Affordable housing series: The program works, but it still has flaws
Editor’s note: This is the first part in a three-part series about Aspen’s affordable-housing needs.
In the pantheon of great resort towns, Aspen sits atop the heap for many reasons.
Skiing, beauty, outdoor activities, arts, culture, hedonism, intellectual stimulation — take your pick or choose them all, because they’re all here. Aspen and Pitkin County also lay claim to a rich history of progressive, forward-thinking policies that extend to areas like law enforcement, education, environmental stewardship and basic notions of what makes a healthy community.
And one of the most valuable of those forward-thinking policies is the area’s affordable-housing program.
“It’s the city’s most important economic-development program because your economy depends on it,” said Mike Kosdrosky, the program’s executive director. “If you can’t house your service-economy workers, you’re going to be losing ground every year.”
The Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority currently manages about 2,900 deed-restricted units for both owners and renters. Officials say that inventory — which Kosdrosky calls a $1 billion investment — combined with free-market housing, translates into housing for about 47 percent of the city and county workforce.
Depending on your point of view, that may not sound impressive. You might want to concentrate on the other side of the coin: that the remaining 53 percent of the county’s workforce doesn’t live here, commuting from downvalley and the Interstate 70 corridor.
Still, no one interviewed for part one of this series would say the program is not working.
“There’s a tremendous amount of affordable housing for people who work in this community,” said Barry Crook, Aspen assistant city manager. “It differentiates us from a Vail or other places that have to put working-class folks somewhere else.
“I think it’s created a community, which a lot of other expensive resort places don’t have.”
But that’s not to say the program doesn’t have its problems.
It’s one of the oldest, if not the oldest, affordable-housing programs of its kind, which means it’s evolved over 40 years into a highly complex and somewhat unwieldy system riddled with inequities, perception problems and unique exceptions that reflect the very community it is meant to benefit.
“There’s a limited supply and unlimited demand,” Kosdrosky said. “If you build it, they will come.
“But it’s unrealistic to believe we can meet everybody’s needs.”
A program was born
Ron Erickson arrived in Aspen in the early 1970s.
“Up until 1970, Aspen was the big secret in the international ski world,” he said. “With the sociological and lifestyle changes of the 1970s, a lot of people came here, and it started to grow.”
In the beginning, there was plenty of cheap housing to go around, said Erickson, now chairman of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board.
“By the end of the ’70s, all of the low-cost, free-market properties had been sold and were redeveloped, chasing people out,” he said. “We started to have an employee crunch. There was no one to fill the service jobs.”
City and county officials began to take note.
Pitkin County officials got the ball rolling first, with a 1974 Board of County Commissioners resolution authorizing the county manager to begin trying to deal with the issue with an initial budget of $25,000. The Aspen City Council created the housing authority by resolution Aug. 8, 1977.
“It took awhile to get going because it was the first of its kind,” Erickson said.
Today, the approximately 2,900 units owned and managed by the housing authority break down to about 40 percent rental and 60 percent ownership. Affordable-housing complexes and units are scattered throughout the city and county. The longer you work in the county, the better your chances of winning a lottery to rent or buy a unit.
Sounds simple, right? It’s not.
“Labyrinth of complexity”
Once you decide to try and procure affordable housing, you begin to hear about income categories, asset caps, affordability standards and income qualifications. With tables and appendicies, the housing authority’s 2015 employee-housing guidelines run 105 pages long.
You’ll likely come to the same conclusion as Kosdrosky, who’s been on the job since January 2015: It’s too complex.
“We’re a bit long in the tooth,” he said. “We have an inventory of nearly 3,000 deed-restricted units, and we don’t have the guidelines and operations in place to handle such a complex system.”
In fact, Kosdrosky calls it a “labyrinth of complexity” because the system has added layer upon layer of rule changes as it’s evolved over time and addressed more types of situations, he said.
“In other words, not everybody is playing by the same set of rules,” he said.
Erickson puts it another way.
“You’re different than I am, yet we have a system that has to deal with both of us,” he said.
A nine-month study Kosdrosky commissioned after he took over says the system needs to be simplified and streamlined. One of Kosdrosky’s main goals is to establish a central database that can track each and every affordable-housing unit and provide accurate, real- time information to both his staff and the community, he said.
“I’d like to create a Zillow for the affordable-housing program,” Kosdrosky said.
As it is, he said he does not know for certain at any given time how many bedrooms the housing authority manages, exactly how many types of deed restrictions exist and other basic statistical information.
“We operate well for the early ’90s,” Kosdrosky said. “We don’t operate well for 2016.”
Kosdrosky said he plans to ask elected officials for money to create the database and to refine and standardize the housing guidelines.
The complexity of the guidelines also leads to another problem for the housing program: community perceptions. One of the biggest perceptions, officials said, is that the program breeds widespread cheating.
Short on units
Ryan Turner is a deputy with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. He’s lived and worked in the county for 10 years and has rented affordable-housing units in the past. Several months ago, he was living in a house downvalley with his then- fiancee, but the relationship ended, and he needed to find another place to live quickly.
As an emergency responder, Turner gets priority, especially on rental units. But with the economy finally rebounding from the Great Recession, he found the pickings slim.
“This time around was by far the hardest,” he said. “They’re short on units, for sure.”
Turner was eventually able to find an affordable unit after weeks of false starts but had to give away his dog because pets weren’t allowed at his new unit. He said he found the housing authority “hard to deal with.”
“They’re so black-and-white in there,” Turner said. “But yet you hear these crazy stories about giving units to people … with other issues.”
He said he wishes the agency could be more accommodating to emergency responders like him who fall on hard times.
“They should be able to bend the rules a bit to help out, even if it’s only temporary,” Turner said. “I’m 32 (years old), and the thought of living on my buddy’s couch is not a good thing.”
For Kosdrosky, Turner’s complaints stem directly from the number of exceptions in the affordable-housing program.
“We need to become more black-and-white,” he said. “The gray area is up to the elected officials.”
To that end, Kosdrosky said he plans to recommend that elected officials dissolve the program’s Special Review Committee, which deals with grievances and appeals. The housing authority board should make those decisions, he said.
“(Those decisions) have to reside with appointed and elected officials,” he said. “It restores transparency. And based on the outrage, some of these decisions contribute to the perception that rules bend.”
Brian Pettet, director of the county’s Public Works Department and a member of the Special Review Committee, said “everybody has special circumstances they think are important.”
“(The housing authority) is providing housing, not solving societal problems,” he said. “Rules are rules, and I think the more that (the housing authority) can stick to those and be objective, it gives the program more credibility.”
For Erickson, one of the problems with the program is that residents think they deserve an affordable-housing unit.
“A lot of people feel they’re entitled to a unit as opposed to being thankful for having it,” he said.
Then there’s the issue of who should get an affordable-housing unit. Emergency responders, including law enforcement, 911 dispatchers and ambulance drivers, get preference. However, some think other professions, like teachers, also should be given preference.
“Whenever there are shortfalls like now, people start saying, ‘Give preference to these employees,’” Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards said. “I don’t agree with that.
“It takes all types to make up a community.”
Assistant City Manager Crook agreed.
“I’m not wild about (the idea),” he said. “How do you establish the pecking order? It’s pitting me against another, and it doesn’t feel terribly productive to me.”
Another issue that also appears to be a bit of a nonstarter is what to do about affordable-housing residents once they retire.
“I don’t see it as much of an issue,” Crook said. “There’s not much appetite in the community to make them move.”
Richards, who lives in an affordable-housing unit at Hunter Creek, seconds that sentiment. She said she’s seen neighbors die or move away to remarry or be with children or grandchildren, at which point the units go back into the general pot.
“You can’t ask someone to give 30 to 40 years of their working life, then ask them to move to a community where they don’t know anyone,” Richards said. “It’s a nonissue.”
A ghost town without the housing authority
Still, both Richards and Crook believe the lack of capital reserves for maintenance and fixing problems at affordable-housing complexes is an important issue.
“(The program) took a lot of invested capital,” Crook said. “That’s why capital reserves are a big issue — to keep it for the next generation.”
Richards said that while she doesn’t agree with the city’s ideas about how to fix the capital-reserve problem, she does think it’s a big issue that needs solving.
Most everybody agrees that there needs to be more affordable housing.
Lindsey Martinez is one of those.
Martinez, 34, began as an emergency dispatcher for Pitkin County in October. She and her husband and three children moved to the area from Southern California for better opportunities, she said.
Martinez now drives an hour and 25 minutes one way each day from New Castle to get to work because she can’t afford to live closer. Her husband drives nearly an hour each day to Basalt, where he works as a waiter, she said.
She looked into the Aspen-Pitkin County affordable-housing program but discovered that even with the priority she receives as an emergency dispatcher, three-bedroom units were few and far between, Martinez said.
“There was nothing big enough for me and my family,” she said.
She just signed another yearlong lease in New Castle and plans to look into the affordable-housing program again next year.
“(The commute) is what it is,” Martinez said. “I’ve got to make a living. I’ve got to support my family.”
Mike Kraemer, a senior planner in Pitkin County’s Community Development Department, is in a different boat. He’s lived in Aspen for nearly 11 years, won the housing lottery about four years ago and was able to buy a one-bedroom unit at the Lone Pine complex.
However, Kraemer got married not long after he bought the one-bedroom unit, and he and his wife began bidding on two-bedroom units about three years ago, he said. They tried for five or six places in that time but were not successful.
So as housing prices continued to rise in the midvalley area, the Kraemers worried about being priced out of even the Basalt area, he said. A month ago, they moved into their new house in the Willits development.
“We want to live here, but it’s really hard to do it,” he said, adding that both he and his wife work in Aspen. “We love Aspen.”
Still, Kraemer said he appreciates the affordable-housing program and hopes to be able to move back into town eventually.
“Without (the housing authority), this place would be a ghost town,” he said. “I’m not disappointed in (not being able to buy a unit) at all. We just can’t live up here in a two-bedroom right now.”
A system that works
Echoing the sentiments of nearly everyone who’s moved to Aspen over the years and initially struggled to find affordable housing, Kraemer said that if you put in enough time, chances are good you’ll find something.
“Someone said that if you’re good to this town, it’ll be good to you,” he said.
Crook admitted that “probably all categories need more units.” He said that while he hesitates to rank the needs, some of the greatest lie in the area of low-income, low-category units. In addition, units for growing families are lacking, he said.
Both Richards and Pettet said they’d like to see a constant supply of development in the pipeline to meet those needs. However, because of the real estate transfer tax, which funds affordable housing, the city has most of the resources to undertake that development, Richards said.
The county does not have an affordable-housing office, though it contributes money to housing authority operations. Also, for the past two years, Pettet has been tapping the county fund that contains cash-in-lieu money, which developers contribute to for affordable-housing mitigation, to buy units here and there to convert to affordable housing.
He’s purchased nine units so far, which are managed by the housing authority but owned by the county. They are available for county workers and the community at large on a 50-50 basis, Pettet said.
The county also is developing a plan with Aspen Skiing Co. to build an affordable-housing complex in the Basalt area, though no concrete plans have come out of that partnership yet, he said. Richards said those public-private partnerships are key to developing more affordable housing.
Still, with all the problems, nearly everyone involved in the program insists it’s working.
“Our inventory is two times larger than any other resort community,” Kosdrosky said. “It’s really impressive.”
Crook said that while Aspen will never house its entire workforce, the program is an unmitigated success.
“It’s something to be proud of,” he said. “You want to be a Vail where nobody lives there?
“It’s why we like this place — because it’s a community.”
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