Auden Schendler: What happens in Basalt stays in Basalt
If what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, what about Basalt? We deserve a (slightly less seedy) slogan. How about: “What happens in Basalt is happening everywhere else?”
This is certainly true around housing development. Understanding what’s going on, and how it’s consistent with other mountain-town experience, informs how we ought to set policy, and pressingly, what could happen at the proposed new development on the Clark’s parcel. Which is another way of saying: As a washed-up town councilman, I couldn’t help but weigh-in. (Sorry!)
We all know that rents and real-estate prices have exploded. Good luck even finding a house if you want to buy; if you do, prices will be astronomical. The same is true for rentals. Local businesses have always struggled to house lower-wage workers. But now, even newly hired executives can’t find a place to live, with rates often three times what they can afford. Why?
Most of us understand the COVID-related exodus from cities. But Basalt has other factors at play. One is Airbnb, which distorts the market in three ways: It increases rents across the board and makes long-term rental contracts far less attractive; it takes seasonal or longer-duration housing off market, further increasing rents through scarcity; and it increases sales prices because the potential revenue from Airbnb gets baked in.
Another factor is the second-home market. A house that’s occupied only during holidays is off the market for the pod of twenty-something snowboard instructors who used to live in ski towns. The price of what’s left goes up — Economics 101.
This is not to blame second-home owners or those who choose to list on Airbnb—these folks, who are our friends and neighbors, often add more community than full-time residents by hosting gatherings, populating the streets with happy kids, patronizing our shops, and eagerly building community. They’re just doing what’s sensible for their own financial security and quality of life. This is really about how a town like Basalt chooses to govern itself; it’s about the policies we pass, and the nature of the developments we approve.
Good policies abound. Limits on short-term rentals are the most obvious solution, already in place in Killington, Vermont, and under discussion in Vail, Boulder, Frisco, Steamboat, Aspen and Telluride. Such policies allow homeowners to Airbnb their homes, but not all the time, ensuring that aggregate short-term revenues are equal or less than income from long-term rentals. By leveling the playing field, this approach addresses housing scarcity, plus the fact that residential neighborhoods are becoming commercial ones, altering town zoning unintentionally. Communities can address high rents by creating incentives for affordable leases — a commensurate property tax break, for example. Fee waivers for mother-in-law apartments or policies that limit, tax, or encourage rental of second-homes are other wins.
This brings us to the proposed development at Clark’s. P&Z approved it, and most comments were about look and community fit. But this shouldn’t be about size or shape or massing — indeed, that location is exactly where we should add height and density.
Instead, the conversation should be about what sorts of units we need for the good of the community. Yes, a supermarket would be a major amenity, while also reducing traffic. But above it, the developer proposes mostly free-market condos. The selling point for the units: more vibrancy.
Has anyone been downtown lately? You have to enter a lottery to get a Manhattan at Tempranillo. And there’s more to come at the Tree Farm, the Fields, and the river park. This is great!
But vibrancy requires not just customers, but also a place to house the people who serve them, take them fishing, and provide basic service like firefighting and policing. We’ve tipped too far in the other direction. What we need are affordable rental units that backfill the needs of local workers. If done right, these new units won’t represent growth as much as a rebalancing of valley housing in a way that reduces traffic and fosters community.
Basalt should require that at least half — and preferably far more — of the proposed units are deed-restricted affordable rentals. Minimum lease requirements of six months or more would address the Airbnb problem — otherwise, for better or worse, we’re approving a hotel, not a residential project. In short, the town should work with the developer so that they make a profit, but still allocate far more than the minimum number of affordable units (15%) that they’ve proposed. If they walk, fine.
This is the best parcel in town. It’s true that few have even looked at the thing in over a decade, and undoing the blight that it has become would be beneficial. But times are changing, and residential projects are much more valuable. We shouldn’t default to the least creative cash crop. I’d like to see housing for people working in the community. Gonzo at the liquor store dreams of a European Mercado. But what’s proposed currently isn’t worth it. Even an abandoned supermarket is, at least, a painful reminder that we can do better.
Auden Schendler is a former Basalt town councilman and lives in town.