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One month before they left the city where they were building their lives together, Rachel Booth and Youri Zaragoza stood on the lawn outside their Denver bungalow and watched as strangers picked through their belongings.
Gone was the iron Booth had bought just a year earlier; the clothes-drying rack went to a former colleague who had made a quick visit to say goodbye. The grill was getting interest from a few passersby, as were the how-to books Zaragoza had read on becoming a new father. A young man in a baseball cap lifted a Turkish coffee pot into the air, and motioned to Booth.
“Three bucks,” Booth said. “It’s gotta go.”
It was a warm, sunny, early fall morning in Denver, the kind of day on West 36th Avenue that made the married couple contemplate everything they’d miss about their West Highland home. Leaves rustled in the large oak out front; parents pushed baby strollers along the sidewalk; an old man waved as he walked his Labrador retriever; and a gas lawn mower purred in the distance.
“I absolutely love this place,” Booth, 35, said. She gestured toward Zaragoza, 43, who was dressed in a black T-shirt and stonewashed jean shorts. “Youri doesn’t want to move.” He was leaning against their covered porch, next to his brother-in-law who’d come from France to help them pack.
“It’s complicated,” Zaragoza said. “But I know this is the right decision for us.”
When they moved into their house, it would’ve been unfathomable to think they’d be liquidating nearly everything two and a half years later for a move to Lyon, France, where Zaragoza’s sister lives. They’d thought of their beige-brick one-story as a refuge, imagining a quiet life punctuated by long walks in the nearby park, beers together in the backyard, and sunsets that would make their friends who didn’t live in Colorado jealous. In the winter of 2020, Zaragoza proposed on the front porch. “A lot of memories were already made here for us,” said Booth, who grew up in Virginia and moved to Colorado 10 years ago. “It’s like every inch of this place tells a piece of our story.”
That is to say, it was magical—until it wasn’t. Over the past couple of years, the two found themselves besieged by the ever-increasing cost of living that had them rethinking life in their adopted city. The doubts started with climbing costs at the grocery store, followed by rising gas prices. “It felt like nothing was going to be affordable again,” Booth said. Water, electricity, insurance—all these costs were increasing, and seemingly all at once. The mortgage on their 112-year-old, 1,100-square-foot home was $2,500 a month, and most everyone had told them they were lucky to have such an “affordable” monthly payment.
Then, this past spring, Booth learned she was pregnant with the couple’s first child. They called daycare facilities to inquire about prices, all of which came back with budget-straining monthly quotes that just about matched their mortgage payment. By April, they were having serious conversations about their options.
Combined, the couple earned well into the six figures. They rented Booth’s former condominium in Uptown at a profit, and they both had good jobs. She worked in international trade compliance for an export control firm in Denver; he was a creative director who recently was employed by Broomfield-based Crocs shoe company.
In every way, Booth and Zaragoza could afford to live in Denver. They weren’t looking for sympathy. They could cover their bills; they could pay for the house. They had a healthy amount of savings. But they also did the math: Roughly 11 percent of their total income would now be going to childcare. They were spending a little more than that on the mortgage. Then, there were the increasingly expensive groceries and utilities and insurance. Every month, it seemed like rising costs were taking more of their hard-earned money. “At some point, you have to say, ‘We’re not going to fall into this financial trap,’ ” Zaragoza said.
There were so many questions—about the money, about the European weather, about living on a different continent. One night this past spring, Booth finally asked the question that would’ve seemed absurd to them just a couple of years earlier. It was the same one that thousands of millennials are now asking themselves across the Denver metro area: Can we afford to stick around?
Millennials came to Denver because of the cool factor. They came for the breweries and the coffeeshops, for the hiking trails and the sunshine and the postcard views of the Rocky Mountains. They came for the growing tech industry and because they were highly educated and therefore in demand.
For a decade, the Mile High City has been among the most popular places in the United States for folks born between 1981 and 1996. The total population in Denver and the surrounding metro area increased 2.8 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, a number fueled in large part by millennials moving into the area. According to the most recent census figures, millennials in 2021 made up about 33 percent of Denver’s population—a four-percentage-point jump from five years earlier. In raw numbers, the city saw an influx of more than 30,000 millennials between 2016 and 2021, an increase of roughly 15 percent. Step outside these days, and approximately one in every three people you meet in the city will be between the ages of 26 and 41.
This group, as a whole, has not had it easy. In many ways, millennials have been a generation delayed—economically and socially—compared with generations that came before them. “I look at my parents and where they were heading financially at my age, and I just don’t see that as a possibility in my life,” says McKenzie Fuller, 26, a young millennial from Iowa who shares a two-bedroom Capitol Hill apartment with her Gen Z friend, 24-year-old Jenna Dukes.
“How can you blame them?” says Adam Lippert, a University of Colorado Denver sociology professor who has been doing research on millennials since 2008, in reference to the generation’s ambivalence about their place in the world. For the most part, the generation grew up in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and many of them were still at home when their parents struggled through the Great Recession. Later, millennials dealt with myriad housing crises as they were attempting to create independent lives. They have contended with massive student debt burdens and extraordinary wealth inequalities. Census Bureau data show the annual average salary, adjusted for inflation, for a millennial in 2020 was 20 percent lower than that of a baby boomer at the same age. Now, they’ve lived through a pandemic and are dealing—like all of us—with inflation unlike anyone has seen in roughly half a century.
A Georgetown University survey conducted last year revealed that many serious life decisions millennials make today are likely a product of simple financial survival. Nearly half of all millennials in the United States are living paycheck to paycheck—six percentage points higher than in 2020. More than two-thirds of millennials surveyed also say they don’t think they could handle the financial implications of an unexpected, major expense, like a car accident or a substantial medical bill. And only one-third of millennials say they have taken steps to save for retirement—despite 43 percent in 2020 saying saving was a top financial goal. Stability, in many ways, has become less of a certainty and more of an open-ended question.
“Millennials are keen on life experiences rather than material possessions,” Lippert adds. “Then you read about a young, vibrant city like Denver, and you say, ‘Why not?’ You’re rolling the dice, but you’re rolling the dice in a pretty cool place.”
One night this past fall, Tara Forman and her friend Jes Leffler were at the opening of Town Hall Collaborative, a female-owned exhibition and community space off Santa Fe Drive, near downtown. They were there as entrepreneurs: Forman and Leffler own and operate Fruits of Our Labor, a small business that offers do-it-yourself art events, and they were displaying their wares to the mostly female crowd. The pair originally started Fruits two years ago, but pandemic delays had sidetracked the operation. Tonight, though, felt like something of a coming-out party.
Forman was just about to turn 39; Leffler was 36. They’d been friends for nearly two decades, since their days at the University of South Florida, in Tampa. Forman, who’d moved to Denver nearly eight years ago to be with the man who would become her husband, now has a six-year-old son and owns a house in Lakewood.
Leffler moved to the Mile High City shortly after Forman, and she and her husband also live in Lakewood. Leffler had previously worked in advertising in New York City and San Francisco, so when she came to Denver in 2018, everything seemed affordable in comparison. She, too, has a child and, like Forman, a husband who works a full-time job.
As the two women stood at their booth at Town Hall, potential customers rooted through bags of felt and ribbon and pulled tie-dyed T-shirts off a rack. A DJ played house music from a stage near the front door, where people milled around a bar. A vegan food truck was parked outside.
Leffler had recently left a job with an advertising agency to pursue the fledgling business full time. Forman was still holding down a part-time job in the events industry but also was spending nearly 40 hours each week on Fruits of Our Labor. Although they lived comfortably—their only significant debts were their homes—the women’s money worries felt like a low-grade fever that followed them from one day to the next. This past summer, a friend had been laid off from a tech job, and the women knew others who were struggling to find freelancing gigs or affordable places to rent or to buy in and around the city. It seemed everyone they knew complained about the cost of living in Denver—where both Forman and Leffler hoped to grow their futures.
Forman was the first to feel it. She and her husband, Matt Close, had once lived in an apartment downtown. Over time, though, she says they “kept getting pushed farther and farther away from where we really wanted to live”—namely in a single-family home within Denver proper. Lakewood became their reality when they finally decided it was time for homeownership. At $400,000, their house was affordable, at least relative to what they’d seen in the city—which these days has ranked among the nation’s most expensive when it comes to both average rents and prices paid for homes. Realtor.com reported in September that the median listing price in the city was $585,000—up more than 10 percent over the same time in 2021—and the median sales price was $645,000. In more stark terms, a report this past summer by Point2, which covers real estate trends, showed metro Denver homes, on average, increased in price $94 each day between 2011 and 2021—placing the region 10th among 187 metro areas nationally when it came to average daily gain.
Forman’s father retired in February 2021, which got her thinking about what her own family’s future would look like in five, 10, 15 years. She wondered if things might simply get too expensive and they might someday have to move. Her husband had grown up in Florida and worked in sales for a machinery-supply company north of Denver. Recently, he’d finished an MBA, paid for by his company, but the time away from the family had put Forman in charge of everything at home while her husband worked and studied.
More and more, she found herself thinking about her parents; how paying for the house and cars and kids seemed so easy back then. “I feel like people my age are stepping back and wondering what’s happened to their lives,” Forman says. “Like, is this really what we’ve all worked for?”
She and Leffler were discouraged. “You’re told that hard work pays off, but it seems like you get on a hamster wheel and it never stops,” Leffler says. The economy wasn’t helping. A recently updated PayScale survey showed that while groceries in the Denver metro area remained below the national average, any benefit was offset by the avalanche of far-above-average transportation costs and poor housing affordability.
While Leffler had initially thought of Denver as a financial escape from San Francisco, the changes to the cost of living had begun to remake the Mile High City in the image of some of America’s most unaffordable places. Leffler was increasingly concerned about her husband getting laid off from his job as a software engineer. What would her family do if something significant suddenly happened to make their financial situation untenable? Denver had once been the place Leffler could see herself “relax a little, live the life I always imagined, maybe escape my workaholic lifestyle.” These days, though? “I’m right back to that life,” she says.
As interest rates increased and the economy started to slow in mid-2022, real estate agent Daniel Dixon began hearing from potential millennial clients who hoped their window to homeownership might begin to open. “They think this is the moment the housing bubble bursts in Colorado,” the 37-year-old says. It’s a feeling born from helplessness, Dixon adds. So many thirtysomethings want to stay in Denver but in recent years have been shut out of the three-bed-two-bath-white-picket-fence dream.
Every housing market has peaks and valleys, Dixon has told clients. But the idea that the current economic uncertainty would somehow bring wholesale change to metro-area real estate is a mirage. “It’s a tough conversation to have,” says Dixon, the chief executive of Englewood-based the Dixon Group. “I’m telling people we’re never again going to see that $300,000 single-family home in Denver. It’s not happening, and that’s the reality we’ve just got to accept.”
Meanwhile, millennials have entered the not-so-fun stage of life where they’re beginning to focus on purchasing power—or, perhaps, their lack of it. “Millennials are the generation of contradictions,” Lippert, the sociology professor, says. “They’re more educated than anyone, but they have more debt than anyone. When they’re sitting at home, they’re looking at affordability, how much they’re working, and how those dollars aren’t going as far as they have for previous generations. That plays a big role in decision-making, especially if you’re living in or around Denver. You’re asking yourself, What am I really getting? Can I really afford to be here?”
Dixon says many of his millennial clients who have bought in the metro area had their parents cover significant portions of their houses’ down payments. Thirtysomething millennials are part of a generation of Americans who are hamstrung by student debt. They entered adulthood around the time of the 2008 financial crisis, which was followed by rising college costs and slow wage growth. An Experian report released this year showed that millennials, on average, had more than $100,000 of debt in 2021—a 15 percent jump from just one year earlier. If that weren’t bad enough, nearly half of millennials believe debt has locked them out of homeownership. “That’s the reality of where we are today,” Dixon says. “I’ve got 29-year-olds telling me they can afford the mortgage payments but that Mom and Dad have to handle the down payment.”
One afternoon this fall, Fuller—the Iowan living on Cap Hill— was standing in her apartment kitchen with her roommate, Dukes, talking about how much longer she might stay in her adopted city. Fuller had lived in Denver for a year and a half and had already been exposed to the uncertainties of the city’s rental market. She’d previously spent nearly $1,700 a month on a one-bedroom apartment she’d shared with her now ex-boyfriend. She and Dukes currently pay $2,150 a month for their two-bedroom unit, which includes a washer and dryer and a concrete balcony that the women say seems dangerously out of code. “If you don’t want to live in a complete piece of shit in this city,” Fuller says, “you have to be willing to spend at least $1,100 per person.”
They’d come to Denver clear-eyed about financial expectations. Fuller got a job in the tech industry shortly after arriving in the city, but she left that position and now works remotely for a different tech company. She makes a livable wage—she initially had to qualify as the sole leaseholder but eventually got her roommate’s name on the paperwork—and doesn’t own a vehicle. Dukes, who is about to finish up a community college degree and pursue a bachelor’s, possibly in English, earns money as a nanny. She wants to stay in the city. Like Fuller, Dukes is from Iowa. “My mom calls me from home and wonders what the heck I’m doing out here,” Dukes tells her roommate. “She thinks it’s financially irresponsible.”
Fuller laughs. “Just tell her you’re having fun.” In truth, though, Fuller had started to consider her own exit; her new job allows her to work from nearly anywhere.
“Maybe you’ll have a new roommate?” she says to Dukes.
“Just let me know,” Dukes says. “I’m sure we’ll have no problem finding someone to take your place.”
A couple of weeks before they said goodbye to their home on West 36th Avenue, Rachel Booth and Youri Zaragoza were lounging in their Denver bungalow. A French soccer match played on their flat-screen TV. Zaragoza was stretched out on one end of their light gray couch, next to Booth, who was watching their two-month-old son, Soren, on a baby monitor app on her phone.
The chaos of caring for a new child, plus planning a move, had settled into what Booth described as buzzing anxiety. The couple’s golden retriever, Martha, was already with Zaragoza’s parents in Orléans, France. Booth and Zaragoza had locked down jobs in France—she was continuing to work in international trade compliance, and he had taken a position as a creative director for a French startup. They planned to live temporarily with Zaragoza’s sister and brother-in-law while they searched for an apartment.
Zaragoza had packed up most of his vinyl LPs. Booth sold one of the Volkswagens, and the other soon would follow. A For Rent sign stood in the front lawn. For these two, the idea of selling their home seemed irresponsible. In all likelihood, it was only a matter of time before their place would be valued at seven figures. Of all the things the two had worried about with regard to their move, they hadn’t thought that finding a renter would be one of them. But earlier in the day, Booth had dropped the rent by $150, to about $3,500 per month. It was still expensive, but their broker assured them it was the going rate for a place in the neighborhood.
While baby Soren slept in a back bedroom, Booth allowed herself to relax a bit. She’d been thinking a lot lately about the house they were leaving. Her parents and much of her family still lived in Virginia; Zaragoza’s people were all in France. Would they ever return to the Mile High City? Would they return to America? To their house on West 36th Avenue? Booth wanted to keep the option open. “Maybe if costs finally come down here,” Zaragoza said. “But that’s not happening anytime soon.”
Booth thought about the last trip she’d take to one of the markets near 32nd Avenue, where she and her husband bought fancy cheeses. Zaragoza thought about the neighborhood walks and the quiet moments together in their little, grassy backyard. They thought about the light show Zaragoza put on in the yard when he proposed and how neighbors stopped by to congratulate them later. They thought of the day they brought Soren into the house for the first time.
The couple and their young son would be in France soon, with their jobs and Zaragoza’s family and daycare that cost a quarter of what they would’ve paid in Colorado. They’d mostly use public transportation in Lyon, so there wouldn’t be as many gas payments to worry about. Quality food would be cheaper. The couple had lived their lives without regret so far; they certainly weren’t about to make this move from Denver their first. “Everything comes to an end sometime,” Zaragoza said. “This one just happened a little sooner than we expected.”
He got up to sort laundry in the kitchen. Booth leaned back into their sofa. “It’s the right thing for us to go,” she said. Her husband nodded from the other room. In a couple of weeks, they’d be locking the doors to this home and starting a new life in Western Europe.
Booth exhaled and looked out the window at the yard. “Honestly, though,” she said, “it’s hard to walk away from Denver.”