Eagle Co. looks to Basalt for tips on affordable housing | AspenTimes.com

Eagle Co. looks to Basalt for tips on affordable housing

Though they may loath to admit it, the county commissioners in Eagle County are starting to sound an awful lot like their colleagues in Pitkin County, especially when they’re talking about affordable housing.

As different as the leadership is in the two counties, both are grappling with dire housing shortages. Both can blame escalating property prices driven up by an overheated resort economy and a limited supply of usable land.

“The work force in Vail has vaporized,” said Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone. “They just don’t have the people there to do the work. Employees are coming from as far away as Silt.”

Stone and his fellow commissioners are hoping to address the problem with a new set of affordable housing regulations they will put out later this year. But as similar as Eagle County’s problems are to Pitkin County’s, Eagle County officials are looking to Basalt rather than Aspen for an example of how to implement an affordable housing program.

Much of Basalt is in Eagle County.

“We have a great deal of respect for the leadership role the town has played in the area of affordable housing,” said Eagle County Housing Director David Carter.

Basalt’s leadership comes in the form of recently adopted regulations that require developers of residential projects to devote 20 percent of new dwelling units and 15 percent of all bedrooms to affordable housing.

Developers of commercial property must undertake a study to determine how many employees their projects will generate, then provide affordable housing for 20 percent of them. They must also pay a fee of 50 cents per square foot of maximum allowable space to help the town offset affordable housing needs. The town’s land-use rules have also been changed to encourage construction of accessory dwelling units and to allow more home-based businesses.

“Twenty percent is a good starting point,” said Basalt Town Manager Tom Baker. “It’s certainly lower than is justifiable, but taking that first step is tricky. It’s difficult.”

Eagle County is grappling with many of the same questions that plague long-established programs like Aspen’s and newly adopted ones like Basalt’s. What does “affordable” mean? Who is the program trying to help? What role should government play? What responsibility do private businesses have for housing their employees?

The commissioners recently adopted a set of housing policies that are meant to guide the county’s bureaucrats as they write the new regulations.

“Steps should be taken to facilitate increased home ownership by local residents and workers in Eagle County,” reads one goal in the policy statement. To make that a reality, the policy statement suggests starting a mortgage-assistance program and exploring a rent-to-own program.

“Seasonal housing is part of the problem and needs to be further addressed. It is primarily the responsibility of seasonal employers,” reads another policy goal. “However, Eagle County should be very supportive of employers seeking to address their seasonal housing needs.”

Basalt Mayor Rick Stevens said the town struggled over what to do with housing prices that kept going up and up as it debated how to handle the housing issue. Regulations were finally adopted after years of debate ended with the adoption of a “housing ethos” that provided policy guidelines for the town.

At a joint meeting of town and county officials last week, town trustee Steve Solomon warned county commissioners about the circular nature of debate on affordable housing, and urged the commissioners to avoid getting mired in the details of how to build and manage affordable housing.

Both Solomon and Stevens said they hope Basalt has acted quickly enough to avoid some of Aspen’s problems.

“If we’re not careful, we’ll end up like Aspen – buying a lot for $3.5 million and putting 12 units on it,” Stevens said.

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