010 to 38,314 in 2020, now representing 28.4% of the combined counties’ population, while they accounted for 26.4% of the population in 2010.

“We are the backbone of the economy,” said Alex Sanchez, executive director of Voces Unidas de las Montañas. “What the census oftentimes shows is the need for governments, for institutions and ecosystems to realize that our community is no longer tiny and small.”

While the Latino population in Pitkin County represents 10% of the population, it accounts for 31.7% of Garfield County’s population, where it grew by 22.4% between 2010 and 2020. Most of that growth happened in Rifle and Silt, where the Latino population increased by 52.1% and 57.6%, respectively. 

Sanchez attributed part of the population shift to the loss of Basalt’s Pan and Fork mobile home park. In 2013, the town of Basalt closed the neighborhood, where about 300 people used to live. That site, located in a floodplain, is being redeveloped into a public park with a commercial and residential project located closer to Two Rivers Road. The loss of the housing units prompted many families to move to the Colorado River Valley, said Sanchez, who sees the relocation of mostly Latino families out of Basalt as part of a larger trend.

Basalt and Carbondale saw their Latino population decrease by 15.5% and 22.3%, respectively. 

“Carbondale and Basalt are also very unaffordable unless it’s a mobile park, and even those mobile home parks, there’s lots of challenges with people even being priced out,” Sanchez said. “Affordable housing to the extent that exists in the valley, that’s farther down in Garfield County.”

The Latino population now accounts for 35.5% of Glenwood Springs, a 16.5% increase from 2010. The Latino population represents 40.7% of Rifle’s population and 38.9% of Silt’s. Ten years ago, 30.4% of Rifle’s population and 29.8% of Silt’s population was Latino. 

Cars drive on the Grand Avenue Bridge in Glenwood Springs
Cars drive on the Grand Avenue Bridge in Glenwood Springs that leads to Interstate 70 and the communities of New Castle, Silt, Rifle and Parachute to the west, and to Gypsum, Eagle, Avon and Vail to the east. Silt and Rifle saw their population grow by 20.7% and 13.8%, respectively, between 2010 and 2020. In Eagle County, Gypsum saw the highest population increase, up 24.1% from 2010, while Vail lost nearly 9% of its population. Credit: Laurine Lassalle/Aspen Journalism

“How long can we retain our workforce when our workforce has to move all the way to Mesa County?” Sanchez said, referring to Parachute’s and Battlement Mesa’s proximity to the Mesa County line. 

Those two towns saw an increase in their overall population, but while the Latino population in Parachute dropped from 440 people in 2010 to 328 in 2020, Battlement Mesa’s Latino population rose by 77.3% and now represents about 25.8% of the town’s 5,438 inhabitants.

“More housing opportunities became available over the years in Battlement Mesa due to the opening of an apartment complex that had been closed for many years and the change of ownership of that and another complex,” McArthur and McClung wrote. “Also, properties for mobile homes were improved and the homes sold for a very low price.”

An effort was made in 2020 by valley leaders, including Latino groups, to identify places where the population, especially the number of Latinos, was undercounted in the 2010 census and to encourage people to participate in the 2020 census. Yet, it’s hard to quantify how much a participation increase may have contributed to the Latino population growth reported by the census, Ireland said.

Sanchez said the Latino population remains undercounted and a better job needs to be done. 

While the tri-county population is changing and becoming more diverse, the Latino community still doesn’t feel included in the decision-making process, Sanchez said. 

“The power imbalance that exists in the greater Roaring Fork Valley and region is unacceptable,” Sanchez said. “All of us should have a seat at the table.”

The COVID-19 pandemic left an unclear picture of the current population but worsened the housing shortage

As soon as the 2020 census was launched last year, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shut down U.S. Census Bureau offices, which made the count more challenging than usual. Because the pandemic was just happening, the impacts of school shutdowns and the rise of remote classes and remote work weren’t measured in the census data, which is more likely depicting the population pre-COVID. 

Anderson said the city of Aspen is now trying to understand how the population migration trend has fundamentally changed since March 2020. “What I think has become pretty clearly evident over the last 18 months is housing affordability in those downvalley communities,” Anderson said. “It’s certainly not just Aspen that was impacted by this, but I think Basalt and Carbondale and Glenwood Springs and Rifle and Parachute were impacted similarly — to different degrees and for different reasons and real estate markets are different — but affordability in those communities, I think, is increasingly a problem.”

This story ran in the Sept. 13 editions of The Aspen Times and Sky-Hi News, the Sept. 12 edition of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and the Sept. 11 edition of the Vail Daily.

Laurine Lassalle is Aspen Journalism’s data desk editor, where she works to catalogue and analyze local public data. She also heads our our “Tracking the Curve” project, documenting COVID-19 in Pitkin,...