Giving credit where credit is due in Aspen workforce housing

Historic property once owned by local columnist Su Lum to be converted into affordable housing

What could have become yet another multimillion-dollar single-family house on a historic Aspen lot will instead become the home of five local families, thanks to a marketplace that makes it worthwhile for a developer to build subsidized workforce housing.

It’s a project that the previous longtime property owner, the late Aspen Times columnist Su Lum, would most likely approve of.

The miner’s cabin that she lived in at 1020 E. Cooper Ave. will be preserved as a historic asset and converted into two of five proposed housing units.

The two- and three-bedroom condos will be sold to local employers to rent to their employees, according to the project’s developer, Jim DeFrancia.

The project is estimated to generate nearly 13 affordable housing credits, which could carry a value on the open market of around $3.9 million.

The price of a Certificate of Affordable Housing Credit is currently around $300,000, and since there is a dearth of them right now they could become more valuable in the future.

The program was the brainchild of longtime local Peter Fornell, who convinced city officials in 2010 to create the program, which allows a developer to build affordable housing and get a credit for each unit that comes online. That credit can then be sold to another developer who uses it to fulfill employee mitigation requirements on a separate commercial project.

There are not many credits to be had these days as Fornell has sold the 60-plus credits he had generated over the past decade.

Some of the credits that are currently being created with small affordable-housing projects on Main Street will go on the open market, but a majority of them will be held back for developer Mark Hunt’s mitigation on his commercial projects.

“There’s not a ton of them on the market right now,” said Ben Anderson, the city’s long-range planner. “Most of them are being held toward future commercial development.”

DeFrancia, who is behind the 81-room Gorsuch Haus hotel as part of the voter-approved Lift One project at the base of Aspen Mountain’s west side, is partnering with Jean Coulter to redevelop the Lum property.

Gorsuch Haus will be required to house roughly 20 employees per the city’s land-use code, but this project is not being built for that since Lift One is several years away.

But if the Cooper project pencils out the way DeFrancia and Coulter hope it will, it could be a model for how to provide workforce housing for future commercial development.

“If it works and we can find another site, we’ll do more,” DeFrancia said.

He and Coulter bought the lot for $2.3 million last year from a local couple who tried to redevelop the property into a single-family home, but withdrew the proposal after running into opposition from neighbors and scrutiny from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, the only reviewing body required for redevelopment of the property.

The project will go before the HPC on Jan. 13, according to Amy Simon, the city’s historic preservation officer.

DeFrancia said he hopes to break ground next spring and be able to offer the units to local employers by 2022.

“We know there’s lots of employers, both public and private, who have the need for housing,” he said.

The housing credit program makes it possible for a private developer to provide subsidized units and not solely rely on the government to build workforce housing.

“We can’t put it all on the public sector,” DeFrancia said. “We can turn a profit and it serves the public need. … That credit system makes all the difference in the world.”