Aspen’s accessory-dwelling-unit program has been described as a $6 hamburger and $60 steak on the same menu — working class coexisting with high class. It’s beautiful in theory, but in practice, some say, it has added very little to Aspen’s affordable-housing program.
An ADU is a small living space — typically a studio or one-bedroom unit — that homeowners are required to build, separate from a main house, in order to exempt themselves from city growth restrictions. There are between 150 and 200 of these units in Aspen, with occupancy between 20 and 30 percent, according to city records.
On Monday, the Aspen City Council was met with the results of an unoccupied ADU. The applicant requested to remove the ADU requirement at a lot split at 360 Lake Ave. in favor of two other mitigation options — affordable-housing credits or cash-in-lieu. The applicant, who was bound to ADU requirements from 1990, won 3-1 approval from the council.
Councilman Adam Frisch described it as a classic example of “why the ADU program has run its course.” As the dissenting vote, Mayor Steve Skadron disagreed, saying that approval of requests like this drives exclusivity in Aspen’s neighborhoods.
“I don’t think we should be dismissing the use of ADUs. I think we should be pushing policy that drives toward populating them,” he said. “We should be working to diminish barriers between locals, not accelerating them.”
Frisch agreed that in theory, the ADU program is great, but in reality, many of the units are occupied by 100-inch TVs instead of local, working residents.
“I think we either need to try to find a way to make it mandatory occupancy or we should stay away from it,” he said, adding that he is not a fan of mandatory occupancy.
Councilman Dwayne Romero pointed out that in this particular case, providing the applicant with additional options was better than binding them to the 1990 ADU requirement, which was the sole option for a lot split at the time.
Skadron asked why the applicant wanted to remove the affordable-housing option from the property. He answered his own question by stating that the desire is for more square footage and personal living space. Frisch said that, regardless, the current ADU requirements do not prevent applicants from doing whatever they want with the space.
“It doesn’t stop who sleeps in the house. It doesn’t provide any local housing,” he said.
Skadron agreed, saying the council might want to consider giving the ADU program more teeth. Councilwoman Ann Mullins said she was under the impression that all ADU options had been considered, but if there is a way to create more stringent requirements, she could support it. She said the current affordable-housing program tends to create more concentrated living quarters, while the intent of the ADU program was to intersperse affordable housing around town.
City Attorney Jim True said there are political and legal issues associated with rewriting the ADU program.
“We have been able to enforce certain mandatory obligations in the past,” he said. “I think it would take a rather detailed and lengthy discussion about addressing that further.”
In January 2013, the city considered amending the ADU program with an ordinance that would have eliminated the ADU program as an option.