Every night at dinnertime, I inevitably find myself shouting, “Everyone out of the kitchen!”I remember my mom saying the same thing; it’s nothing new. But what I don’t remember from my childhood – growing up in a ranch-style house in a Southern California suburb – is the serious kitchen logjam. Too many people (and a dog) doing too many things in a way-too-small kitchen. Welcome to life in Aspen, or at least a slice of it. Because for many of us worker bee-types, living small is just the price we pay for living here.”Living small allows you to live big in Aspen,” says Erik Skarvan, a single, young professional living in a one-bedroom employee condo. “It’s a lifestyle choice, and one a lot of us have made and wouldn’t change for anything.”
With that in mind, the Times wondered just how many people are living in tight quarters in this town of McMansions and Garage Mahals? (We know, we know … plenty of people live in tight quarters throughout the valley and around the world. But if you’re not fabulously wealthy, then living small is a mandate in Aspen. And you’ll gaze upward at the Red Mountain castles every day.)And then we wondered: Why? Why house your family of four in a two-bedroom condo when you could have a big home with a bluegrass lawn downvalley or in another state? Why buy deed-restricted in Pitkin County when you could turn a good profit with a free-market home just about anywhere else? I know why my family chooses to live in Aspen – the community, the commute (or lack thereof) and the lifestyle. (To be honest, even if we did want to move downvalley, we’ve long since missed the boat – we couldn’t afford to buy anywhere from here to New Castle.)We’re not alone.According to the Aspen/Pitkin County housing office, some 4,500 Aspenites – men, women and children – live in homes smaller than the national average (about 2,000 of whom are in owner-occupied units); when you factor in residences outside city limits but within the county, it pushes that number to 6,000. And that’s just units sold or managed by the housing office. Aspen’s workers find themselves in all types of tight housing situations: caretaker units, “accessory dwelling units” or ADUs, free-market rentals, converted hotel rooms and more.But in a world where Red Mountain mansions and West End Victorians dominate the landscape, it’s often hard to see that so many people actually live in Aspen. They’re just packed into a lot of unassuming buildings.”There are a lot of people housed within the urban growth boundary … a lot more than what many people think,” said Cindy Christensen, operations manager for the housing office. “We have real communities here. Some are small and some are dense, but they are real communities.”
Leonardo daVinci once said, “Small rooms or dwellings discipline the mind, large ones weaken it.”For those of us who choose to live in Aspen, we can only hope it’s true.”It’s a house … it’s where we live. But it isn’t everything, it isn’t the most important thing,” says Jill Pomeroy, who lives with her husband and two young boys in a four-bedroom employee-housing duplex near Aspen Highlands, but is looking to downsize. “Sometimes I wonder, how much of your house is attached to your ego?” A lot, at least in the United States. According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), one of the fastest-growing new housing markets is in homes exceeding 10,000 square feet. Americans love their space, and we are, indeed, material people.The average new house size in the United States, according to the NAHB, rose from 1,660 square feet in 1973 to about 2,400 square feet in 2004. Nineteen percent of the new houses sold in 2003 were greater than 3,000 square feet and some builders report their average new-home size has been growing 150 to 200 square feet every few years, stated the NAHB.These houses dwarf the places that most full-time Aspenites call home. For example, the Aspen/Pitkin County Employee Housing Guidelines require the lowest-priced single-family homes to be only 1,100 square feet and the highest-priced homes 1,900 square feet; two-bedroom units, which often house families of three, four or more, need only be 850 to 1,100 square feet. And it isn’t often that employee-housing developments include units bigger than required, or extras like private yards and complex amenities, according to Christensen.But that doesn’t seem to matter to many Aspenites.My family lives in Centennial, the blue-roofed condos at the base of Smuggler Mountain – the quintessential employee-housing ghetto. Still, we love living in “the ‘hood” – we walk to town, work and preschool, there are 10 kids under the age of 7 on our street, and we’re not house-poor. I like raising my children without all the bells and whistles. They likely will know nothing other than condo-living – ever – and that’s fine.
Sure, we have friends in the Roaring Fork Valley and across the country with big houses and sprawling lawns (who often look at us quizzically when we explain that we feel quite lucky to raise our kids in our three-bedroom condo). We understand the suburban dream, but we don’t need it. Again, we’re not alone.”Being outside as much as I am, taking advantage of everything that’s just outside my door, my home is just a place to keep my stuff,” Skarvan said. “I don’t really need much more space. If you have the space, you spend money to fill it up and then you spend money to maintain it. It can just snowball.”Plus, I wouldn’t trade being able to be on top of Aspen Mountain in 20 minutes on a powder day for all the space in the world.”Of course there are limits to just how small a livable space can be.”Would we move to a two-bedroom condo? Yes. A one-bedroom? No. But have we thought about it? Sure,” laughs Pomeroy, whose goal in downsizing would be to simplify and save, pouring the extra energy and money into her family and her own business. “We’re willing to sacrifice space for these things.”Many who choose to live in Aspen sacrifice more than just space, however.
Wisteria Lane, from the TV hit “Desperate Housewives,” mocks perfectly the American Dream: white picket fences, large manicured lawns and cookie-cutter homes with picture-perfect families inside. “This American dream of having this big house and the picket fence doesn’t always work. What we realized is that we had to dial it down and find balance and happiness,” says Debbie Braun, a married mother of two and president of the Aspen Chamber Association. The Braun family lives in Blue Lake, a suburban-style neighborhood near El Jebel, but for years they have bid on employee-housing units in Aspen. With each passing year they become more settled downvalley, but Debbie said they would make the move “if it was a good fit.” Their reasons for wanting to live in town – and their willingness to make sacrifices to do so – echo those of many others: Living in the community where she works, no commute, excellent schools.”The drive is getting on my last nerve,” she said. “All the construction and landscaping vehicles going so fast … it scares me with my kids in back. Plus, now I find myself driving like I’m one of them. It’s taking its toll.”These are just the subjects that the housing office discusses with prospective homeowners, said Christensen. “We tell them you’re not going to get the white picket fence or the yard; we can’t do that, the subsidies would be astronomical. But is what you’re getting in return worth it?” she asked.Financially speaking, what many employee-housing homeowners get in return might not be “worth it.” Deed-restricted condos appreciate only 3 percent per year or the CPI, whichever is greater; free-market homes from Woody Creek to New Castle can double or triple in value. Still, Christensen said, you can prosper in the employee-housing market.
“It’s an investment. Not like in the free market, of course, but it’s still an investment,” she said. “Plus, it’s yours. There is security in knowing something is yours.”My husband and I love owning our own home. We have accepted that we won’t get rich when we sell it, but we won’t lose money either. We’re living in the now, I guess, but we don’t want these important years to be spent struggling to keep up with the Joneses. And the bottom line is, it fits us perfectly (OK, OK, I’ve already griped about the way-too-small kitchen …).And yet again, we’re not alone. “Thousands of people are willing to trade the white picket fence and the downvalley investment for the all that Aspen has to offer – living close to where they work, the schools, etc.,” Christensen said. “You don’t have yard, but you’re so close to everything like skiing, hiking, biking …”It’s a lifestyle choice, that’s what these homeowners are making.”Jeanne McGovern’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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