Raising the rent: Aspen’s largest landlords enact annual increases in ‘21
Increases come as pandemic continues to bear down on hospitality industry, leaving many unemployed or underemployed, but there are relief resources available
Some of the largest landlords in Aspen have elected to increase the rent of hundreds of local residents this year, and many of those renters are suffering economically due to the COVID-19 crisis.
At the Centennial rental apartment complex, where there are 148 units, rents were increased as much as 3% for some renters, which is nearly a $650 annual increase.
However, Andrew Held, president and chief operating officer of Birge & Held, which acquired Centennial last March, said the average increase amounts to $24 a month.
Centennial’s rental increase formula is tied to the Denver Consumer Price Index, and was done in compliance with the existing rental restriction agreement and ultimately required by Birge & Held’s lender underwriting, according to Held.
“As an offset, our current incentive at the property is providing each of the 148 units a $100 gift card that can be used at local Aspen restaurants and grocery,” Held said via email. “That is designed to help offset the rental increase for the residents and help support the local restaurants that are battling the disruption of the pandemic. It is a cost to us of about $14,800, but hopefully helps the residents over the next few months and some of the local businesses.”
A renter at Centennial who The Aspen Times is not identifying said they had not heard of that incentive, and had to inquire more than once last year when Held announced there would be a $50 credit for those who paid rent on time.
“I’m unwilling to give them a pat on the back for spending $14,800 or whatever on gift certificates when they are taking vastly more than that from tenants by increasing rent at this time,” the renter said. And said in a previous message: “My opinion is that it is worse than nothing to get a one-time $50 credit followed by what amounts to a $648 annual rent increase.”
The Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority increased rents at city of Aspen-owned properties by 1.2%, which is automatic in the agency’s regulations and is based on 3% or CPI, whichever is less, according to Cindy Christensen, deputy director of APCHA.
She noted that there was no request by city officials to keep rents the same as 2020.
There are 1,425 units in the APCHA inventory and the city-owned ones, like Truscott, Aspen Country Inn and Smuggler, are small fraction of those. The rest are individually owned and rented. Owners of those units are allowed to raise the rent 1.2% as well, Christensen said.
Held said Birge & Held is trying to strike a balance among covering property expense increases year over year to effectively operate the property, satisfying lender requirements, and not overburdening the residents with rent increases during the pandemic.
“Concessions like the $50 rent credit for paying on time (this was for the month of April 2020), providing the $100 food gift cards this month, waiving all late fees, and allowing deposits to be used for rent are various tools we are utilizing to reduce the net rental burden on the residents during the pandemic but still meet our financial obligations to run the property,” Held said.
The privately owned yet deed-restricted Castle Ridge Apartments raised the rent per its usual percentage and management agreement with APCHA on the 80 units near Aspen Valley Hospital last summer, when leases are renewed and signed.
Held said Birge & Held is not serving any rent demands and has not filed for any evictions, even though there have been instances in which it could have.
Birge & Held is working with residents who are struggling to pay all the rent when it’s due and allow them to make payments throughout the month when they can.
Held noted that anyone who has contacted Centennial property manager Kim Keilin about struggling to pay rent has been offered assistance through the state’s Property Owner Preservation program. It allows property owners who are seeking rental assistance on behalf of their tenants to electronically register for the POP program and submit requests for rental assistance.
City Manager Sara Ott said that program, along with the state’s emergency rental and mortgage assistance program, are well funded and are available for local residents.
Aspen City Council in April passed a $6 million recovery and relief package, of which $1.5 million was dedicated for rent assistance in APCHA units.
At the onset of the pandemic, Pitkin County administered the qualification process and grants to renters and owners in APCHA as part of the COVID-19 Relief Fund, which was funded by the city, county, Snowmass Village and private donors, and amounted to roughly $3 million.
The county shut down the program in the fall, when it realized it did not have capacity to handle the influx of requests, so the remaining dollars were transferred to government partners, like the Aspen Community Foundation, according to Nan Sundeen, director of the county’s health and human services department.
“It was a huge lift and we were privileged to do it,” she said. “But now we’ve been bolstering our partners’ capacity.”
The county doled out about $600,000 of the city’s housing funding.
Ott said she is looking at other nonprofit partners to help identify people living in APCHA units and qualify them for assistance.
With local and state and federal programs, relief is available.
“The difference between now and April is that there are a lot more state and federal funds,” Ott said, adding she and others in government are trying to protect the local population. “My goal is to have the workforce be able to stay in the community.”
Sundeen said the county is pushing people to its website where there is a COVID resource list for people to seek assistance on everything from housing to mental health to meals and food or child care.
The county also gave the Aspen Community Foundation $400,000 in humanitarian aide toward COVID relief, Sundeen said.
Her department is giving money to county residents if they cannot work because they contracted COVID or were exposed to someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus and is in quarantine. Those individuals are identified through the county’s contract tracing department.
There is $55,000 available in that fund, $30,000 of which is from the Aspen Community Fund and $25,000 through Gov. Jared Polis’ COVID Relief Fund.
Finally, the county in the coming weeks is giving the Aspen Community Foundation $100,000 in seed money to start a navigation program in which a phone line will be set up and manned by staffers who can point people to resources available to them.
“So we have those who can ‘self rescue’ and are computer savvy to try to get rent relief from the state and federal governments,” Sundeen said. “But for those who can’t get to a computer, it’s critical for some people to just have a phone number, but there is relief out there, there are resources.”
Aspen City Council approved a contract with Daniel Joseph (DJ) Watkins during Tuesday’s regular meeting to move forward with his intentions to operate his proposed “Aspen Collective,” which is currently occupied by Mia Valley’s Valley Fine Art.