City backs off on rules to fill empty housing units
Aspen’s City Council veered sharply away from the philosophical direction established by the preceding council on Tuesday, voting to step back from a proposal for mandatory occupancy of what are known as “accessory dwelling units.”
Led by Councilman Tony Hershey, the council opted instead to seek some way to encourage property owners to rent the accessory units out to workers.
The ADUs, as they are known, are small apartments attached to newly developed homes that are intended to be offered as housing for local workers. The property owner has the option of building an ADU or paying a “mitigation fee” of $42 per square foot of livable space in the main house.
If the property owner agrees to rent the ADU to a qualified local worker, the rules provide for an increase in the allowable square footage of the main house.
About a year ago, city officials learned that only about 20 to 25 percent of the ADUs approved under the program were actually being rented out to local workers. The rest were being used as guest quarters or simply stood empty.
The city’s elected and appointed leaders directed the planning staff to come up with a way to require that the ADUs be rented out, leading to the proposed ordinance under discussion Tuesday night.
Although Tuesday’s discussion was not a public hearing, the council heard from local realtor Lori Winnerman, who warned that the mandatory occupancy rule might discourage property owners from making use of the ADU program. Instead, she said, they would opt to pay the mitigation fee.
Hershey, who has been an ally of Winnerman’s before, supported her in arguing against the mandatory occupancy proposal, declaring that such a rule may not be constitutional. He also compared the idea of mandatory occupancy to a scene from the movie, Dr. Zhivago, in which the main character returns home after the Russian revolution in 1917 to find his family home occupied by hostile peasants.
“This is Aspen, Colorado, not the former Soviet Union,” Hershey intoned. He maintained that a move to enforce mandatory occupancy of ADUs would “put our entire housing program in jeopardy.” He said such a measure would lead to lawsuits by outraged property owners – lawsuits he believes the city would lose.
“I won’t support this initiative, and if it includes any sort of mandatory requirements, I will fight it to my last breath,” he told the council.
Council members Tom McCabe and Jim Markalunas agreed with Hershey’s philosophical opposition to the idea of mandatory occupancy, preferring to take the “carrot approach” instead of the “stick.” This was a reference to the city’s historic dependence on a combination of incentives and legal requirements in its efforts to pursue certain policy goals, such as encouraging private property owners to help provide affordable housing for local workers.
Mayor Rachel Richards suggested the staff be directed to search for ways to entice property owners to agree to what she called “voluntarily mandatory occupancy” of their ADUs.
Some suggestions tossed out by the council included additional square-footage bonuses for homes where the ADUs are occupied by workers, or perhaps tax reductions.
Only Councilman Terry Paulson expressed interest in keeping the mandatory occupancy proposal alive for another hearing, although he ultimately voted with the majority to find other ways to achieve the ADU program’s goals.
In other action, the council: Approved the annexation of the Barbee property, site of a mixed affordable and free-market housing project. Approved changes to the Lodge Preservation zoning codes. Gave its approval for a supplemental budgetary request by the Roaring Fork Transit Agency, to cover a shortfall in 1999 operating funds and enable the purchase of four new buses.
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