School and fire district may buy into Stillwater housing | AspenTimes.com
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School and fire district may buy into Stillwater housing

Sarah S. Chung

Showing any sign of preference when it comes to employee housing has always been a minefield for government officials – especially if public money is involved.

Despite that, the Pitkin County commissioners appear ready to strike a deal that would set aside at least some of the Stillwater affordable housing project east of Aspen for the fire district and the school district.

The conceptual plan for Stillwater, a proposed 16- to 20-unit affordable housing project, will be submitted in the next several weeks. Donated by Fritz and Fabi Benedict for affordable housing, the Stillwater project has been years in the making.

Philosophically, the county commissioners stand sharply divided over the concept of assigning housing “priorities” for “essential services.” However, they all support allowing the fire and school districts to purchase a yet undetermined number of units by paying for the subsidy required to build those units.

“Community money put in through taxes should go to everyone,” said Commissioner Shellie Harper. “But the county will have trouble raising the money needed for Stillwater, and if we can extend that money with a group paying to partner with us, it makes public money go farther.”

Both Harper and Commissioner Mick Ireland are opposed to “ranking essential and non-essential” employees for priority in affordable housing projects. But they contend that there’s a difference between simply granting a unit and giving an organization a chance to pay for it.

“The question is whether the unit would have existed if not for the organization,” Ireland said. “The average Joe doesn’t lose if the fire department pays for five units that otherwise wouldn’t exist. The average Joe gains because that’s five less people competing with him to find housing.”

Commissioners Patti Clapper and Dorothea Farris, however, maintain that there’s nothing insidious about differentiating between occupations that are vital to the community.

“If a volunteer fireman can’t get to a fire because he lives downvalley, that’s a safety problem and everybody loses,” Farris said. “I don’t see the issue as saying an individual is more important; I see it as saying a community value is important.”

“Priorities don’t say that [firefighters] are more special – just that they’re more necessary,” Clapper agreed.

But Ireland rejects that argument and the “caste system” it would create.

“There are people who want a housing program just for essential services. I don’t think that builds a community. That’s how you destroy a community. That’s Animal Farm,” Ireland said.

“The problem lies in the fact that when you brand one person as `essential’ you’re branding hundreds of others as `non-essential,’ and I’m not willing to do that.”


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