Affordable housing series: Retirement of Aspen’s aging work force will increase need for housing
Editor’s note: This is the second part in a three-part series about Aspen’s affordable-housing needs.
The housing crunch in the Roaring Fork Valley is already severe, but a demographic time bomb has got some observers saying, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Aging baby boomers retire at a rate of 10,000 a day across the U.S., according to the Social Security Administration. And though Aspenites like to play young, the reality is they’re getting gray.
Aspen Skiing Co. has some sobering statistics that demonstrate how retirement will hit the local workforce. In an affordable-housing conference in El Jebel last winter, panelist Michael Miracle of Skico said the company has 978 employees at or above 50 years of age. Of those, 470 are at or above age 60.
That sets the stage for a lot of retirements over the next five to 15 years. About 90 percent of the 978 employees older than of 50 are in seasonal, hourly positions, according to Miracle. Skico — and many other valley employers — face the prospect of replacing older workers with housing with younger workers without housing, according to Mike Kosdrosky, executive director of Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority.
Tougher challenge today
Many of Aspen’s older workers figured out a way to secure housing. They either got into deed-restricted housing overseen by the housing authority or they bought when prices made free-market housing more attainable.
“Affordable free-market housing is getting more difficult to acquire,” Kosdrosky said.
Miracle said Skico realizes its demand for seasonal housing could soar. “As those people retire,” he said, referring to the workers over 50, “their replacement is unlikely to move into their housing.”
Meeting the demand is already daunting. Skico employs about 3,800 workers at peak winter season. That includes 2,400 seasonal workers. Of those, between 1,000 and 1,200 workers are rookies in their first year with the company. Skico has a substantial amount of affordable housing — about 600 beds for seasonal workers. That means there is already a shortage of up to 600 beds just for newbies.
The retirement of another 700 seasonal workers in the next 15 years is bound to exacerbate an already tough challenge.
Retirement issues widespread
A retiring workforce isn’t just Skico’s challenge. Martha Moran is counting down the months before she retires from the U.S. Forest Service. She plays a critical role as recreation staff supervisor in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District — overseeing everything from operations at Maroon Bells to the crews working to keep hundreds of miles of hiking trails in good condition.
She will retire this fall after 30 years with the Forest Service, 16 years locally.
Moran initially lived in a cabin owned by the Forest Service near the Hope Mine in Castle Creek Valley. She then moved into housing the Aspen District maintained at its headquarters on West Hallam Street. When it decommissioned that housing, Moran was disappointed, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It forced her to seek housing on the free market. She bought in Carbondale and now will be secure — after her career with the Forest Service.
“Everything worked out,” she said.
Moran is one of several employees retiring from the White River National Forest. Wayne Ives and Bill Kight, other longtime Roaring Fork Valley residents, also recently retired.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said openings attract plenty of applicants. But many candidates balk once they check out the housing situation. Many new hires leave the area after a year or two for other opportunities within the Forest Service where it’s more affordable.
“The cost of living, and particularly housing, they just can’t make it work,” Fitzwilliams said.
The average salary for a White River worker is about $40,000 per year, he noted. That makes it tough for them to break into the housing market. Many employees who work in Aspen, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs end up buying or renting in New Castle or farther west in the Interstate 70 corridor, he said.
The Forest Service maintains a bunkhouse in Aspen for seasonal workers. That is essential to filling summer positions, he said. As for year-round jobs, many entry-level positions are going unfilled, according to Fitzwilliams.
“Demographic time bomb”
Kosdrosky, who recently took his post with the Housing Authority, said retirement of local workers is among the top five issues facing the department and possibly among the top three.
“There is a demographic time bomb at work here,” he said.
A 2012 study performed for the housing authority, the Strategic Review of Housing, projected that retirees will occupy about 21 percent of the deed-restricted ownership and rental units. The housing authority oversees 2,962 deed-restricted units and between 4,500 to 5,000 bedrooms.
Kosdrosky said he is unable to determine right now how many units are occupied by retirees. Also unknown is the utilization rate for the bedrooms in those units — how many bedrooms are actually being used.
One of the biggest problems facing the housing authority is the lack of relevant data. Kosdrosky wants to improve the data collection and create a good foundation of information to help with decision-making for the next 30 to 40 years.
Some data exist on the demographic time bomb. The median age in Pitkin County is 42 compared with 34.5 years in Garfield, 34 in Eagle, 38.9 in Routt and 36.4 in Summit, according to the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments in a 2010 study.
The Strategic Review of Housing estimated there will be 25 affordable-housing units per year “lost to retirement” over the next 10 years. So, 250 additional units will be needed to stay even with the supply for workers.
An extensive survey was performed in 2015 of 1,500 workers in Aspen, representing 16 percent of all jobs. It found that 54 percent of the residents of households working in Pitkin County were between ages 45 to 64. That included people who work in Pitkin County but live in Eagle or Garfield counties.
Similarly, 56 percent of residents of Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority ownership units are between ages 45 to 64.
The housing authority policy on retirement says people who own their unit can retire and remain there as long as they lived there and worked for four consecutive years prior to retirement. A person cannot be removed from deed-restricted housing that they own when they leave the workforce.
“When purchased, once you’re in, you’re in,” Kosdrosky said.
Won’t throw ‘em out
Kosdrosky said he doesn’t foresee the housing authority changing its policy to prevent workers from retiring in the deed-restricted homes they purchased.
“Nobody is suggesting that we throw retirees out of their homes,” he said. “There would never be the political will to do that, in my opinion.”
Allowing a mix of people is important for the fabric of Aspen, he said. “People that have lived in the community for a long time continue to be assets to the community.”
But delaying action on retirement and other issues leading to affordable-housing shortages puts Aspen and Pitkin County at “peril,” he added. Affordable housing is the essential piece of economic health and development.
The issue has to be addressed along with job growth and loss of free-market affordable-housing units, Kosdrosky said.
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