Milias: What disappearing locals? |

Milias: What disappearing locals?

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant
Elizabeth Milias

Where did all the locals go?

Well, it’s off-season, so there’s no end to the world traveling. Whether it’s Moab, Morocco, or Montrachet, now’s the time to get away. But it’s important to note that everyone is coming back. After all, the Food & Wine Classic begins on June 16.

The latest gripe we keep hearing about is “the missing middle” in Aspen. More recently, it’s become a desperate outcry over “disappearing locals.” The problem is, the “missing” middle is hardly missing, and locals are not “disappearing” in the sense that’s implied.

Locals may be disappearing from the resort/service industry workforce in such numbers that town undoubtedly feels different, but the people themselves haven’t left. They’re just doing other things. And the middle is actually here in droves.

Plus, countless young families and urban refugees have relocated to Aspen since the pandemic to join them; and if you’re to believe all the chatter about a growing housing crisis, they keep coming. Furthermore, since the demand for subsidized housing continues to escalate unabated (Who doesn’t want to live affordably in Aspen?), it shows that no locals are going anywhere. The locals who are already here are staying put. That’s why there’s no room for the new guys.

But for the middle, something is in fact “missing.” Those in the middle are missing how it had once been possible to live large just like our tourists, sometimes even larger. But the times have changed, and many of the old freebies have dried up. What’s missing for this group today is all the cool stuff that used to be accessible in an earlier, less expensive version of Aspen.

A columnist for the other paper laments that local businesses sadly now cater to the people who actually pay for goods and services instead of giving free access, free parking, and free drinks to locals, even if it meant putting these on an unsuspecting tourist’s tab. Having to buck up now for such things is her rationale for missing the good old days, but no, no one has gone missing.

The greatest contributor to this phenomenon is actually the bureaucratic state that continues to create more locals through unchecked, subsidized housing development — 79 new units at Burlingame 3 and 277 at The Lumberyard in the near term — and the refusal to call this growth.

While free-market, residential development is strictly capped at 0.5% annually (13 new units and six redeveloped units), there is no limit on subsidized-housing development. We actually have a “growth” policy whose mission is to protect our small-town community character, yet our formula for measuring growth ignores its greatest driver.

Among other problems, this results in many hundreds more locals on the same budget who will inevitably join the chorus to complain about how expensive everything is. Not exactly the definition of “disappearing.” 

There are actually so many “middles” in the middle that from the inside, it surely feels like there’s a lot more competition to be one. Because there is. But no one is talking about it. More people are earning the same low wages and competing for fewer scarce resources (Think: bar stools at Mi Chola). 

This inevitably leads to talk about restaurant price inflation, which is a national phenomenon, not something unique to Aspen. And notably, most “middles” have changed as much in the past 20 years as the restaurants have. They just don’t want to acknowledge it.

Could this be the result of chickens coming home to roost? Years of living the high life while paying pennies on the dollar for subsidized housing, not saving, not building equity, but collecting 100-day pins and passport stamps? Nearly 40 years into our subsidized-housing program brings new awareness daily to the harsh realities of owning deed-restricted property in one of America’s priciest zip codes, where the cost of every last thing is higher than practically anywhere else.

There are so many “middles” in the middle that people are no doubt getting lost, as in left behind, but they’re not disappearing.

Even the “middles” are turning on themselves. A class system is evolving within the housing program. Apparently, when top Realtors live in APCHA housing, this is a bad thing. But they’re locals too, right? I’d say just as much as the longtime bartender who recently retired is one. I don’t question the guy who works at home for Google, but only the appropriateness of APHCA’s rules (as written) allowing it. He’s still a local despite “disappearing” from the local workforce. But personal purchasing power in our little hamlet has now become a delineating factor. If you’re not complaining, you’re clearly not a local.

Lamenting “the missing middle” and “disappearing locals” has become an acceptable way to express nostalgia for how one remembers a place to be when one was at one’s most fun and youthful best. And today, when prices everywhere have risen, in Aspen, it’s always someone else’s fault: the tourists, the landlords, the second-home owners. But this just a canard.

The only locals who have disappeared are the younger versions of themselves.

How can free-market growth be detrimental to community character yet subsidized-housing growth has no impact at all? Contact