Basalt housing crunch about to get worse

Scott CondonAspen, CO Colorado

BASALT Basalt’s affordable housing shortage is destined to get worse even though the town government is toughening rules to make developers offset more of the jobs they create.Approvals granted six years ago to the Willits Town Center will add significantly to the town’s imbalance between jobs and affordable housing, documents at Town Hall show.The Willits Town Center will create about 950 jobs when it is completed, a consultant’s evaluation for the town government indicated. Willits developer Michael Lipkin negotiated a deal that required him to house 183 employees.The Willits Town Center will have 362,000 square feet of commercial space and 138,000 square feet of residential space when it is completed. At 500,000 square feet, it is the largest project ever approved by Basalt.During the lengthy review, the town hired a company called Economic and Planning Systems to perform an impact evaluation. That 2000 study assessed all the uses proposed used at Willits – a hotel, supermarket, retail shops, restaurants and luxury lofts – to estimate the jobs generated.Determining the amount of affordable housing Lipkin needed to build wasn’t as easy. Willits Town Center was annexed into the town and received its initial approvals in the 1990s, before Basalt beefed up its housing mitigation rules in 1999.When Lipkin sought amendments to his approvals in 2001, the town agreed not to apply the 1999 housing requirements to Willits Town Center. Instead, Lipkin and the town negotiated a compromise. Lipkin agreed to build affordable housing at the rate of one worker per 2,735 square feet of development.Applying that formula to the 500,000 square foot project means affordable housing is required for 183 workers – or about 19 percent of jobs the project will generate.In other words, Willits Town Center will create 768 more jobs than housing opportunities.Jody Edwards, a former attorney for the Basalt town government who now represents Lipkin, said Willits Town Center isn’t unique. Numerous projects that haven’t been built yet were approved before Basalt toughened affordable housing requirements in 1999, he said.”It’s a little unfair to pick on just one,” Edwards said. “There are many imbalances existing out there in the community.”It’s a case where there aren’t any bad guys. Developers like Lipkin played by the rules that were in place at the time. Now – with an acute affordable housing affecting the entire valley – Basalt is paying the price. Edwards noted that Lipkin and his partners actually went well above their requirements. They didn’t have to build any affordable housing, but agreed to when approached by the town.Since 1999, Basalt has used a set formula rather than negotiations to determine how much affordable housing developers must provide. That formula has two steps: 20 percent of all residential units must be affordable housing; 20 percent of all jobs generated by commercial development must be offset with affordable housing.Willits Town Center’s numbers were never crunched through that formula because it didn’t apply. The Basalt town planning staff is looking at those numbers now to determine how the 1999 regulation would have affected WillitsIt’s largely a moot exercise. Willits Town Center’s approvals for the 500,000 square feet is secure and cannot be altered.But the imbalance between jobs and affordable housing could come into play in a new application under review by the town. Lipkin wants to add 60 free-market residences to the village core. He is also proposing 21 deed-restricted affordable housing units and 19 resident occupied units, which don’t have restrictions on appreciation or buyers’ assets and incomes.When considered on its own merits, the new application meets the town’s affordable housing mitigation standard. It’s unknown if the Town Council will look at the new application in the context of the broader imbalance of jobs and affordable housing at Willits Town Center.Edwards argued they shouldn’t. This application should be reviewed on its own merits, he said.Basalt officials have made affordable housing a priority. The 1999 affordable housing regulations will be toughened in a new land use master plan that will be in place this fall. It will boost the affordable housing requirement for residential projects from 20 to 30 percent and suggests the town require commercial developers to house more than 20 percent of employees. “The Town of Basalt recognizes that having a supply of housing affordable by households earning the salaries paid in the Town of Basalt is critical to creating a sustainable Town having the benefits of the sense of community that grows where people can live and work in the same area,” the new master plan says. “The Town of Basalt further recognizes that there is a growing gap between housing costs and wages in Basalt. Therefore, the Town of Basalt Town Council has determined that it needs to develop and maintain an affordable housing program.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is