Valleywide problem, valleywide solutions?
September 12, 2008
Affordable housing is no longer a problem strictly for the city of Aspen or Pitkin County.
At one time, public officials across the Roaring Fork Valley believed that employee housing was a problem for Aspen ” as the major generator of jobs in the region ” to solve.
But these days, officials concede workers are commuting in all directions to get to their jobs. The driving force, they say, is the exploding oil and gas industry in the western part of Garfield County, coupled with an ongoing commercial and residential construction boom that extends from Aspen to Rifle and beyond.
A regional approach to the issue, some officials say, probably would be more effective than leaving it up to each county and municipality to work out its own solution.
But that’s pretty much where the agreement ends, according to a sampling of officials contacted by The Aspen Times.
Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig, for instance, acknowledged recently that it is no longer true that the sea of traffic that ebbs away from Carbondale is headed toward an upvalley work destination.
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But, he noted, “It’s still true that all the people who work in Aspen don’t live there,” meaning that many of Aspen’s employees still live in outlying communities, anywhere from Basalt to Parachute.
And, he said, the elected officials in those towns remain reluctant to pay the high costs of providing housing for people who work in Aspen and Pitkin County, or in any place beyond their own boundaries.
Key government officials up and down the valley told The Aspen Times that a regional approach to issues that cross jurisdictional boundaries, such as the formation of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to deal with mass transit, generally are better than piecemeal solutions.
Some regional efforts have been launched, including a multijurisdictional housing fund first envisioned about eight years ago. And the Catholic Charities organization hosted a series of meetings a couple of years ago aimed at bringing government, nonprofits and other concerned parties to the table to talk about regional housing ideas.
And regional nonprofits organizations, such as Mountain Regional Housing Corporation, the Aspen Community Foundation and the Manaus Fund, have been pitching in to try to find solutions to the housing crisis.
But so far, the regional idea seems to have gone nowhere, and it has been left to the various governments to go it alone or in some kind of limited partnerships.
Carbondale and Basalt, for example, now require developers in certain circumstances to build affordable housing as part of their projects. And their town managers were involved in the discussions that led to the creation of the multijurisdictional housing fund.
“There is a regional housing district,” said Carbondale’s Hassig, explaining that Carbondale, Basalt, Glenwood Springs and Garfield County have formed a district, known as the Roaring Fork Community Housing Fund, to address housing issues, as authorized by state statutes.
The statute, according to Hassig, authorizes the district to ask voters for funding, although that has not been done.
Geneva Powell, director of the Garfield County Housing Authority and a member of the RFCHF board, said the effort became bogged down over numerous organizational details. Such issues never got in the way of the upper valley’s push to provide affordable housing, she said.
“Aspen does a great job with its affordable housing program,” Powell said, noting that with the real estate transfer tax to provide revenue, and with both Aspen and Pitkin County requiring affordable housing mitigation from developers, the upvalley governments have had plenty to work with.
But the downvalley governments have not been in the same position, she said. The GCHA, for example, largely handles funding for housing for senior citizens and low-income families as defined by federal regulations. In addition, it manages the county’s inventory of deed restricted housing units, which will rise to 50 this year. GCHA also contracts with Glenwood Springs and Basalt to manage those towns rather small inventories of development-related deed restricted housing.
But Garfield County does not have the fiscal resources to build housing, nor do the downvalley towns, and state law prohibits the passage of new real estate transit taxes.
Carbondale is working on a “voluntary” real estate transfer assessment on new developments and is eyeing the possibility of using tax revenues of some sort to create affordable housing. And to date, Carbondale has overseen the development of more than 180 “community housing units,” which will be a combination of deed-restricted homes governed by appreciation caps, and those without such limitations on the resale pricing.
In the end, the RFCHF opted not to ask voters for taxing authority due to a lack of agreement on such matters as how the funds would be spent and where.
“We got part of the way there,” said Hassig, but “the question … foundered on finances.” The district even hired a director, former Aspen city councilman Bill Tuite, but he had to leave suddenly over family health issues.
Susan Shirley, the former director of the Mountain Regional Housing nonprofit organization, took the director’s job briefly. But Shirley, too, has left the valley, and the RFCHF board voted last year to essentially put the organization in mothballs until officials come up with additional ideas about finances and other knotty issues.
“It’s something that still, I think, has some viability,” said Carbondale Town Manager Tom Baker.
Colin Laird, head of the nonprofit Healthy Mountain Communities, was credited by several officials with working hard on the regional housing district idea. The organization recently received a $30,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs that is earmarked for continued discussions about a regional approach to the housing issue, although the details of how the money will be spent are still being worked out.
“It is hard to achieve a working political consensus about the role of government, the source of funding, the location and distribution of projects, and on, and on, and on,” declared Hassig. “You can see how difficult it is to corral all these different political entities with their own internal dynamics.”