Aspen housing forum attracts sizable crowd, differing opinions
November 30, 2017
One of the central questions explored Thursday during a well-attended forum about Aspen's affordable-housing program is who exactly it's for.
More than 20 years ago, Aspen's community plans emphasized the need for the program to "foster a long-term commitment to the community" for all segments of the population, said Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards, who also is a former Aspen mayor.
That meant not telling a worker who's invested 40 or 50 years in the Aspen area that upon retirement, it's time to move out, she said. People who live in affordable housing make sacrifices throughout that time — including shared walls and not having a pet — that others who move downvalley might not have to make, she said.
Mike Kosdrosky, executive director of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority, disagreed.
Those who originally designed the program, while certainly wanting to build community, did not intend for it to be a "lifetime entitlement," he said.
"It was not a guarantee for workers to become vested members of the community," Kosdrosky said.
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Further, he took issue with the idea that living in affordable housing is a sacrifice. For Kosdrosky, it is a privilege. And he wasn't alone among the standing-room-only crowd, a mix of young and older residents, who attended the Aspen Public Radio-sponsored town hall at the Limelight Hotel. Aspen Public Radio staffers distributed signs to the audience prior to the event that read "yes" on one side and "no" on the other, and news director Alycin Bektesh asked several questions of the crowd throughout the hourlong forum.
After the exchange between Richards and Kosdrosky, Bektesh asked the crowd if living in affordable housing was a sacrifice. The majority held up "no" signs. She then asked if it was a privilege. The majority held up the "yes" side of the sign.
The dichotomy between the two viewpoints came up again when co-moderator Cristal Logan of the Aspen Institute asked panelists how they would create the program from scratch now if they could.
Kosdrosky said he would design a program with far more rental units and limited ownership opportunities "if the community wants it." For example, all Category 1 and 2 units — for those in the lowest incomes — should be rentals, he said, because people who qualify for them can't afford the mortgages.
Richards agreed on that point, but said an all-rental inventory is not the solution. Rental rules can change overnight, she said, which could put people on the street with no options. Renters pay more for insurance and credit card rates and gain no tax advantage, she said. All those things make attracting a quality, long-term workforce more difficult, Richards said.
Both agreed, however, that APCHA doesn't do a good job housing families, low-income workers and newbies to town who haven't lived here long enough to quality for the affordable-housing program.
As for solutions, Richards advocated continuing to build affordable housing on the few sites still available, as well as providing APCHA with sustainable funding from a property or other tax that would allow it more freedom to develop new affordable housing.
Peter Fornell, a local developer who concentrates on building affordable housing, put the onus on Aspen-area employers.
"Why are citizens paying for these employees?" he said. "Let's cause that to be a factor. (Employers) need to be contributors to the solution."
Christine Benedetti, chair of the city-sponsored Next Generation Advisory Commission, said some members of the community may need to change their paradigms and allow some current open space to serve housing needs. She also brought up the recent debate about a proposed 28-unit affordable housing project on Castle Creek Road that's been criticized by Castle Creek Valley residents for being too dense.
"Neighbors need to be willing to support higher density," Benedetti said.
Thursday's event was billed as the first in a series of town halls focusing on housing in the Roaring Fork Valley.