Guest opinion: Tim Semrau |

Guest opinion: Tim Semrau

Our local government’s religious zeal in promoting affordable housing has mainly served the community well, especially at the inception of the program more than 30 years ago. Thousands of people have decent homes here in the most expensive housing market in the country as a result of these efforts. Occasionally the government’s passion for affordable housing exceeds the boundaries of reason, with the current proposed affordable-housing policy change a prime example.

A new ordinance to be decided Monday by the Aspen City Council proposes a sea change in affordable-housing policy – charging a housing fee based on the difference between the market cost of luxury free-market housing and what a Category 3 employee can afford.

The housing office calculates the current “affordability gap” to be $708 for every additional square foot of free-market housing built in town. The implication of this policy is that every free-market owner is responsible and should pay for the difference between what their house is worth and what local employees can afford.

This policy also implies that there is no limit to the affordable housing needed, no limit to the amount of money the local government will collect and no limit on the number of units the government intends to build. This is a complete change from the current policy based on one employee needing to be housed per 3,000 square feet of new free-market housing and the actual cost to house them.

One might ask: What does this have to do with our new Aspen Area Community Plan’s goal of housing a “critical mass” of employees in the Aspen area through “reasonable mitigation”? The answer is none; the city appears to be disregarding its own multiyear planning process. There is no definition of exactly how many employees constitute a “critical mass,” no analysis of the direct impacts of home expansion requiring specific mitigation to meet specific community goals, no statement of how charging a fee to make up the difference between what an employee can afford and what a free-market home is worth possibly relates to our community plan. None.

The proposed ordinance is a ninefold increase over the current mitigation costs. City staff suggests that the council initially charge 30 percent of this fee resulting in a threefold increase to $212 per square foot. Did housing costs just increase by a factor of three or a factor of nine? Does any of this have any relationship in fact with creating enough local housing to meet the community’s goals?

If city staff carries the day, anyone in the East End or Cemetery Lane who wants to add an extra 1,000 square feet to their house will either have to pay the city $212,400 in employee-housing fees or build an accessory unit on their land (an option not allowed by zoning on the east end of town) and sell it to a housing-office-approved employee.

If the city adopts the Housing Authority’s proposed ordinance, the cost will be $708,000 for just the city’s housing fee to be allowed a 1,000-square-foot expansion, at least twice the cost of actually building it.

I’m not making this up. Check out these ordinances up for approval at Monday’s City Council meeting. Or, better yet, go to the meeting and ask our leaders exactly why they are considering this.

Tim Semrau is a former member of the Aspen City Council and ex-chairman of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board.

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