Aspen schools seek housing solutions | AspenTimes.com

Aspen schools seek housing solutions

John Colson
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” The Aspen School District is poised to begin pushing hard to buy, build or find affordable housing for its staff, starting with a survey of teachers and other employees to determine what kind of housing, and how much of it is needed.

School board member Laura Kornasiewicz said at a work session Monday that a similar survey was conducted in 2001, but the board is looking to update those findings.

Kornasiewicz has been working with a district supervisor, Chris Durham, on the survey for some time, and expects to have it ready for distribution to the teachers before the end of January.

As it was left after the meeting, the survey will ask teachers and other employees a variety of personal questions, ranging from the type of housing they would desire to what their current living arrangement is, whether they own employee housing already and how long they plan to stay in the district.

Superintendent Diana Sirko said that, each year, the district loses employees because of the Roaring Fork Valley’s tight housing market and astronomical housing costs.

“It’s not uncommon to have people say [when they announce they are leaving] we’ve got to be able to put down roots,” Sirko said.

Over the course of a wide-ranging discussion, the board discussed several options for building housing, including the idea of building units on top of the school’s bus barn or, if the bus barn can be moved, using the land for a housing project.

Other options include expanding what is known as the West Ranch housing complex, located at the western edge of the Aspen Valley Ranch property in Woody Creek, and entering into a partnership with the city of Aspen and perhaps other entities in developing the BMC West property, recently purchased for more than $18 million by the city.

“I think the staff is anxious for us to have some movement,” Sirko told the board, a reference to the fact that the district has been talking about ways to increase its housing stock, currently 21 units, for a year or more.

“I think employees, many of them, see this as their only opportunity at … owning a piece of the pie,” she said.

While most of the board seemed eager to pursue construction of affordable housing for teachers and others, there was some skepticism.

Board member Ernie Fyrwald, a real estate broker, maintained that some locals have “sources of money” either from families or investments that would enable them to buy housing on the free market.

“I wouldn’t just discount the free market,” he told his fellow board members.

But Sirko countered that even well-paid teachers with a working spouse are unlikely to earn more than $120,000 a year in combined income, which might enable them to qualify for a $350,000 mortgage. And there are not many homes left in that price range anywhere in the Roaring Fork Valley, she said, even in Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, which are in a different school district.

Fyrwald said that, according to his calculations, that salary level would qualify a couple for a $400,000 home loan, and he said there are a number of midvalley condominiums available for that kind of price.

“We’re trying to make that a doable alternative,” Sirko assured Fyrwald. “I don’t think people are ruling that out.”

Sirko said one critical bit of information is “what’s a retention issue for them” in terms of housing, meaning what kind of a home would be adequate to keep a teacher living and working here as opposed to seeking “roots” somewhere else.

She said that about a quarter of the staff has been working in the district for fewer than four years, and that another, perhaps larger portion has longer tenure and already lives downvalley.

Those staffers who have been working for the district for 20 years or more, she said, generally own their own homes but are nearing retirement, meaning the percentage of newcomers will be growing.

“As those groups turn over,” she said, “the retention issue is a huge one.”

It was noted at the meeting that the district has a turnover rate of 10 to 15 percent per year.

The board generally agreed to get moving with the survey as soon as possible, and to begin planning for a series of “Housing 101” seminars to familiarize district staffers with the ins and outs of home buying, as well as information about the district’s existing downpayment assistance program.

In addition, district officials are exploring the possibilities of joining forces with the city, Aspen Valley Hospital and other local entities that find themselves squeezed by the same housing crunch. The district also is looking for a local real estate broker with the expertise to take on the marketing and sales program that ultimately will be set up for the district’s staff.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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