Officials look to Aspen’s private homeowners to assist in housing crisis

Owners of accessory and caretaker units don’t have to rent to locals but it would be helpful if they did, housing officials say

Aspen officials are trying to get a handle on how many accessory and caretaker units there are in the city and Pitkin County and how they are used, and even though it’s not mandatory, they are hoping some property owners will open their doors and help the community out by housing an employee.

Provisions for caretaker units in the county date back to 1980 and for the city’s accessory dwelling unit program, the early 1990s.

However, there have a lot of scenarios under which they were created, said Ben Anderson, the city’s long range planner in the community development department.

Almost all of the roughly 300 known CDUs and ADUs have deed restrictions on them but there is no mandate on filling them with a qualified worker in the county, or a cap on what can be charged for rent.

The programs, which were voluntary to participate in, were created to provide mitigation for the development of the larger home and bonus floor area on a property.

At the time, there was interest and a desire from homeowners who wanted a caretaker on their property while acknowledging the need for local workers to be housed.

Over the years, the profile of second homeowners has changed and the voluntary programs have been less and less used, with many people paying a fee to the city’s housing fund to opt out.

“Aspen was on the cutting edge of this type of program 20 years ago but because of the unique character of Aspen’s real estate market (the caretaker and accessory dwelling units) haven’t been used as intended,” Anderson said.

Julie Kieffer, qualifications specialist for the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority, is working with both governments’ community development departments to get a full count of CDUs and ADUs.

APCHA has a preliminary report of where they are located and who owns them but no clue if they are occupied.

“We want them to be used as intended … it’s a huge unused resource,” Kieffer said.

The idea is that APCHA would send a mailer or email to ADU and CDU owners and ask them to consider renting to a local worker, and to be part of the solution to the local housing crisis.

“We want to garner some information on who is renting those units or who is not renting, and if not, try to remind the owner about employment within Pitkin County and Aspen,” APCHA Deputy Director Cindy Christensen said during an Aspen City Council Nov. 22 work session.

The response by homeowners could mirror survey results done in 1997 in a report created to provide an analysis of Pitkin County’s CDU program.

“One issue which has been debated in the past is whether to require, as a condition of approval, that CDUs be occupied by persons meeting the definition of an employee,” the report states. “It is clear from the responses to this survey that such a condition would be counterproductive.

“Of the owners surveyed, 66 percent, indicated that they would not have built the unit if occupancy by an employee were mandatory, yet most of these units are occupied by full-time permanent employees. The primary threshold for property owners appears to be the flexibility of using the units as they wish. Since most of these units end up being occupied by caretakers and other employees anyway, the purpose is better by leaving the provision as is (occupancy left to the discretion of the property owner).”

The report noted that most of the property owners surveyed viewed the program positively.

“This not only has the desired effect of creating some good will for the housing office and the county but may also help advance the program through word of mouth,” the report states.

More than two decades later, housing officials are hoping word of mouth among these owners can create a space where some will participate in the program.

At the beginning of next year, APCHA will begin its communication with ADU and CDU owners who are in the agency’s database.

“We will be asking for updated information from them and then hopefully following that with letters to consider renting and working with them a little bit and trying to figure out what will make them rent it,” said Bethany Spitz, compliance manager at APCHA.

APCHA is doing a similar ask of people who live in deed-restricted units in which they have extra bedrooms, and has partnered with the Aspen Skiing Co. in a program called “Tenants for Turns.”

Skico launched the program this season in response to the escalating housing crisis in the Roaring Fork Valley.

The program offers incentives to homeowners willing to rent a spare bedroom to a Skico employee.

“We’re thrilled and grateful that APCHA is allowing their owners to make extra bedrooms available to employees looking for housing,” said Jim Laing, Skico’s chief human resources officer, in a recent press release. “It’s a way to make APCHA, already a great program, even better. The fact that the OK applies to all businesses — not just Aspen Skiing Co. — means it serves the whole community. Any new employee bed is a good bed from our perspective.”