Where will the workers live?
December 19, 2006
Are firefighters more important than plow drivers? How do bartenders stack up against teachers when it comes to community priority, or bus drivers versus nurses?The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s recent request to put drivers at the head of the line for precious worker housing in Aspen and Pitkin County met with resistance from elected officials despite the potential consequences – cuts in bus service – but the discussion is nothing new. Nor is reluctance on the part of local officials to play favorites. Both the city and county have long stressed that every qualified worker should have an equal shot at the coveted units in the local housing program.”I’m not going to say that this employee is more important than that employee,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Jack Hatfield during the RFTA housing debate.In some sense, setting priorities is futile. The value of housing a surgeon near the hospital versus a firefighter near the fire station comes down to whether one needs emergency surgery or a fire extinguished. “A fireman’s not valuable until your house is on fire. Then, he’s more valuable than anybody else in the community,” notes Tom McCabe, director of the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority.In a perfect world, there’s a place to house both, but in Aspen, perfection comes at a price. The cost of a single-family home in the city is averaging about $8 million this year, according to sales tracked by the Aspen Board of Realtors. In town, the government subsidy for the land alone runs $400,000 to $600,000 per unit of worker housing, according to Steve Barwick, Aspen city manager.Local officials weren’t inclined to give RFTA bus drivers a leg up in the housing battle, but they’ve been holding government to the same standard. City and county employees don’t get special preference either, creating recruiting challenges that Aspen has managed to address more successfully than some resorts. Still, the city has 260 full-time employees and just 44 units at its disposal, with eight more residences in the works.Pitkin County has all of two units to offer its personnel. Most of its 216 employees have secured housing in the Roaring Fork Valley, and even in Aspen, but there are a number of employees who reside an hour or more away from the county seat in Aspen, including one in Grand Junction, one in Rifle, one in Eagle, seven in New Castle and nine in Silt, according to a recent tally. Many of the workers residing in Aspen have secured units through the housing program, competing with everyone else to win a lottery and the chance to buy a unit.
“It is a challenge for recruitment,” conceded County Manager Hilary Fletcher, herself a midvalley resident.County commissioners have long maintained that county employees are no more important than any other local worker, but they’ve lately come to recognize that the county needs to address its work-force housing needs, Fletcher said. Escalating real estate prices aren’t just pushing the working class out of Aspen and Pitkin County – they’re quickly being priced out of the entire Roaring Fork Valley.”I think the commissioners are becoming much more cognizant of their role as employer and the challenge that creates for us,” she said.The Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority oversees roughly 2,700 rental and sale units dedicated for local workers, but in addition, the city has created housing specifically for its own workers. The bulk of it has been built on city land within the last decade.”We were at a point where we had one police officer who lived within 30 miles of Aspen,” said Barwick during a recent meeting with a contingent from the town of Vail.”I’m the highest-paid city employee. I can’t afford a single place of single-family housing in this town,” said Barwick, who resides in city housing. Soon, his position won’t pay enough to buy a single-family home anywhere in the valley, he predicted.Vail officials find themselves in the same predicament.The Vail contingent met with Barwick and McCabe in November to discuss worker housing in general, and housing for government employees in particular.There are more than 600 units dedicated to workers in the town of Vail, but within town government, only a residence for the town manager is provided. The longtime heads of some of Vail’s critical services, like public works, were able to secure housing in town years ago, but their successors won’t have that ability.”We’re definitely missing the city employee housing for this team,” said Town Attorney Matt Mire with a nod to his colleagues at the table.Using town dollars to buy land in Avon or Eagle, where real estate’s a bit cheaper, poses a political hurdle, Vail officials added, quizzing Barwick on whether Aspen has looked outside its city limits for housing or considered buying out employees’ mortgages.
City officials have pursued housing at the Aspen Business Center, outside the city limits, but other options that mean investment farther down the valley aren’t out of the question, Barwick said.”Well probably get to a point when we’ll start owning a piece of a unit – probably downvalley,” he said.The Aspen Skiing Co. recently went the same route. It acquired a former lodge in Carbondale to provide housing for its employees outside of its resort base – in Aspen and Snowmass Village – for the first time this winter.Investing in housing is the price of staying in business, according to Barwick. Taxpayers are better off buying land outside the community than paying employees what it would take to buy housing on their own.”Eventually, you’ll have to pay employees $200,000 just to come work for you, because they’ll have to buy on the free market,” Barwick said.In Telluride, Mayor John Pryor calls worker housing the resort’s No. 1 issue.The town has no units for even its emergency-service personnel, he said.”It’s a problem. We’re working on it,” Pryor said. “We’re going to start dedicating units in our projects for these people.”Telluride hired a town manager last summer who doesn’t live in Telluride, though he was able to secure housing in nearby Mountain Village. “He can’t even live in town,” Pryor laments.The town’s former director of planning and zoning owned a small condo in Telluride, but his successor commutes from Ridgway – a 50-minute drive from Telluride in good weather.”They want a yard and a swing set for their kids and that’s not going to happen here,” Pryor said.
Barwick’s advice: Buy land.”Buy it now. It’ll never get any cheaper,” he said. Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is email@example.com.