Pitkin County moves forward with housing purchase
October 11, 2012
ASPEN – The purchase of a Basalt townhome to serve as worker housing won initial approval from Pitkin County commissioners Wednesday, but the move could spur debate over who will get to live in the unit.
With more than $10 million at hand that must be spent on worker housing, the $342,000 Elk Run unit is the county’s first acquisition, but the purchase raised questions. Though the four commissioners present at the meeting voted unanimously to move forward, with a final vote scheduled for Oct. 24, Commissioner Rob Ittner voiced qualms about buying a townhome before nailing down various details, such as whether it will be used as a rental unit or sold to a qualified worker and at what price, and whether it will go to a county government employee or member of the general work force.
It’s possible that staff might have recommendations on some of those issues by Oct. 24, according to Jon Peacock, county manager.
“I think these questions are going to get easier. This is new for us,” he said.
The townhome is the first in a portfolio of housing units the county hopes to acquire, and the government could make use of it for one of its own, Peacock said.
“I know, right now, we could use it for internal purposes very soon,” he said.
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Commissioners have set a goal of spending half of the county’s housing money on accommodations for county government employees and half for workers in general. The county owns just two housing units, though one – the house adjacent to the historic Emma Store – actually was purchased with open space funds.
Acquiring “buy-downs” is one approach to spending the housing money. The term refers to buying down the cost of a free-market unit by acquiring it and then reselling it or renting it to a qualified worker at a subsidized price.
Subsidized housing is the cornerstone of the worker-housing program in Aspen and Pitkin County, where a high-priced real estate market put home ownership and even rental opportunities out of sight for many workers and their families.
Buy-downs will present complications when the county provides housing for one of its employees, requiring decisions about who should get a unit and at what price, Commissioner Rachel Richards predicted. She expressed a preference for investing the county’s money in Burlingame Ranch, a city of Aspen worker-housing project where a second phase of housing construction is under way, or privately built housing developments.
The county’s pot of housing money has accrued over the years from payments resulting from development. The county code requires the provision of worker housing or payment of a fee to mitigate for the worker-housing needs that development generates. A typical local mansion can, for example, require the services of maids, landscapers, someone to care for the pool, a property manager and others.
The Elk Run townhome is a three-bedroom, 3.5-bathroom residence with two storage areas but only one assigned parking space, though commissioners initially were told that it came with two parking spots.
One space for a unit of that size is unrealistic, Commissioner Jack Hatfield said.
The unit is, however, within walking distance of some schools, downtown Basalt and mass transit.
“This is within walking distance for a lot of things,” Ittner said. “It will fit for someone.”