Work-force housing market looks especially tight this year
November 30, 2013
Editor's note: "Bringing It Home" runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
For the rank-and-file worker, it's been generally expensive to live in Aspen over the past decade or so, but sources say the employee-housing market is particularly tight and pricey this year.
Just ask Sarah Steele, 26, who recently came back to the Roaring Fork Valley after living abroad for three years. She recently landed a job as a spa supervisor at the St. Regis Aspen Resort but has found it difficult to find affordable housing.
Her search is further complicated by the fact that she doesn't yet have enough money saved to pay the upfront costs associated with moving into a new place: first month's rent, last month's rent and security deposit.
As she and many others have learned in recent years, the days of being able to get settled in Aspen while paying a few hundred dollars per month to rent a small place on a temporary basis are long gone.
"Obviously, I moved back to Aspen for a reason," Steele said, mentioning her job and the many friends she made when working here for five years before taking time off to travel in other countries. "If I didn't enjoy being here, I wouldn't have done it.
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"But the housing search has been frustrating. It's my biggest stress. I've been looking, looking and looking, and it's been kind of a battle. I just don't have the $3,000 sitting around that's needed to move into a place."
Steele is not alone, given the housing situation locally and nationally. Officials at the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority say the rental market seems to be tighter than it's been in several years, at least since the Great Recession started to affect the city's economy in late 2008.
While there are no hard data available to support that conclusion, the housing agency's employees say that's the general impression they have of local conditions.
Nationally, recent news reports in other cities and towns suggest that the market for rental housing is favoring landlords for many reasons, primarily the recent recession. Home foreclosures drove up demand for rentals when people were driven out of their houses and had to seek shelter elsewhere. The scarcity of rental properties sent leasing prices upward as more and more families and singles sought places to live.
While the recession and related foreclosures had some influence locally, Aspen's housing market isn't like most around the country. Its status as a ritzy resort destination — coupled with the fact that real estate values are among the highest in the country and there is little available land on which to build structures for short-term tenants — makes it a tough place for the average Joe or Jane to land.
"Dirt here is so much more valuable," said Tom McCabe, the Housing Authority's executive director.
Many workers such as Steele aren't interested in purchasing government-subsidized housing in Aspen — they want to rent a small place for six months or so while working during the winter tourism season. Though they hope for the best, they aren't exactly sure how long they'll be here.
The Housing Authority serves as a manager of 350 government-owned short- and long-term rental units as well as qualifying headquarters for the deed-restricted housing that's privately owned in the city and the county. Properties such as the city-owned Marolt Ranch complex, which has about 100 units available to seasonal workers in the winter and Aspen Music Festival and School students in the summer, were snapped up particularly quickly this fall, McCabe said.
"Last year we filled up our seasonal housing at Marolt without too much difficulty, which is a great departure from the few years prior to that," he said. "During the recession, we didn't fill up completely. This year we filled up and had reservations much sooner than we expected, going back almost to our heydays. I think we were at 100 percent at the end of October."
McCabe said he hasn't tracked the private market all that closely, but given the fact that the Housing Authority's seasonal housing is full and there is little availability in the long-term housing the agency manages, his assumption would be that the private market is tight, as well.
"If we filled up that quickly and we still have people coming into our offices on a regular basis and sending us emails (as they look for) spaces, I would have to take a leap of faith that it is tight everywhere," he said. "I don't know how far a person would have to travel downvalley to find a place easily or how many people you'd have to room with to afford what's left up here. But I imagine it's very tough right now."
A check of The Aspen Times' classified section on Friday bears that out.
On the private market, there are four home rentals available in Aspen and the immediate surrounding area, all ranging between $4,000 and $8,000 per month. In the listing that advertises for roommates, there is only one listing: a bedroom available in a shared three-bedroom Hunter Creek property for $1,000 per month.
More house rentals are available downvalley, according to the classified section, but they don't come cheap, ranging between $1,350 and $4,200 a month in Basalt and Carbondale. There is a listing for a furnished two-bedroom apartment in Redstone for $950, but that wouldn't help Steele, who does not own a vehicle.
In Aspen, the city-built Truscott Apartments complex next to Aspen Golf Club is nearly full, with only a few of the 197 units available, said property manager Dan Brabec. The small number of units that are free represent the usual flow of people moving out within a given year, he said. The Truscott units require leases of one year.
At the Housing Authority office in the Pitkin County administrative building on Main Street, a bulletin board only lists seven units or rooms available for rent, while another board has more than twice as many advertisements from people seeking housing.
As in housing markets across the United States, McCabe said his agency has "ratcheted up" rental rates over the past few years, either in accordance with changes in the Consumer Price Index or by 3 percent, whichever is less.
"We don't raise them up much, but it's pretty predictable that we're going to see a cost-of-living increase each year," he said. "It's possible that the cost of living could go down, but it's very unlikely."
There has been slight discussion in the past year between the Housing Authority and the city of Aspen about the need to build more rental units, but for now, the city's focus is on constructing deed-restricted units that local workers must purchase, such as the second phase of Burlingame Ranch.
"There is strong demand for more rental housing," McCabe said, noting that he is not being critical of the city's recent direction on the issue but merely making an observation.