Retirees and affordable housing stirs toxic debate in Aspen
The long-simmering debate over retirees living in Aspen-area affordable housing has reached fever pitch of late.
A letter to the editor from the city-sanctioned Next Generation Policy Advisory Commission sparked the recent controversy after some interpreted its message as a call to kick retirees out of their homes. The reaction was swift.
No fewer than four local newspaper columnists have chimed in on the subject in recent weeks, which along with letters to the editor and social-media bickering, helped create a toxic brew of heated rhetoric and inter-generational politics.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” said Mike Kosdrosky, executive director of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority. “It’s false that anyone hinted or suggested kicking anyone out (of their homes). That’s illegal. That’s immoral.
“However, we have to think about the future. This is an issue for everybody. And I think we can accommodate everybody.”
Representing residents between 18 and 40 years old, the NextGen commission’s Oct. 13 letter cited an APCHA 2012 Strategic Review of Housing report estimating that “20 percent of workforce housing units will be occupied by retirees in 2025.” It also stated that “many” of those retirees live in multi-bedroom units they no longer need because family members who once occupied them have moved out.
“Fortunately for some, once they are no longer working they can remain here,” NextGen’s letter said. “We are proud of these community members and their contributions. But we also need to recognize that if we don’t address this issue, we are essentially subsidizing a retirement community.”
The letter went on to propose a community conversation about what to do about the problem — including suggestions about “buy-down” options, building senior-only housing and offering financial incentives to move out.
Some took issue with the letter’s tone. Some thought the group was just paying lip service to retirees while actually looking for an excuse to kick them out of town. Others didn’t get those same implications and thought the group brought up a valid issue.
“The whole goal with that letter was to start a conversation,” said Skippy Mesirow, a NextGen member and former Aspen City Council candidate. “We all read it three times. There was no malice or malintent in it.”
Still, when the backlash hit, it hit hard, he said.
“Now we’ve sat down with others … who took it negatively,” he said. “What matters is how it’s received. We’re trying to learn where we were insensitive.”
First and foremost, NextGen never lobbied to kick retirees to the curb, Mesirow said.
“It’s simply not true,” he said. “We have not ever suggested kicking anyone out of their home.”
As Kosdrosky said, such a proposal is illegal and clearly against APCHA housing guidelines.
“An owner of a deed-restricted housing unit who retires during the period of ownership may retain the unit exempt from the requirements of employment,” the guidelines state. “Retirees may also work without jeopardizing their right to ownership.”
The unit must be the retiree’s primary residence — meaning they live there at least nine months of the year — and they must not own other residential property in the “ownership exclusion zone,” according to the guidelines. Retirement age is set by federal Social Security standards.
Thus, anyone who retired with an affordable-housing unit under those current rules cannot be kicked out for any reason other than violating APCHA rules.
‘Losing ground’ on workforce housing
The second component to the debate is more complicated.
APCHA oversees a total of 2,956 deed-restricted units, which Kosdrosky estimated would be worth between $3 billion and $6 billion on the open market if those restrictions were ever lifted.
Of those total units, 1,631 are reserved for those owners and 1,325 are rental units, Kosdrosky said.
The retiree problem — though some say it’s not a problem — revolves around the ownership units. Currently, 7 to 8 percent of those 1,631 units are occupied by someone 65 years or older. But that’s not the problem.
The vexing issue is that 63 percent of those ownership units are occupied by at least one person 45 or older, Kosdrosky said. That statistic means that in 20 years, between 300 and 800 ownership affordable-housing units will be occupied by people working less than full time or not at all, he said.
“It’s a legitimate concern,” Kosdrosky said. “If there’s no options to move down or out, you bottleneck the system. I don’t know how to couch it in any other way.”
In 2015, 53 percent of Pitkin County’s workforce was housed outside the county, he said. According to the county’s latest statistics, that number has now risen to 61 percent, he said.
“(The future retiree numbers) could represent 10 to 25 percent of the entire inventory,” Kosdrosky said. “Now, is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But you can’t replace those units.
“The numbers show we’re losing ground on housing our workforce here.”
Kosdrosky and Mesirow pointed to the affordable-housing program as the area’s No. 1 economic development program. Both said the program needs to operate “more efficiently” and is straining underneath policies put in place decades ago but not fully thought through.
For Kosdrosky, that means bringing online an expensive database to track every aspect of the housing program. Once that’s online at the end of 2019, his office will possess the appropriate information about that efficiency and can work toward the best solutions.
“We need to be as creative in solving some of these issues … as they were in creating the program (decades ago),” Kosdrosky said.
For Mesirow, it means prompting a change in rules for the next generation of affordable-housing tenants and owners — his generation — and perhaps some of those currently residing in those units.
“The expectations of people in affordable housing need to change,” Mesirow said. “This is not an entitlement for me and it’s not an entitlement for you. You’re getting a lot and you need to give a lot.”
While Mesirow doesn’t have a solution to the problem, which he said should be answered through an “all-generational conversation,” he suggested perhaps converting all the inventory to rental units in an effort to prompt people to save money for the future.
“This is the most preventable looming crisis we have,” he said.
“If we don’t make changes to the program … we will regret it in 20 years,” he said. “These issues have to be addressed in the next couple years.”
An overblown issue?
For Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards — who previously also served as Aspen’s mayor — the fuss over the issue of retirees in affordable housing is not a big problem.
“My impression is the crisis is overblown,” she said. “I think it is a bit of a tempest in a teapot.”
Richards — a 57-year-old who lives in a two-bedroom affordable housing unit in Aspen — doesn’t necessarily believe that 50 percent of the ownership inventory will be occupied by retirees in 20 years.
“People die,” she said. “People move. It will be cyclic.”
Also, going to an all-rental inventory means people get no security and no equity, as well as higher credit and car insurance rates, Richards said. Getting retired people to trade down for a smaller unit, in turn, decreases the availability of one-bedroom units for single workers. Plus, many retirees will not want to trade from a 700-square-foot, two-bedroom place for a 350-square-foot one-bedroom, she said.
She said she could see some modifications to the program, including establishing a requisite number of years worked in the community before a person could retire here in an affordable-housing unit. But radically changing the rules isn’t necessary, she said.
“I think NextGen is striking a bad bargain for themselves,” Richards said. “I’ve come to believe millennials don’t realize how quickly you age.”
Beyond that, she said the nearly 3,000-unit inventory ought to be thought of as “affordable housing” and not “workforce housing.” The first Aspen Area Community Plan, for example, envisioned a community that included children, families and seniors.
“It’s the idea of having roots here,” she said. “We want people with connections to this town.”
Seniors provide institutional knowledge, volunteer for the numerous nonprofits and events in the Aspen area and provide a valuable part of the community’s fabric, Richards said. If people had to move upon retirement, why would they stay here and put down roots, she asked.
“It’s about the quality and commitment of the workforce,” Richards said.
Aspen City Councilman Bert Myrin feels the same way.
“Aspen has retirees in affordable housing because the voters have a long-established social contract supported by elected officials and their constituents over the 30-plus years of our affordable-housing program, and it is neither a surprise nor a crisis,” Myrin said in a recent email. “It is more important to me to house predecessors than able-bodied workers because without these predecessors we wouldn’t have nearly 3,000 units of affordable housing to have this conversation.”
Myrin and Richards acknowledged that APCHA will never out-build the problem — demand will always exist, in other words — but that affordable-housing projects need to continue to be approved and built. Specifically, Myrin said he wants to make sure the city honors affordable-housing mitigation rules in exchange for development.
“To me this means … immediately stop the increasing ratio of free-market bedrooms to (affordable housing) bedrooms upvalley of the Intercept Lot,” he said.
Whatever the solution, affordable housing is meant to benefit the entire community, not just the workforce, Richards said.
“If it’s all about workforce, why have family units?” she said. “You could say, ‘When you have children you have to leave; they won’t be working for 18 years.’
“If it’s just about workforce housing, then we should just be building dorms.”
Starting the conversation
Rick Head, a 70-year-old real estate broker and vice chairman of the APCHA board of directors, said that is not his understanding of why the affordable-housing program was started.
“I can’t imagine them creating affordable housing for retirees,” said Head, who lives in an affordable-housing unit and continues to work. “I thought the whole purpose was to create housing for people to service this town.
“We are a service community. As far as I’m concerned, retirees don’t get us there.”
Andy Popinchalk, 69, taught English at Aspen High School for 32 years. He and his wife live in an affordable-housing unit above the high school and love retirement in Aspen.
When he spoke last week, he had just returned from giving advice to a class of juniors at the high school about college recommendation letters. He said he also tutors other students and helps seniors with college applications. His wife volunteers, too.
“I want to be here,” he said. “I feel like I’m making a contribution.”
Popinchalk also said he believes many variables exist in whether people decide to retire in Aspen in affordable-housing units or go elsewhere to, perhaps, be with family or live in warmer climates. And while he admitted that NextGen’s letter a month ago initially made him anxious about his position, he’s since spoken to members of the commission and better understands the situation.
“They were really nice people,” he said. “I realized that what has to happen is people need to talk to each other. You have to have a conversation where everybody hears the same thing.”
For Mesirow, that’s the goal.
“I think (the recent controversy) will spur the conversation … because we’re going to insist on it,” he said. “We need to trust in one another … and getting together and not sowing divisions. There’s way too much sowing divisions right now.”
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