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January 2, 2013
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Hottest Aspen worker housing: low-cost one-bedrooms

ASPEN - Worker housing, a unique niche in the Aspen-area real estate market, posted a sluggish year for sales in 2012, but there were some surprises - people willing to camp on the sidewalk for first dibs on condos in the next phase of the city's Burlingame Ranch project, for example.

And the year brought the addition of the lowest-priced three-bedroom rental unit ever made available through the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority. Purchased by the county in response to demand for lower-cost housing, the unit is expected to go on the market shortly.

The housing authority controls both rental and sale housing in various price ranges, or categories, that are tied to income and assets. Category 1 is the lowest-priced option available, and the three-bedroom townhouse the county purchased at Columbines at Elk Run in Basalt is the only such unit of that size and price in the worker-housing inventory. Category 1 units are typically studios or one-bedroom units.

The townhouse will be advertised and rented to the taker who has the longest local work history (and, presumably, a household of three members), according to Cindy Christensen, housing authority operations manager.

"That, for us, would be the only fair way to do it," she said.

"It's going to be interesting to see what happens with that one," said County Manager Jon Peacock. "I'd be very surprised if there is no interest in it."

The maximum monthly rent for a Category 1, three-bedroom unit is $802, according to the housing-authority guidelines, but the unit is not within the Aspen School District, which might affect interest in it.

Family housing also is a focus at Burlingame Ranch on the outskirts of Aspen, where the City Council agreed in November to move forward with construction of four more buildings containing 48 units in response to advance reservations by prospective buyers. Some of the buyers camped on the sidewalk outside the housing office in July in order to reserve units on a first-come, first-served basis. The planned Category 2, one- and two-bedroom units were the biggest draw.

By year's end, $500 deposits had been collected for 39 of the 48 units, according to Chris Everson, affordable-housing project manager for the city.

Construction is slated to begin this spring, with completion of the first two buildings in late 2013 and the other two early in 2014. A mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units will be constructed.

It was the lower categories (1 through 3) that attracted the bulk of the interest among prospective buyers for the new Burlingame units, and that remains the case for the housing authority's existing inventory, as well.

The housing authority recorded 57 sales worth $11.1 million in 2012, compared with 60 sales worth $13.1 million in 2011. Also in 2012, five deed-restricted worker units were sold by their owners for a total of $3.85 million; those homes were in the resident-occupied category - the most expensive sector of worker housing.

Annual sales of worker housing are a function of what comes on the market when an owner is ready to leave along with whatever new housing is offered for sale.

One-bedroom units continued to see the most interest whenever one came up for sale through a housing authority lottery.

"What really sells the most is one-bedroom, Category 3 - that's the most sought-after," Christensen said. Workers with both Category 2 and 3 incomes will bid on the units.

One such unit at Obermeyer Place attracted 30 bidders. A similar unit at Red House Enclave lured 28 bidders, while five new one-bedroom units at the Ajax Apartments Condos, all priced at Category 2, each attracted 62 bids. Three others at Ajax, including one Category 3 unit, were awarded to buyers by the developer of the privately built project.

Peter Fornell developed the Ajax complex, intending to sell housing credits to other developers who must provide housing or cash as a condition of their projects.

The allure of the Ajax condos was not surprising, according to Christensen.

"Anything brand-new you're going to get a lot more people going for," she said. "If they're lower-priced one-bedrooms, we're getting takers."

Getting an existing Category 4 one-bedroom at Burlingame under contract, on the other hand, took awhile, Christensen said.

A Category 5 three-bedroom, two-bath unit at Burlingame Ranch, priced at $440,728, attracted just one bidder. During the pre-recession housing crunch, securing a unit without competition in a lottery drawing was unheard of, but now, higher-priced units regularly see little in the way of competitive bidding. Often, just a handful of prospective buyers are in the running. A one-bedroom, one-bath unit at Villas at Elk Run in Basalt, priced at $105,479 (Category 2), drew five bidders.

Pitkin County, which purchased an Elk Run townhome for use by one of its own employees in addition to the unit that will be rented out to a member of the general work force, will continue to explore the local housing market for acquisitions in 2013. The eventual goal is the purchase of 24 units, half for county employees, as long as attractive buys remain available, according to Peacock.

"We don't want to just spend the money to make an arbitrary number," he said. "We want to make good use of these dollars."

The county accumulated more than $10 million earmarked for worker housing, spurring the initiative. In the coming year, it will continue talks with the private sector about potential joint housing projects, as well, Peacock said.

janet@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jan 2, 2013 06:26AM Published Jan 2, 2013 12:07AM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.