Roger Marolt : Roger This
August 14, 2008
Is it OK in progressive Aspen to admit that you do not support the local affordable housing program? I assume that it is, but since nobody ever does it’s not a sure bet. I’ll probably find out today.
Ever the contrarian, I believe we have enough employee housing. Over the past 20 years I have not seen that the proliferation of employee housing has helped to stem the tide that is carrying character downvalley. We have only gotten bigger.
I favor restricted growth for our town. I believe that keeping tight controls on development to preserve our small-town character is imperative to our long-term viability as a resort and a place I want to live.
Unchecked economic growth in the form of real estate development is the thing that I believe poses the greatest long-term threat to our local economy and personal enjoyment of this place. Our government has convinced itself, and many of us, that they have taken meaningful steps in controlling the growth of urban-like girth around here, yet at the same time they more and more vigorously pursue the building of subsidized housing which looks suspiciously like development to me.
Employee housing is at the crux of our rampant growth. Our elected officials refuse to recognize this and continue to treat the development of subsidized housing as if its sacrosanct standing in the hierarchy of issues has been given from above.
Consistent with our governmental leadership over the past four decades, whose economic conditions were far different from now, current elected officials refuse to evaluate the employee housing situation without getting caught up in the emotional element of it; namely fear of flight of “local character,” whatever that ill-defined term means.
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An egregious example of this inability to analyze reality occurred just last week in response to publication in The Aspen Times the results of a study that found 86 percent of local employers concluding that the availability of workforce housing is the most critical problem facing the community. To this news our mayor said, “The key is that the workforce itself, outside of affordable housing, is shrinking.”
That statement is simply not true and highlights the false premise that the local housing hysteria has been built on. In analyzing what the mayor said we need to consider two things: First of all, there is more subsidized housing within our city limits than at any time in history. Secondly, during peak seasons there are nearly 20,000 cars going in and out of town on Highway 82 during a typically busy day. Those cars are carrying more workers than the total population of Aspen was 20 years ago. Far from shrinking, our workforce has increased dramatically from the halcyon days of 1970s lore.
So, rather than conclude from the recent survey cited above that we don’t have nearly enough employee housing, has anyone that we have entrusted to run our town considered that maybe the problem is not that we don’t have enough employee housing, but rather that we have allowed our town to grow too fast and that, in fact, we have created an untenable situation where our economy demands a perpetually expanding employee pool, instead?
The question of how much employee housing to build has always been determined by looking at how big our town is and then deciding what percentage of that we want to be working locals. This approach is folly in that it invariably leads to ever increasing growth. The town grows and we need more employee housing which, in turn, makes the town grow even larger (if not in raw population, certainly economically with all the appurtenant impacts). Wouldn’t it make more sense to determine what size we want our town to be and then limit the amount of employee housing we build to only accommodate that population and tourist base?
Our governments have come up with formulas that tell us how many employees new development will require. Every 1,000 square feet of new retail business development, they tell us, will create the need for three new workers. Well, if this is true, isn’t it just as true that for every new retail employee we bring into town, 333 square feet of new commercial development will be necessary to support that person? If we build housing for 600 additional retail workers, this means we will have to allow another 200,000 square feet of commercial development within the city limits so they can earn their livings!
It is an amazing anomaly to me that our elected officials have not recognized that affordable housing is a subsidy to developers. Without workers here, developers would have a very difficult time constructing timeshares, much less luxuriously staffing them after they are built, and selling them.
Contrary to local myth, employee housing does not take workers off the roads. The highway is full and will remain so. Sorry. Employee housing just brings in more workers on top of this daily flow.
The building of employee housing is growth, not just in the obvious form of putting up buildings on previously unoccupied land, but also in its collateral effects. The tried and true method of igniting an economy, any economy, is through government spending. Whether through financing a war, doling out stimulus package checks, or building housing projects, when government spends money economies get a boost. Our government is now spending money on subsidized housing at obscene rates; $18 million for the lumber yard parcel and an $80 million cost overrun at Burlingate for example. All of this money gets recycled through our local economy, and it expands as a result.
Things have changed dramatically in our town since the inception of the affordable housing program. In the beginning, employee housing was built because local businesses couldn’t staff their operations. Aspen was in its infancy and many people here wanted our town grow rapidly. Employee housing was the major tool they implemented to achieve this and, by golly, I think it worked. I believe that most people now, residents and visitors, think we are big enough. So why is our government embracing outdated and static thinking when it comes to the subject of subsidized housing?
Employee housing serves vital purposes in our town. But, it appears to me that we now have too much of a good thing. So I’ll say it: I don’t support more affordable housing in our town. Is that okay?
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