Pitkin County looks anew at how to spend its housing money
September 8, 2011
ASPEN – With $10.1 million in available money for worker housing, Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday expressed an interest in partnering with other public entities to produce additional housing.
Commissioners convened for a four-hour work session to discuss updated employment statistics, real estate trends and their priorities for building or buying housing with money collected from private development. The funds are intended to mitigate the housing demand developments create by generating additional jobs.
The county is obligated to spend the money at some point, advised County Attorney John Ely.
“If there is no plan to mitigate the impact, there is no need to collect the fee,” he said.
While there is no required time frame in which to spend the money the county collects, it needs to be used in a “reasonable” period, he said.
The county last developed a housing project, on donated land, at Stillwater Ranch east of Aspen. The 13 townhome-style units there were sold to the first round of buyers in 2005.
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Constructing another project is but one option outlined for commissioners Wednesday. “Buying down” existing homes or condos – purchasing residential property and then deed-restricting it as housing for qualified workers, or buying land for future housing construction are options that are currently more attractive as a result of dropping real estate prices, said Jon Peacock, county manager. That was not the case when commissioners first began discussing how to spend the accumulating housing money three years ago, before the topic dropped off the front burner.
“It’s a good time to get into the market,” Peacock said.
Though real estate prices have come down, free-market housing remains unaffordable to many in the workforce, he added.
A majority of commissioners advocated possible partnerships with other public entities as opposed to partnerships with private developers to build new housing. Buy-downs didn’t get a strong endorsement, though a few houses to help recruit county employees would make sense, Commissioner Rachel Richards said.
“My favorite is clearly acquire land and develop new housing,” Commissioner Jack Hatfield said. “I know there’s less bang for the buck, but we control it, we know the end product.”
Hatfield said he preferred putting the housing in the upper valley, and reiterated his interest in buying the city-owned property next to the county’s Plaza One building for offices and housing, but others were open to building housing as far down the valley as Basalt.
“Given the choice, you’d be surprised how many people would rather be in Basalt than Aspen for various reasons,” said Commissioner George Newman. “I wouldn’t go farther than Basalt.”
Newman said he’s interested in working with the town of Basalt on a housing project, but also noted opportunities to get involved in worker housing in Aspen, including the Boomerang Lodge redevelopment and second phase at Burlingame Ranch.
Commissioner Michael Owsley suggested spending $1.5 million a year for five years on whatever opportunities rise to the top.
“I wouldn’t have any limitations. I would look for values and opportunities,” he said.
Commissioner Rob Ittner also favored public partnerships, preferably in the upper valley. He urged investment sooner rather than later.
“The money buried in the back yard isn’t doing us much good,” he said.
“I think what’s happened to this board is we always look for the best deal, then we hold back because we’re not sure it’s the best deal,” Owsley said.
Richards said she wouldn’t write off buy-downs, but wouldn’t make them a major focus, either. She also urged a renewed relationship with the city of Aspen on the housing front.
“We’re less aware of their projects now…they’re less aware of what we’re looking at,” she said.
Wednesday’s session concluded with a meeting behind closed doors to discuss specific properties and opportunities that county staffers have identified.
There are currently 2,808 residences, for rent or ownership by qualified workers, in the community’s housing pool. Housing trends that may shape decisions about what to build include a projected increase in workers who retire but remain in their housing, making the units unavailable for those who are employed, and a demand for less expensive units to house those in the lower-paid service sector. In addition, some owners of the more expensive worker housing are looking to move into something cheaper as a result of recession-era changes to their financial picture, according to housing officials.