The state of Aspen according to ‘Joe the Plumber’
ASPEN ” Life for the average “Joe” is pretty good in Aspen, despite all of its challenges and struggles.
That appears to be the consensus among locals, many of whom have made great personal sacrifices to live in Aspen, where the average home price has hit $6 million and the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” has grown wider than ever before.
Conversations among Aspenites at bars, construction sites, restaurants, polling places, gyms, doctors offices and everywhere in between indicate that while it’s tough to live here, it’s worth it. Prices are high, traffic is a headache and it takes at least a 40-mile drive to buy socks or underwear, but life is still good in Aspen.
“Life is hard no matter where you’re at, so you might as well live here,” said Clancy, a local bartender and firefighter. He added that living in Aspen among dropouts from the real world is always interesting, much like the place where Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer landed in the Christmas cartoon special.
“I enjoy living in the land of misfit toys,” Clancy said.
The city government recently released two reports at a cost of more than $130,000 ” the “State of the Aspen Area,” which attempts to document today’s living environment and a “White Paper,” charting the ups and downs of the local economy since the 1970s. The two documents deal essentially with the failures and successes over the last decade in keeping the community sustainable, and the government’s role in maintaining Aspen’s quality of life. But neither report looks at life through the eyes of the working locals who make Aspen tick.
The Aspen Times spent the last couple of weeks talking to local worker bees about why they’ve chosen to make the Roaring Fork Valley their home and how they feel about the state of the Aspen area.
Most locals cite their deed-restricted affordable housing as a major reason for being able to stay here. And while they’re grateful for the government subsidies that make the housing affordable, it’s still a trade-off because their living spaces are small and, because of government-imposed appreciation caps on their housing, they won’t benefit from the real estate investment when they retire.
“I pay $1,000 to live in a box,” said Kevin Gadow, a bartender at Bentley’s at the Wheeler. “But I live here because it’s a small community and it’s eclectic, and everyone is from somewhere else. I love living here.”
Gadow considers himself lucky; a one-bedroom rental apartment in Aspen hovers between $2,000 and $3,000 a month on the free market. Roommate situations in Aspen aren’t much better ” some people ask $1,500 a month to rent a room. Downvalley, those prices decrease but not by much.
Mikey Wechsler has lived in Aspen for 28 years and has lost countless lotteries to buy a home in the Aspen-Pitkin County Affordable Housing program. As a waiter at the Steak Pit, earning a living and paying rent sometimes is hard to swallow because he’s made a lifetime commitment to the community.
“That kind of chaps my ass … I’m 48 and I have a roommate,” Wechsler said. “But hey, look around. Aspen Mountain is right in our face … for me it’s all about the outdoors.”
That’s the case for Lisa Gonzales-Gile, a longtime flight attendant for United Airlines, who lives with her husband, a CPA, and their 8-year-old child, in a small house near the base of Smuggler Mountain.
“I have to squish myself to the end of my bed to get out of it because my room is so small,” the 18-year resident said. “You are constantly weighing whether it’s worth it, but when I look out the window, it does make it all worth it.”
Locals who have lived in Aspen for any length of time have found themselves playing the rental housing shuffle, moving numerous times and living with many roommates.
“I think I’ve lived with everyone in town,” said 20-year resident Barb Frank, who is frustrated she’ll never own a free-market house but is content with the deed-restricted condo at Centennial she bought a few years ago. “Without employee housing I couldn’t live here … owning a house is supposed to be an investment, but that’s not possible here.”
The local government considers Frank and the thousands like her an asset to the community, which is why it has spent tens of millions of dollars to build and buy workforce housing.
But, as the “State of the Aspen Area” report points out, the government hasn’t accomplished nearly enough. The stated goal of the local government is to house 60 percent of the workforce; current estimates say the government has succeeded in housing just 23 percent.
“During the last eight years, the Aspen area has become home to more than 1,400 people working in Aspen and living in affordable housing ” 592 owning their homes and 909 renting,” says the report. “For most resorts, this would be nothing short of miraculous, but in Aspen it’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the issue of housing.”
During those same eight years, an estimated 1,075 Aspen-area workers who used to live in free-market homes, condos or apartments have had to find somewhere else to live. Some 597 free-market units have been redeveloped, demolished or otherwise converted into something other than workforce housing.
And the future looks even more bleak. As baby boomers grow older in Aspen, they are steadily retiring in their affordable housing units, forcing more workers into the free market or downvalley. An estimated 207 retirees live in affordable housing today; that number is predicted to jump to 625 in 2017 and 1,142 in 2032.
“It’s the unintended consequence,” said Michael O’o’sullivan, who has lived in Aspen since 1976. O’sullivan, who owns a small painting company and lives in a deed-restricted single-family home with his wife and two kids, says, “we’re building a retirement community without knowing it.”
O’sullivan doesn’t need a government report to tell him what the state of Aspen is. Life is good for him, his family and employees, but O’sullivan ” like most valley residents ” recognizes that traffic backups into town, the high cost of living and a lack of affordable housing degrade Aspen’s quality of life.
“We know how political this town is and we can’t make decisions so we hide behind studies and consultants,” he said.
The “State of the Aspen Area” is suppose to serve as a precursor to a revision of the Aspen Area Community Plan, which was last updated in 2000. The report is intended to start a public discussion about a range of local issues, from housing to transportation to the economy.
“We hope to hear these discussions on the bus, on the street, in coffee shops and at public meetings,” states the report’s introduction.
The public process on the AACP update has started and will continue through February, when elected officials expect to make policy decisions and adopt goals to help guide the community into the future.
A key frustration among locals appears to be growth, and the continuing trend of affluent retirees and second-home owners taking over what used to be a sleepy, funky ski town.
“This town never passes up an opportunity to shoot itself in the foot,” Gadow said. “Big money squashes the little guy; he who has the gold makes the rules.”
Wechsler said the greed in Aspen is palpable.
“It’s sucking the soul of the town,” he said. “Stop building. How much do we really need to grow?”
Paul Dorich, a bartender at the Double Dog Brew Pub, said regardless of Aspen’s problems, life here for locals is a privilege. Like any socio-economic class system, where there are “grunts” and “gazillionaires,” an underground barter system allows locals to take care of each other.
“We manage a reciprocation to one another and I find that so interesting,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, if you don’t have the respect of locals you won’t be accepted.”
According to Dorich, life in the Aspen bubble is much sweeter than Detroit, where he was a teacher. It doesn’t matter that he has had to hold down multiple jobs to pay the bills; at one time he closed the bar in the wee hours of the morning and then drove a school bus a few hours later.
“I can bike and disappear in five seconds, and live my sheltered little life here,” Dorich said. “And the people who come in [to the bar] from the outside say how great the people are in Aspen.”
That’s because they are happy, despite the near-constant griping and complaining on the opinion pages of the local newspapers. There is a steep price to pay to live in Aspen, and a lingering bitterness among many who feel their town has been sold to the highest bidder. But most locals ” at least the ones who find a way to stay long-term ” agree that it’s worth the struggle.
Like many of her neighbors, Jill Nelson moved here 10 years ago and found a clean and healthy environment to live in. It didn’t matter that she had to live paycheck to paycheck for years before getting a foothold in employee housing.
Nelson’s friend Barb Piotrowski came to Aspen eight years ago and worked as a chairlift operator for $9 an hour ” a wage that hasn’t increased much over the years. Mayor Mick Ireland has said that wages for dishwashers, his first occupation when he arrived in the 1980s, also haven’t risen much over the last two decades.
With the cost of living on the rise and wages not keeping up, Piotrowski said she works three jobs and goes to nursing school. She wishes she could go out to eat more often and catch up with friends, but it’s simply too expensive.
“Ultimately, it all comes down to money,” she said.
Aspen has remained fairly recession-proof over the years but locals are bracing for the latest economic crisis to hit.
“Life in the bubble is great but that bubble is about to burst,” O’sullivan said, adding that he can still find employees for his painting business, although they live as far away as Rifle. Some workers are moving back to their countries of origin, he said, because work opportunities are fewer.
But for Gadow, slinging drinks behind the bar is steady regardless of the turmoil in the U.S. and world financial markets.
“When the economy is good, people drink,” he said, “and when the economy is bad, people drink.”
Those who may increase their alcohol intake are real estate agents, who are seeing a significant downturn in their industry despite the fact that Roaring Fork Valley home prices remain sky-high.
According to the white paper economic report, the cost of a typical Aspen home is enough to buy 25 average homes in the U.S., and the average home price has increased 15-fold since the early 1980s.
Aspen is entering its fourth economic slowdown of the past 30 years and experts predict there will be slight price reductions and sharp drops in the number of real estate transactions, according to the report produced by Economic Research Associates (ERA).
“ERA believes it is likely that a significant recession will cause a further decline in Aspen real estate sales and construction activity, leading to reductions in attainable prices for comparable homes,” says the report. The paper also noted that affluent Aspen property owners are not compelled to sell during slumps and are able to wait for market recoveries and price appreciation.
Aspen’s two dominant industries have become real estate and construction, surpassing the original drivers of the resort economy ” skiing, lodging, and retail and restaurants.
It remains to be seen how a serious economic slowdown will effect both the real estate and tourism industries, and all the working-class people who depend on those economic drivers to make their monthly payments.
Most of the construction workers at the Limelight Lodge, which is scheduled to open this month, live as far away as Denver. They are in Aspen only temporarily.
“It would be nice to live here but it’s too expensive,” said one worker while eating his lunch at Wagner Park.
Zach Lien has been working at the Limelight job site for nearly a year, commuting every day from New Castle.
“It’s not the easiest place to make a living,” he said of Aspen.
Two bus drivers running the Cemetery Lane and Hunter Creek routes this past week live between 40 and 50 miles away but commute to Aspen to drive people around. One lives in Glenwood Springs and the other in New Castle.
As recently as five years ago, middle-class families were still able to afford a home downvalley, even if it was a financial stretch. Today, the median price of a single-family home in Basalt is $1 million. In Carbondale and Glenwood, it hovers at or above $500,000, according to the reports. So the “downvalley relief valve” no longer exists, at least not for most wage-earners.
Chris Peshek, a physical therapist at the Aspen Club, makes the daily commute from Basalt, where he bought a house at a reasonable price in the 1990s. He drives most days because his two children need transportation to various activities. Peshek said his biggest gripe is not having an Entrance to Aspen solution after three decades of community squabbling.
“We want to make it easy to come into town but it’s not,” he said.
And, like many locals, Peshek travels long distances to acquire life’s necessities. “It’s sad that you have to go to Denver to buy an affordable pair of underwear.”
Peshek also struggles to raise his kids amid Aspen’s conspicuous wealth.
“The hardest thing is teaching them values, and to understand they can’t have everything that Johnny has,” he said.
Still, he added, life in the valley is better than living in Nebraska, where he grew up. “It’s give and take, and you take a hit on your own lifestyle but my kids have a wonderful place to grow up.”
Gonzales-Gile, the flight attendant who travels around the world, said when she looks at other cities, Aspen “looks better and better.” She also noted that Aspen has taken major hits before ” like the 1893 silver crash that ushered in the so-called Quiet Years.
How Aspenites handle the impending economic troubles will be a true testament to the people who live here, O’o’sullivan said.
“All the things we take for granted we might not be soon … we’re going to take a hit and then you’ll see who really wants to live here,” he said. “Everyone makes sacrifices to make it here and if you can crack the housing nut, it’s an outstanding place to live … we have the best public school system in the state.”
What is endearing to Jerry Willis, a 9-year resident, is that those who tough it out in Aspen are the ones worth knowing.
“I don’t want to live with the masses,” he said. “And the people who make it here are pretty special.”
To learn more about the state of the Aspen area as seen by the experts, log onto http://www.aspencommunityvision.com.
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The city of Aspen will be taking control over four traffic signals on Main Street so that pedestrians are the priority.