Basalt tosses worst of Aspen’s housing rules
Basalt officials are using Aspen’s affordable housing regulations to sculpt their own code, but they intend to throw out what they perceive as the worst of the upper valley’s rules.
Town Manager Tom Baker is intimately familiar with what works and what doesn’t for the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority – he ran the department for three years in the early 1990s.
He advised the Basalt Town Council in a hearing last week to steer clear of a preference system to determine who gets the first right to buy affordable housing units.
Aspen and Pitkin County have complicated priorities that rank potential buyers on issues such as years of residency. It makes lotteries for housing extremely complicated and difficult to conduct.
“That was the major drawback I saw,” said Baker.
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Baker is not even convinced Basalt’s fledgling affordable housing program needs to worry about holding lotteries – at least not for eight years or so. He envisions selling affordable housing units through a free-market-oriented system.
Sellers would be able to work with buyers of their choice – as long as the buyers qualified under town rules and sale prices were within limits set by the town.
Baker also advised the Town Council not to set limits on assets held by purchasers of affordable housing. Assets are “extremely difficult” for the government to monitor, he said.
Like the upper-valley governments, Basalt will check to make sure buyers’ incomes fall within acceptable limits for different categories of affordable housing. The town staff, Baker said, is divided on whether assets caps should be set as well.
Baker said he doesn’t think asset caps are needed because people with ample assets have enough reasonably priced options in the free market. Wealthy buyers probably won’t be in the market for affordable housing, he added.
“It doesn’t seem like the market is that overheated yet – yet,” he said.
However, there is always a chance that someone with ample assets will buy affordable housing, then invest their assets on property speculation elsewhere, Baker acknowledged.
“There is a risk that someone who’s not the most in need could end up with [affordable] housing,” he said.
Basalt officials appeared most convinced to avoid the upper-valley governments’ willingness to accept cash instead of housing from developers to meet their requirements.
Aspen and Pitkin County accepted cash in lieu of housing for years. They built a large war chest, but the funds sat for years as political opposition prevented projects from being built. Meanwhile, the buying power of the war chest diminished.
“We want to avoid taking money that’s worth seventy-five cents on the dollar by the time you’re ready to build,” said Baker.
Basalt will accept cash only as an exception, not as the rule. For example, when a commercial project generates the need to house 4.5 employees, the town will require the developer to provide housing for four employees and accept cash for the part-time position created.
Town Council members indicated they didn’t want developers to buy their way out of their obligations.
The town government still has several details to hammer out, such as sale prices for different categories and the accompanying income caps for buyers in those categories, plus annual appreciation limits.
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After 14 years, a lengthy lawsuit by area residents and nearly $4 million in construction costs, a half-mile trail to two school campuses in the Castle Creek Valley was finally completed this week.