Feds to rescue in Aspen’s affordable housing crisis

The city of Aspen is looking to the U.S. Forest Service to help address one of its biggest challenges — providing desperately needed affordable housing to support the local workforce.

A provision in the 2018 Farm Bill signed into law by President Donald Trump in December allows the Forest Service to lease administrative land to local communities in return for cash or the construction of new facilities and improvements.

In this case, it’s the Forest Service’s 2-acre parcel on Seventh Street at the S-curve in the West End neighborhood that is ripe for the development of affordable housing.

City officials and representatives from the White River National Forest have begun initial talks about the possibilities there.

“We have administrative parcels and a shared problem, which is the challenge to find affordable housing, so it’s super exciting for a community that is highly dependent on a seasonal workforce,” said Greg Rosenmerkel, the engineering, minerals and fleet staff officer for the White River National Forest. “In this case, we retain the land and we work with the local community to get the best use of our public lands.”

Before the Farm Bill, the Forest Service was limited with administrative parcels in that it could only sell land.

The White River National Forest did just that in 2013 when it sold off five undeveloped lots that were part of its West End campus for $7 million during an auction.

The proceeds from the sale will be used for remodeling the ranger station, or building a new visitor’s center and other improvements on the West End property.

The Forest Service uses a portion of the ranger station during the summer as a visitor center and staff support; Pitkin County’s open space and trails department occupies part of the building as well.

There is a bunkhouse on the property that is used to house Forest Service seasonal workers in the summer.

The idea would be to have the city build permanent housing that would accommodate Forest Service employees and individuals who qualify through the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority.

The Forest Service would enter into a long-term lease with the city and municipal government would construct the units.

“We’ve talked for years but we’ve never had a mechanism to have this kind of partnership, so we really might be able to get something done,” said Chris Everson, the city’s affordable housing program manager.

Rosenmerkel said local governments have the first right of refusal to enter into leases with the Forest Service.

How that will get executed is what the federal government is currently working on, said Anna Bengtson, realty specialist and land conveyance program manager for the White River National Forest.

“The national office is coming up with a manual and handbook for the implementation of that policy,” she said, noting there are 10 administrative sites in the White River National Forest that could be leased to local communities.

That includes two parcels in El Jebel that combined are 70 acres; however, there are some restrictions that would limit development on portions of them, Bengtson said.

“I think it’s a really cool opportunity for the Forest Service and the White River National Forest, especially since we have land that’s needed,” she said.

The Forest Service is working with the town of Dillon and Summit County on a similar deal in which the local governments would build workforce housing on a 9-acre parcel just outside of town.

The opportunities were made available in part by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), who wrote a bill and incorporated it into the Farm Bill to encourage these types of partnerships with the Forest Service.

Bennet introduced the bill with Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) in 2017, as a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

“The Forest Service is an important partner to counties and towns across Colorado,” Bennet said in a statement to the Times. “In places like Pitkin County, where affordable housing is limited and land costs are high, this authority will go a long way in enabling the Forest Service to work in concert with local communities to help address these challenges.”

Bengtson said she expects the handbook detailing how these deals could work to be completed this spring.

Once that is done, Forest Service officials would like to meet with Aspen City Council to discuss next steps.

Everson acknowledged that working with the federal government is challenging because of its enormity and bureaucracy, but he is hopeful the handbook and provisions in the bill would accelerate the project.

“It’s difficult to connect with the federal government,” he said, adding $50,000 has been set aside in the 2020 city housing budget for planning. “With governments working together it might be tough to get anything done, but there is more promise now than before.”

Rosenmerkel said it will be a long haul to make something this unique play out but the White River National Forest is motivated to collaborate with local governments to address the affordable-housing crisis in mountain communities throughout Colorado.

“We’re excited to work with our many supportive communities and partners across the forest to leverage the 2018 Farm Bill leasing authority to help solve some shared challenges while making most beneficial use of our public land in the long run,” he said. “The White River National Forest is investing the time and energy into working with Aspen and others to best leverage our respective assets and talents.”


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