This we know: Affordable housing must be affordable |

This we know: Affordable housing must be affordable

The Aspen Times Editorial

It appears as though the Aspen City Council is getting serious about making sure “affordable housing” is actually affordable to local working people.

This week, the council passed amendments to the housing guidelines that capped the maximum price on the most expensive type of affordable housing – the controversial “resident occupied” classification – and called for an average price of $170,000 for the affordable units within any given housing project.

Predictably, this has raised howls of protest from the private development community. Developers have maintained that these new rules will squeeze them out of the affordable housing game, because they can’t make enough money on the projects.

It should be noted that this argument comes first and foremost from developer Tim Semrau, who just last month was running for a seat on Aspen’s City Council on an affordable housing platform and who has long proclaimed his devotion to the cause of affordable housing. Semrau has maintained at recent meetings that the prospects of affordable housing development are now so bad he is quitting the business.

At least one other developer, Ted Guy, agreed with Semrau that the new guidelines make it difficult to attract private-sector involvement in the housing program. But he was not as adamant as Semrau, and suggested there may be ways to adjust the program to make it more feasible for private developers to take part.

This newspaper has for some time contended that the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority may be a little out of its league when it comes to building housing. The agency has done a fine job of managing affordable housing, and does well when it comes to buying or otherwise obtaining existing free-market housing and converting it to the affordable category. But its recent record on the construction front has been less than stellar. For this and other reasons, we have supported the concept of increased private-sector involvement in affordable housing development.

Nonetheless, it cannot be assumed that private involvement is something to pursue at any cost – particularly when the cost is the one we have recently been paying: “affordable housing” that most working people cannot afford.

The hope was that private developers might bring greater expertise and efficiency to the projects than can be found in government bureaucracies, thereby producing higher quality housing at affordable prices. But if private developers insist they cannot build the kind of housing needed to satisfy the aching need of the local working class, that is their prerogative. That may be true, though government consultants have argued that truly affordable housing can be built at a profit – albeit perhaps a lower profit than some developers are willing to accept. That is their decision.

In any case, the builders are arguing that the new rules will make it impossible for them to build any more housing. But, as Mayor John Bennett pointed out, even under current regulations, the private developers have yet to produce any of the lowest-priced housing, which is needed more than the higher-priced units.

It may be there is some negotiating room in this debate between the government and the developers. After all, if affordable housing is the only kind of new construction that can be expected in the upper valley’s future, it is highly unlikely that there is not one private developer anywhere who wants a piece of the action.

But if that is the case, so be it. Government has done the job before, and can do it again. We must have an affordable housing program that meets the needs of the community. Otherwise, why bother?

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