Aspen’s Impossible Math
An excerpt from Jenny Stuber’s ‘Aspen and the American Dream’
‘Aspen and the American Dream: How One Town Manages Inequality in the Era of Supergentrification’
292 pages, paperback; $29.95
University of California Press, 2021
Paradox and contradiction are at the heart of social life and, consequently, of keen interest to sociologists like me. The tensions and contradictions that run through Aspen can be illustrated with a simple question: How is it possible for a town to exist where the median household income is about $73,000, but the median home price is about $4 million?
Conventional wisdom among financial advisors is that a household earning $73,000 per year can reasonably afford a home in the $225,000–$325,000 price range—not the $4 million price tag found in Aspen. The paradoxical relationship between local incomes and the price of real estate is what I call “The Impossible Math of Aspen, Colorado.” Aspen is a place where many residents own homes with values in excess of $10 million, but the majority of the town’s nearly 7,400 residents cannot afford a home even far below the median price.
Yet they live here, nonetheless.
What solves the impossible math equation between incomes and home values in Aspen—the “X-factor” that makes middle-class life possible—is a process of place-making that involves the careful orchestration of diverse class interests within local politics and the community, with the overarching goal of maintaining Aspen’s value and preserving its authentic small-town character.
This is achieved through a highly regulatory and extractive land use code that provides symbolic and material value to highly affluent investors and part-year residents, as well as less-affluent locals, many of whom benefit from an array of subsidies— including the extensive affordable housing program that houses middle- and upper-middle-class locals—that redistribute economic resources and make it possible for them to live in one of the most unequal communities in the nation.
These analyses take as their point of departure the 2016 moratorium on development, in which the Aspen City Council pushed the pause button on development so that officials could rewrite the land use code.
The Aspen City Council sought to rewrite their land use code, which dictates both the material and symbolic form of the town, and how they attempted to balance the divergent class interests of the local stakeholders in an effort to answer the question, “Aspen for whom?”
In a symbolic sense, the land use code constitutes, according to anthropologist Constance Perin, a “moral system that both reflects and assures social order” by allocating membership and belonging within a community.
It does so by establishing a hierarchy of uses and regulating access to meaningful social roles, including homeowner and entrepreneur. The land use code also structures class relations: by creating opportunities for business ownership and residency, it shapes material interests, dictating both the profitability and the costs associated with these roles, and shapes where and how different groups come in contact with one another.
The city council’s 2016 decision to rewrite the land use codes was a reaction to locals’ anxieties that they were no longer in control of their community and that outside forces were increasingly dictating not just the look and feel of their community, but also the criteria for belonging.
These outside forces can be glossed by a single word: “super-gentrification.”
In many ways, Aspen challenges the conventional wisdom of what we know about politics, place, and economic inequality. The conventional wisdom, drawn from scholarly research on social class, place-making, and urban development, is that a place like Aspen should not exist. That is, a place should not exist where the median income is $73,000 per year, but the median home price is nearly $4 million. The dynamics posed by neoliberal economic policies and Supergentrification should impact Aspen as they have impacted New York, London, and other global cities: elevating the interests of business, decreasing taxation and the provision of government services, and paving the way for displacement and exclusion.
These dynamics should make it impossible for a community to exist where the incomes earned by local residents are fundamentally at odds with housing prices, and where working locals still exert considerable influence on how the town operates.
And yet this version of Aspen does exist—at least for now.
Aspen, as it currently exists, is a place where global elites own second (or third, or fourth) homes that they visit during the winter and summer “high seasons.” They ski majestic mountains in the winter and in the summer hob- nob with celebrities, intellectuals, and other global elites during the Aspen Ideas Fest, the Food and Wine Classic, and the Music Festival. It is also a place inhabited by 7,400 year-round residents, some quite affluent themselves, but most of whom hold the ordinary jobs that make any small town function.
They are doctors and nurses who staff the hospital; teachers and librarians who attend to children and others wanting to learn; law enforcement and first-responders who keep Aspen safe and orderly. There are, of course, plenty of people who work the jobs that make Aspen a world-class resort, especially in hospitality, real estate, architecture, and the building trades.
These are the year-round residents whose $73,000 household incomes place them above the national average, but who are priced out of local, free-market housing. Scholars who have studied Aspen and the very similar community of Jackson Hole in Teton County, Wyoming, examined the tensions between the uber-wealthy and lower-income Latinos.
While such work is important, it has largely ignored the middle- and upper-middle-class residents who form the core of such communities. Indeed, 75 percent of Pitkin County’s residents earn between $25,000 and $200,000 annually. My work centers on their experiences, and examines the curious relationship between the affluent global elites and Aspen’s working locals, focusing on how local stakeholders strive to craft a town that operates both as an exclusive enclave and as an authentic community with a middle-class core.
While Aspen is currently home to a substantial middle- and upper- middle-class population, for many locals there is a sense that they are losing control of their beloved town, ceding ground to global elites. Locals see their town becoming a place where tenants of $20 million condominiums can lodge noise complaints against the brewpub or the exercise studio next to whom they purchased a unit, and threaten to drive out local business owners and their patrons.
The existential threat posed to Aspen’s middle- class locals is supergentrification—a global economic force impacting elite resort towns and major metropolitan areas alike. Supergentrification refers to the process whereby an already gentrified neighborhood is further upscaled, so that homes, restaurants, and retail establishments that once catered to middle-class residents are replaced by those that cater to an increasingly affluent clientele. Within the resort economies of the west, geographers have referred to this as “Aspenization.”
Locally, evidence of supergentrification is captured in the oft-repeated description of a place where “the billionaires are pushing out the millionaires.”
This facet of Aspen and the tensions it poses are abundantly clear in The Aspen Times and The Aspen Daily News. On the one hand, these free daily papers are made possible by revenues generated from the glossy real estate advertising inserts that depict majestic mountain estates and sleek downtown condos with price tags in excess of $10 million, as well as with advertisements on interior pages for boutiques selling jewelry, vintage watches, and furs; high-end restaurants; and blue-chip art galleries. On the other hand, these newspapers’ front-page reporting captures ongoing political struggles, like the battle against a new hotel, the effort to ban luxury chain stores, and demands for more affordable housing. Every day, newspaper readers confront the ways in which class tensions and understandings play out in Aspen: the city that sells luxury and aspiration as its core brand is also a place where locals push back against supergentrification.
THE POLITICS OF EXCLUSION
When it comes to social class exclusion, dynamics are especially complicated in Aspen.
As in other affluent communities, many people experience exclusion in Aspen due to its expensive housing market. Yet during my time in Aspen, I discovered that class integration exists alongside class exclusion. In fact, the idea that Aspen offers members of different social classes the opportunity to intermingle is a beloved part of local lore. On seemingly countless occasions during my research, people boasted of the ability of the rich and famous to sidle up to the bar in the legendary Hotel Jerome and not be hounded for their fame, but to be able to fly under the radar and converse with the bartender and other (ostensibly not-so-rich-and-famous) locals.
I regularly observed both elites and non-elites actively participating in Aspen’s vast array of arts and cultural events. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Eero Saarinen–designed music tent, a destination for classical music enthusiasts throughout the summer’s famed Music Festival. Inside the tent sit subscribers with season tickets, while both affluent and non-affluent concert-goers, who pay nothing to hear the same music, populate the outdoor grounds.
What is interesting about Aspen is that concert-goers who enjoy glasses of rosé while sitting on blankets for free outside the music tent may claim that their experience is not only more fun than sitting inside the staid tent, but perhaps even more legitimately “Aspen,” given the mixing of classes and sense of unpretentious luxury.
Conversations with locals also reveal complicated class relations in Aspen. Whereas some locals characterize relations as “class warfare,” with the rich waging war on the not-so-rich, others described these relationships as symbiotic, with the affluent and less-affluent gaining something of value from each other. A number of locals even described class relations in Aspen as exploitative—yet saw middle-class locals as benefitting from, if not exploiting, wealthy residents and part-year visitors, due to their reliance on tax revenues that fund local programs, especially the housing program that allows working locals a place to live outside of the exclusionary free market.
With respect to branding and the role of city producers and place professionals, it is true that much effort has been spent crafting an image of Aspen as a funky mountain town, home to nature-lovers like John Denver and gonzo outlaws like journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
Moreover, many dollars are spent by the Aspen Chamber and Resort Association (ACRA) to sell Aspen as simultaneously luxurious and unpretentious; a place to renew your mind, body, and spirit—an ethos known as the Aspen Idea. Further, consistent with economic geographer David Harvey’s formulation of the city, place-makers in Aspen have found ways to appropriate and extract surpluses from its distinctiveness, trading on the symbolic capital embedded in its charming historic streetscape and awe-inspiring mountain views.
Yet Aspen is not a place where the local government deploys tax breaks or other incentives to lure development and jobs. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if Aspen is bent on extracting as much as possible from developers. So entrenched is this ethos that former council member Adam Frisch describes Aspen city government as a “mitigation industrial complex,” with tight regulations and steep fees, designed to ensure that developers offset the impact of their projects, such as the increased wear and tear on highways and the need for new housing that comes with job creation. If Aspen had a flag, Frisch has said, its motto would read: “Development Pays Its Own Way.”
‘PLACE-BASED CLASS CULTURE’
My work explores the making of an idyllic mountain town, one that both reflects and defies the conventional wisdom about how social class works in affluent communities.
As a relatively affluent community with a rich quality of life, Aspen achieves what many American communities can only dream of: a place where residents enjoy low levels of unemployment, higher-than-average incomes, and extensive opportunities for health and recreation. It is also a place that garners considerable interest from investors, vacationers, and second-home owners. But beneath the surface of this idyllic town are significant tensions and contradictions.
I explored these tensions and contradictions, investigating the ways in which community stakeholders and groups with divergent class interests intersect and attempt to resolve these tensions. Using extensive field notes taken at more than one hundred hours of official city meetings, along with more than 75 in-depth interviews, I highlight how local residents and elected officials use political institutions and the tools of urban planning to create a town that has a distinct identity and considerable value as a brand—one that strives to satisfy the aspirations of middle-class locals and global elites, alike.
Yet balancing these class-interests is challenging, especially in a context where market forces make it difficult for the majority of year-round residents to gain a foothold in the local housing market.
One key component that makes middle-class life in Aspen possible—thereby resolving this impossible math equation—while also attending to the desires of investors, vacationers, and second homeowners, is the land use code that guides local development. Through Aspen’s carefully negotiated land use code, global elites gain something of considerable worth: the ability to invest in and enjoy living, working, or vacationing in a community that makes a concerted effort to preserve its charm and character—as well as what is perhaps most important, its economic value.
The negotiation of Aspen’s land use code—which is one setting in which class relations get institutionalized—ensures that buildings remain small in scale, pedestrian friendly, and historically appropriate. By creating scarcity and attending to the aesthetics of the built environment, Aspen’s city council, in tandem with its city planners, and with attention to the needs and prerogatives of local developers, strives to preserve the unique character that many associate with this historic mountain town, while simultaneously ensuring a limited supply of the “Aspen brand” that many find so desirable.
What year-round middle- and upper-middle-class residents gain through these negotiations is the ability to fulfill an American Dream: the opportunity to live in a place that offers an extraordinary quality of life and the chance to become a long-term resident or homeowner — even when free-market forces are stacked against them. Their place in Aspen is achieved through a highly regulatory land use code that effectively redistributes economic resources from the uber-wealthy to the less affluent—albeit largely middle- and upper-middle-class—locals.
These redistributive processes impact shoppers at boutiques like Gucci and Prada, who pay a supplementary sales tax; buyers who pay a 1.5% Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT) on home purchases; and property developers, who pay considerable mitigation rates on their projects. These taxes and fees, in turn, fund a city budget of nearly $120 million and other pots of money for local programming, where a disproportionate amount is paid by affluent people for whom Aspen may be only a part-year home. These revenues sustain the extensive affordable housing program that allows middle- and upper-middle-class locals to make Aspen their home.
They fund an extensive public transportation system and supplement the public schools, whose quality is seen by many residents as comparable to private prep schools. Benefits are extensive enough that some have referred to locals as a “subsidy class.” These monies also allow the city to buy up parcels of land through its Open Space and Trails program, which both provides recreational space for visitors and locals and restricts the supply of land for local development, further driving up the value of the land that can be developed.
Ultimately, Aspen constitutes a unique case where the downward distribution of economic resources seems to work—albeit within limits. The supply of affordable housing, alas, does not meet demand; thus, many locals live farther downvalley and endure long commutes to work. But rather than give tax cuts to the wealthy with the hope that doing so will stimulate economic growth, Aspen imposes various tax hikes on the wealthy to achieve its community goals.
High mitigation fees are required of property developers, motivated by the belief that development must “pay its own way”—offsetting their impact on demand for housing, transportation, and infrastructure, and delivering value back to the community. In municipalities driven by the growth machine, developers may be courted with subsidies and other incentives. Yet, in Aspen, neither affluent developers nor luxury home buyers have overtly pushed back against these extraordinarily intentional efforts at social engineering and their associated costs.
Instead, they appear largely content to pay the high costs associated with being part of this upscale mountain town.
To make sense of these processes—many of which stand in contrast to existing understandings of how class is done in place—I’ve developed the concept of “place-based class cultures.”
This concept brings together the material, symbolic, and institutionalized dimensions of place. It asserts that places and their local cultures are the result of four distinct elements: cultural beliefs about what a particular place is like; discourses that frame understandings of class and class interactions in that place; ways in which class interests are socially and politically institutionalized; and finally, framing these processes, demographic traits and material conditions that establish how class operates and can be understood.
These analyses can help us understand how, for example, struggles over affordable housing or chain retailers may play out differently, based on how social class is embedded and expressed in local cultures and politics.
The ability to extract resources from wealthy constituents is the result of a carefully calibrated process of “place making”—one designed to preserve Aspen’s identity as an authentic mountain town. It hinges on Aspen’s storied history as a silver mining town in the 1880s, as the birthplace of the modern ski industry in the 1950s, and as a haven for outlaws, bohemians, and celebrities in the 1970s.
This history now comingles with its present, which is part playground for inter- national elites and part work-a-day town with a year-round population of doctors, journalists, teachers, emergency responders, architects, hospitality professionals, and even a few remaining outlaws and bohemians.
Aspen’s ability to weave together the interests of its diverse class constituents is not a foregone conclusion; rather, it is the result of ongoing work by local stakeholders—citizens, government officials, developers, and vacationers—and the balancing of class interests to preserve the town’s unique feel and value; that is, to “Keep Aspen, Aspen,” as a local political campaign advocated.
These analyses are about Aspen, Colorado—a concrete municipality and place on the map, as well as an imagined community with flexible boundaries. Empirically, these analyses focus on the people who live and work in Aspen and the immediately surrounding communities, and especially about the people and process involved in crafting a place called Aspen.
‘Aspen and the American Dream’ documents a year in the life of place-making in Aspen. Drawing from a rich set of qualitative data collected during a year of ethnographic field work beginning in fall 2016, I show how local politicians and other stakeholders attempt to balance the seemingly divergent interests of locals and supergentrifiers while striving to preserve the unique small-town character—one part exclusiveness, one part accessibility—that has become Aspen’s international brand.
Jenny Stuber is associate professor of sociology at the University of North Florida.
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