Aspen census data: Is there anybody home out there?

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – The number of vacant homes in Aspen soared during the last decade even though the town showed a slow, steady increase in population, U.S. Census data released last month shows.

There were two polar opposite trends developing in Aspen during the 2000s – areas of subsidized housing were responsible for the population growth and free-market neighborhoods continued to lose permanent residents.

The 2000 census found that Aspen had 4,354 housing units. About one third of them – 1,451 – were vacant.

The 2010 census determined that Aspen had grown to 5,929 housing units. Of those, 2,413, or 41, percent were vacant.

That means that 61 percent of the houses added between 2000 and 2010 were not primary residences.

Red Mountain, the exclusive neighborhood on Aspen’s north end, has always been a second-home haven, but the trend intensified in the 2000s. Red Mountain saw its permanent population fall from 267 in year 2000 to 200 a decade later, according to an analysis of census data by Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland. That’s a drop of 25 percent.

“Every census block from Willoughby Way along the river to the top of the subdivision lost population,” he said.

The West End, with its stately Victorians, saw its population fall 12.5 percent from 510 to 466 over the decade. The number of houses increased, but the number of occupied houses dropped, Ireland’s analysis showed. As it stands, the West End has 488 total residences and 257, or 53 percent, aren’t occupied full-time.

So how did Aspen gain 744 residents during the last decade? It’s explained by construction of such new affordable housing projects as Burlingame, and annexation of areas with a high concentration of worker housing, like the base of Aspen Highlands.

Aspen’s population increased from 5,914 at the start of the last decade to 6,658 in 2010.

Ireland believes the population losses in free-market areas are clear: retirement and relocation, and displacement. As more Aspenites reach retirement age they are cashing out – selling the homes where they lived for years to create the nest egg they need for their golden years.

The 2010 U.S. Census found there were 3,856 residents of Aspen between the ages of 55 and 69, presumably preparing to retire or already retired.

Displacement of free-market units – a concern for the city government since the 1980s – continued at a brisk pace last decade. A report called “State of the Aspen Area” that was conducted as part of the Aspen Area Community Plan examined the trend. Between 2000 and 2008, an estimated 1,075 Aspen area workers who used to live in free market homes, condos and multiplexes “have had to find somewhere else to live, as 597 free market units have been converted into something other than workforce housing,” the report said.

Often, the free-market worker units were replaced with second homes. The proliferation of second homes has been considered a blessing by many locals. The presence of second-home owners at certain times of the winter and summer seasons provides jobs while their absence during reduces requirements for services.

But Ireland sees big implications for the work force. As current workers retire and free-market housing is replaced by second homes, there won’t be enough people to fill jobs. That means Aspen and Snowmass Village will have to import even more workers from surrounding area.

Right now, lack of workers isn’t a problem. The Great Recession and slow recovery altered the valley’s usual employment picture and left many workers unemployed or under-employed.

However, as recently as 2008 employers were essentially hiring whoever walked in their doors because workers were so scarce.

Ireland sees that scenario being exacerbated in coming years by current housing trends.

“I don’t expect the next decade will see a great deal of growth as the local population in the free-market housing continues to recede,” Ireland said. “About a quarter of the population in free-market housing is nearing retirement age. As they retire and or leave for warmer places, their successors are much less likely to be part of the local workforce.”