Preserving community or promoting sprawl?
Fifteen years ago the only consistent grief that Aspen’s elected officials caught about affordable housing came from a handful of conservative political gadflies.
Bill Martin, a retired general, and his wife, Mary, would occasionally pop into meetings of the Pitkin County commissioners or the Aspen City Council to challenge the notion that government should try to solve the employee housing shortage. Wink Jaffee would berate the government’s efforts and implore officials to let the free market take care of the problem, like he was doing at his W/J Ranch.
Affordable housing projects such as Centennial and Williams Woods garnered fierce neighborhood opposition, but by and large the multimillion-dollar government housing program had widespread community support.
“When I came here, you got elected by saying you supported affordable housing,” noted Reid Haughey, who was the Pitkin County manager in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
He recalled that county voters in 1988 approved $6 million in bonding to construct affordable housing. Nowadays voters would laugh a generic question like that off the ballot if the funds weren’t earmarked for specific projects. Even if the money was earmarked, opposition would be fierce.
Affordable housing’s days as a sacred cow appear to be over. It’s not just the conservative gadflies raising objections. The housing initiative is catching hell from every direction. For example:
* Candidates in the Aspen City Council election are divided over the government’s role in providing housing.
* The Pitkin County commissioners said recently they won’t consider any more big affordable housing projects in rural areas.
* A once-cohesive bloc of liberal political and civic leaders in the upper valley splintered into pro-environment and pro-housing camps three years ago during the debate over the city’s controversial Burlingame project. Those wounds have yet to heal.
* Conservationists have become increasingly vociferous, arguing that employee housing constitutes growth, generates sprawl and gobbles ecologically vital open space.
* Philosophical critics of the program have come out of the closet as tough economic times have at least temporarily eased the demand for some types of housing. During the days when Aspen’s economy was booming – creating hundreds of new jobs per year and chronic housing shortages – most of those critics kept their complaints to themselves.
A dog chasing its tail?
Pitkin County has all but thrown in the towel with its declaration that it won’t consider more housing projects in rural areas. That leaves the city of Aspen to lead the housing charge. The city undertook a study of the housing situation in early 2002, performed some soul-searching and came up with a new set of goals.
That February 2002 report determined that 49 percent of Aspen’s 14,000 employees lived in or immediately around Aspen. At the time, the city’s goal was to boost the number to 60 percent.
The study determined that there were 3,684 households in Aspen with at least one employee working in town. To reach the goal of housing 60 percent of employees, another 995 units were needed.
Since that study, city leaders have lowered their goal to 55 percent. That creates a demand for 606 units.
Approval of Burlingame could add as many as 330 residences in a phased approach over the next few years, so it appears Aspen is making progress in addressing housing needs.
But that progress is largely an illusion, said former Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Kinsley, a researcher with the Rocky Mountain Institute in Old Snowmass.
Providing housing for 55 percent of Aspen employees – or whatever goal future administrations set – will forever take an increased effort due to the creation of new jobs. Kinsley foresees a scenario of continual growth, in which new free-market development spurs more jobs, which in turn spur the public sector to provide more housing. The vicious circle continues until the upper valley grows so much it loses its character.
“You can only get 5 pounds of stuff in a 5-pound bag,” he said.
The upper valley cannot simply isolate and attack the issue of how much affordable housing to provide, Kinsley said. It must also examine how big it wants to be.
“What we’ve never confronted is what the total number should be,” Kinsley said. “It’s a question we don’t like to ask.”
More jobs on horizon?
The Aspen Affordable Housing Strategic Plan undertaken for the city government agrees that housing demand is largely a product of job creation. Therefore, the consultants advised the city to reassess its housing needs every five years.
The study showed that Pitkin County’s last big surge in job growth occurred in 1996 and ’97 when 1,400 positions were added. Job growth has been flat through 2000, the last year from which the report could draw statistics.
The slower economy has “softened” demand for housing and renewed the question of how much is needed, noted John Sarpa, a developer and civic leader who has served on various housing-oriented committees.
A few years ago people who objected to the government-subsidized affordable housing program largely kept their complaints to themselves. Their credibility was limited because there was such high demand for housing. Sarpa characterized the community’s view of affordable housing as “build as much, as fast, as well as you can.”
Today’s slower economy and decreased demand have emboldened critics to question the housing program, Sarpa said.
Last winter, for example, critics asked why so much additional housing had to be built when there were vacancies in the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority’s inventory.
The housing authority oversees about 2,000 sales and rental units. It took longer than normal last fall to rent out all the low-end rentals.
“Usually we fill up in October. We weren’t filled up by November,” said Ed Sadler, asset manager for the city of Aspen.
Despite that slower demand, places like Truscott Place and the Marolt dorms filled by the start of the ski season. “We just filled later than usual,” Sadler said.
Sadler is unconvinced that Aspen is experiencing lower overall demand for affordable housing. What changed, he said, is hiring practices.
Employers like the Aspen Skiing Co. hire more employees via the Internet these days. A person who knows they have a job may risk coming to Aspen later in the fall to find housing, Sadler said.
Even if housing demand has slumped due to the slower economy, Sarpa believes it is cyclical, just like free-market development. It’s been nearly impossible to find affordable housing for so long in the upper valley that a softening in the market for 12 to 18 months isn’t enough to sway housing proponents.
Sadler thinks a case can be made that the slowdown offers a perfect window of time to catch up and relieve some of the demand. Affordable housing proponents contend it is just a matter of time before the economy improves, new jobs are created and housing demand soars higher than ever.
There are already signs that the upper valley is poised for another surge of job growth. Several major development projects are progressing in Aspen and Snowmass Village, despite the anemic national economy.
The Aspen Skiing Co.’s Base Village proposal alone will add 1 million square feet of development in Snowmass Village. The project features 635 condominiums, 94,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space and another 90,000 square feet for skier services.
Burlingame was different
If high demand is destined to re-emerge, then the question is where the city will build future housing. “Infill projects” – or those on the last remaining vacant lots within the city limits – tend to require a high public subsidy for a small gain in units. The cost-effectiveness of infill development is under question, and infill projects also tend to rile neighbors.
So Aspen officials have been forced to search among open spaces on the periphery of town. That search has sparked feuds with open-space advocates – the debate over the Burlingame project is a perfect example – and threatens to escalate into a bigger war.
Burlingame was the first significant housing project since Centennial in the early 1980s to draw widespread opposition from people other than neighbors. Open-space advocates and environmentalists claimed Burlingame couldn’t help but damage the ecological value of Deer Hill and surrounding lands between the Maroon Creek Golf Course and the Airport Business Center.
“[The campaign against] Burlingame wasn’t anti-housing, ever. It was smart growth, always,” said Tim McFlynn, a conservationist and organizer of Many Voices, a group that unsuccessfully fought Burlingame. After a hard-fought campaign, city voters approved an earlier, 225-unit version of the project by a healthy margin in 2000.
Conservationists argued that Burlingame wasn’t smart growth because it added such a large amount of housing in an area that wasn’t easily served by city services such as buses. McFlynn and others derisively called the project “Burlingville.”
McFlynn said an “inherent conflict” exists between powerful political factions when affordable housing projects are proposed on ecologically valuable land, or when the projects are seen as promoting sprawl.
The construction of the Marolt project in the late 1980s on land that had initially been dedicated as open space led conservationists to counter with drastic steps. They pushed for creation of a county open space and trails program that was approved by voters and has invested millions of dollars in the last decade to preserve land around Aspen and throughout the county.
Nevertheless, open spaces outside the city’s current boundaries are likely to become future targets for housing, especially due to neighborhood opposition within the city limits.
“The path of least resistance to affordable housing is open space,” said McFlynn.
That reality guarantees conservationists are going to become more active in the politics of housing. McFlynn believes that debate is healthy and long overdue.
“It has been taboo to suggest anything that results in less affordable housing,” he said.
Former county manager Haughey said the result of the growing community debate could result in a tougher future for the affordable housing program.
“As soon as you start pitting one community issue against another, the probability for success drops,” he said.
Haughey also questioned whether the Aspen electorate will continue to approve housing projects, like they approved Burlingame. With 2,000 units in the affordable housing inventory and more coming at Burlingame, he wonders if voters will be less sympathetic to housing issues and more supportive of open-space preservation, due to a feeling that they’ve “got their piece of the pie.”
The widening of Highway 82 to four lanes may also relieve pressure for upper-valley housing projects. Workers may find longer commutes more tolerable if it doesn’t take so long to drive to Aspen.
Resolving the debates
Despite the criticisms, the pro-housing lobby is still one of the most powerful in Aspen. The May election for mayor and two council positions could help determine just how powerful.
Marcia Goshorn, a member of the housing board and longtime affordable housing advocate, said she believes Aspen will always have a demand for affordable housing, even after Burlingame is completed. She and Sadler believe the question is more likely to be what type of housing should be built.
“That’s probably the single-biggest issue out there,” said Sadler.
Resident-occupied housing, which doesn’t have restrictions on income levels, has always sparked controversy because critics contend that doctors, lawyers and other high-income earners shouldn’t receive subsidized housing.
Goshorn said Burlingame will help alleviate housing demand for families but will do little to ease the shortage of housing for single people or couples with no kids. Some residents of studio apartments have been trapped for years with no opportunity to move up to a one-bedroom unit because demand has been so great. Lotteries are usually held to determine who gets to buy such units, and they typically attract scores of applicants.
Goshorn believes the housing program remains as popular as ever and that critics are a vocal minority. Elected officials and housing board members will be in the tough position of making decisions that often upset that minority, she said.
Kinsley said Aspen can avoid paralyzing battles between the pro-housing and pro-environment factions, as long as the sides are willing to compromise.
Kinsley suggested three variables to work on to solve the housing issue: reducing the creation of jobs, moving people on public transportation and housing people close to where they work.
He feels that housing the upper valley’s future workers in faraway places like Silt and Rifle and building expensive transportation systems to haul them to work is socially and ecologically indefensible. He wants Aspen to determine how big it is going to be and then take steps to further limit growth and the number of new jobs.
Newly generated employees should be housed close to town. To avoid battles over where that housing should be built, he believes a detailed analysis should be performed on all options and residents should select “the least damaging” sites.
Whether any such compromise is possible among Aspen residents is another big question.
“A whole hell of a lot of them are used to getting their way,” Kinsley noted.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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