Housing seekers find few, if any, options
December 9, 2014
With the Aspen-area tourism economy continuing to boom, the market for housing rentals is as tight as ever as the 2014-15 ski season gets underway.
That's the word from officials and others involved in helping to house short- and long-term workers. Most newcomers to the area who have tried to find affordable places to live over the past two or three months have experienced varying degrees of difficulty, they say.
And those who only started their search in the past week or two could very well find themselves between a rock and a hard place. A glance at newspaper classifieds and other typical sources where housing opportunities are posted show little availability unless the renter is willing and able to fork over some big bucks for free-market residences.
"It's tight all over the valley," said Cindy Christensen, interim director of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority.
Christensen said people drop by her agency's office on East Hyman Avenue every day in hopes of finding a place to live for the upcoming winter season. Most of them are seasonal workers, but some are looking long-term, she said.
The housing authority manages some area employee-housing properties and simply qualifies people for others. The long-term rentals directly managed by the housing authority — 40 units at the Aspen Country Inn, 196 units at Truscott Place and 11 units at Smuggler Mountain Apartments — currently have no vacancies.
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The 196 seasonal housing units at city-owned Marolt Ranch off Castle Creek Road and privately owned Burlingame off Harmony Place — small units that are only available from Sept. 1 through April 30 because they are made available to Aspen Music School participants every summer — were all taken by the end of September, officials said. They filled up a few weeks earlier than last year.
"We're directing people who are looking for places to talk to their employer, to talk to anybody they run into," Christensen said. "Usually, people can find a place through word-of-mouth. We tell them to look at the newspapers first thing in the morning because if something looks good, it will go quickly."
Housing seekers need to be careful if searching places like Craigslist or other Internet sites that purport to list moderately priced housing units in the Aspen area. In years past, some people have been scammed, paying money for units that didn't exist, Christensen said.
Roberto Garcia, 41, who moved from Denver to Carbondale last month, said he has had a difficult time finding a place of his own in the Aspen area. He has placed notices up on bulletin boards around downtown Aspen and elsewhere, to no avail.
He is living temporarily with friends in Carbondale, but a kitchen job that recently was promised to him will require that he reside in the upper Roaring Fork Valley because of the long hours that accompany the position.
"I don't know Aspen very well," Garcia said Sunday. "I figured that a town that needs so many workers in the winter would have enough affordable places to live. I doubt I will be able to take this job because commuting (from Carbondale) is not an option in my case."
The housing authority has links on its website at http://www.apcha.org for property owners and managers wanting to list an available property and for those seeking housing. That may not be the best option for people needing to find something quickly, she suggested. As of Thursday, the bulletin board at the housing agency's offices had four postings from people seeking housing and four opportunities for housing, including rooms for rent in houses with three or more occupants.
Popular options in the past for seasonal and long-term workers not wanting to pay big money have been Alpina Haus on East Durant Avenue and Copper Horse on Main Street, which have 43 and 13 units, respectively. These properties, which are not managed by the housing authority or advertised, offer small units of about 100 square feet with a bathroom but no kitchen.
They are similar to college dormitory units, said property manager Kevin DeCarlo. There is no availability at either location, DeCarlo said.
"I'm almost always full," he said. "I've been full for quite some time. I've got to stop answering my phone."
Usually, when a unit becomes available, DeCarlo advertises it through word-of-mouth.
"This year is a lot tighter than last year," he said. "Even during the recession I had some openings, but I was pretty much full."
A few units turned over in September and October, DeCarlo said. They were easily filled.
"I would say 80 percent of my tenants stay more than two years," he said.
Assistant City Attorney Barry Crook, who oversees municipal housing issues and projects, such as the recent Burlingame Ranch expansion, said the Aspen rental market has been tight this year as well as last.
He noted that the 2012-13 winter season wasn't as difficult for rental-housing searchers, given that there was availability at the Marolt Ranch seasonal complex even as the ski season was underway.
"It's tight again," Crook said. "We filled up early this year."
The city currently owns four properties in the area that could be used to develop rental housing. Around four or five years ago, the city of Aspen advertised for bids from developers in an attempt to develop public-private partnerships for rental-housing projects. Nothing came to fruition.
"We didn't get the responses we were looking for," he said. "We wanted an equity partner who would build and operate these units. Some of their income stream would come from operating the facility.
"What we got was a bunch of proposals from people who said, 'I'll build it, and then you operate it.' From our perspective, we didn't need to pay people to manage the construction. The city has people who can manage construction. We were looking for a partner. We just said 'no' to all of them."
A City Council work session is scheduled for Jan. 6 to gauge whether elected officials want to pursue a course for developing more rental properties or place more emphasis on other community issues.
Basically, it's the first step in a process that will rely on community input to decide what projects the city should tackle next, Crook said.
As for private-sector efforts, housing officials pointed out that now, as in the past, most developers aren't interested in affordable-housing projects aimed at renters because the high price of local real estate reduces the attractiveness of such developments from the standpoint of profitability.