Beware growth in sheep’s clothing
Aspen CO, Colorado
I know by heart the myriad benefits provided to our community by the local affordable housing program. Regardless, I expect people will write back after reading this column to list each and every one of those benefits in great detail with lots of exclamation points and a few epithets thrown my way for good measure. This is because I am going to point out a tremendous downside to subsidized housing for the working class people of Aspen.
Forgive me, it is a local sin to talk about the drawbacks of this wildly popular program. Funny, I’m trying to be honest, too.
To truly assess the success of our employee housing program, we simply can’t stand around and pat each others’ backs when we count up the number of new units that have come into the pool during the past year. We need to be objective about their effects (ironically, we call them “impacts” with any other developments) on our community. We need to be able to discuss the good and the bad freely and intelligently.
We are not accustomed to comfortably talking about drawbacks to this popular program because it involves the roofs over our own, and many of our friends’, heads. It’s a dicey conversation to say the least. Throw “hypocrite” anywhere into the discussion and it usually ends shortly thereafter.
To allegorically broach this subject, I will make the observation that the inventory of homes available to qualified residents of resort-middle-class standing is oftentimes referred to as the “employee housing pool.” It conjures images of liquid. Think flow. Think water. Think verdant, productive fields and the key element that promotes their growth.
With all due respect to the dreamers and developers that have transformed Basalt’s Riverwalk and Carbondale’s Main Street into vibrant places of quaintness and nice places to look at art before grabbing something good to eat, Aspen is without a doubt the force of this valley’s economic and social activities. It is the center of gravity that draws everything to it.
Highway 82, “Killer 82,” the gray correction ribbon that wipes out excessive commuting times, is the pipeline that brings vitality in the form of laboring human bodies. The pipeline is full. It is going to remain full for a long time to come, tapping the expanding reservoir of humanity in the lower valley. But, as with any pipe, its capacity is self-limiting. When full, it backs up, as it does every day during the rush hours. There is a limit to the number of workers that will use it before it becomes too inconvenient or costly, which are really the same things, and they will accept lower paying alternative jobs closer to home. It is a self-regulating flow.
Regardless, this daily backup causes much consternation. We don’t want the pipeline to be full. We want people stuck in the pipeline to use the energy they expend raging at each other in traffic toward the more desirable end of creating vibrancy in our community. In order to get them out of the pipeline and into our bars and barbeques, we build employee housing. It works only halfway. Yes, we have more people living in town, but the pipeline remains full. Newer, bigger, fancier buildings create the need for more workers to be here everyday.
In the context of the flow imagery I am using, employee housing is a reservoir of workers right next to the new, big buildings sprouting up all over the place. In addition, we have a pipeline wide open and full, carrying more workers into town each day. Which brings me not subtlety to my point: Workers are the water that we sprinkle on development to make it blossom. Employee housing is part of the irrigation system that makes Aspen’s land fertile for growth.
So employee-housing advocates, warm up your keyboards and rehearse your curse, here is the inflammatory statement: Employee housing is the single largest contributor to growth in this town, bar none. And clearly, I am not just talking about the space it occupies and the impacts it produces from people building it and then living in it.
The collateral impacts of employee housing likely exceed those caused by large second homes. Humongous second homes exist in good measure because of employee housing. Property owners would have to think twice about building 15,000 square feet if they could only hire enough workers to service 7,500.
Despite their griping about paying for it, subsidized housing is as necessary for developers as is cash or gap-financing. They can’t build monstrously large projects without employees to service them after they are built. The irony is that taxpayers subsidize the builders.
A popular misconception is that we can limit growth by limiting building sizes. It doesn’t work. Persistent developers always find ways to build to the lot and skylines, eventually. The truth, however, is that you can limit the size of buildings by restricting the number of people to staff them. Interestingly, we have never tried to limit the number of workers who live here as a tool to keep growth in check. For nearly 40 years, we have watched in dismay as our town became overdeveloped, while, at the same time, proudly counting the affordable housing units we added to the pool, and never considered a connection between the two.
We cannot solve our traffic problem by building employee housing to get cars off the road. There are already too many cars downvalley that want to get here and that number is increasing rapidly. I think we have about as much “community” feel now as we can ever reasonably expect to get, given the circumstances.
I don’t think anybody who lives here believes that more employee housing has brought us more of that “small-town” feel over the past 15 years. Any gains in that regard have been eliminated by additional floors on timeshare projects. So, what are we really trying to accomplish with the affordable housing project? Does anybody ever bother to ask the question anymore?
If they ever do, we need to come up with some answers. And, we need to be honest in discussing them. We need to be clear about the trade-offs.