Keep an eye on the bigger picture
In 2000, as mayor of Aspen, I asked city voters to renew the Real Estate Transfer Tax for affordable housing to fulfill the Aspen Area Community Plan goal of housing many of our workforce within the urban growth boundary and to maintain a healthy balanced community of permanent residents. The voters approved the measure, and the housing fund today has about $13 million in the bank.Mayoral candidate Tim Semrau has proposed increasing the appreciation rates for existing owners by 66 percent, and then using $3 million to $5 million of housing funds each year to buy the same units back down when resold. This proposal is flawed from a policy perspective.With land prices skyrocketing and land availability plummeting, Mr. Semrau’s spend-our-taxes-creating-and-buying-down-appreciation plan would severely limit Aspen’s ability to buy new sites right now for future housing needs. Land costs alone are drastically shrinking the real production power of our housing funds.Tim’s plan would callously reduce the annual number of new housing units created for current affordable housing owners needing to move to different size units as well as for repeated lottery losers. Fewer units mean more participants in each lottery and reduced odds for all.Tim’s election season spending spree would also use up much of the subsidy money needed to sell new units for lower prices. Isn’t it better to sell a unit for $100,000 less and save the buyer $7,000 a year in mortgage payments, than to sell the home for $100,000 more and then later payoff the owners to resell it for less?All of these missed opportunities will make it harder and more expensive for co-workers and friends who have not yet won a lottery to ever get a place of their own.Tim’s spending proposal is an example of “count and fry your chickens before they even hatch” fiscal irresponsibility. He ignores the fact that the RETT is a very volatile funding source (remember the dot-com bubble bursting and 9/11 downturn?), that the RETT will eventually expire, and that it could be repealed by voters who feel it is being squandered.The Semrau spending plan for our housing taxes ignores the severe current worker shortage that our private businesses and public service providers face. And hospital or hotel, school teacher or ski patroller, librarian or electrician, Aspen will need significant numbers of new employees to replace the many who are now approaching retirement.Tim’s comment that we may as well use the funds as a giveaway because “we could not possibly spend the housing fund’s projected revenues building housing” shows a narrow and uninformed view of the complex long-term problems our community faces.His proposal would cut into efforts to pay down the public debt on rental housing at Truscott, Aspen Country Inn and the Music Associates Marolt and Burlingame seasonal units – forcing rental rates to continue to go up faster than wages. Efforts to retain Centennial and Castle Ridge as affordable housing once their caps (from original approvals) expire would fall by the wayside. Renters would receive no benefit at all from Tim’s tax giveaway.Not only does Tim ignore the needs and opportunities cited above, his proposal overlooks the regional nature of Aspen’s affordable housing problems. We depend on more than 50 percent of our workers today to come from somewhere else, and folks, the downvalley safety valve has been shut off. Middle-income workers cannot afford homes in Basalt or the midvalley anymore. These communities have developed their own economies, well-paying jobs, and second-homebuyer-priced free market prices.New Aspen workers will have a very hard time buying in Missouri Heights, and lower valley workers are finding better jobs closer to home in Glenwood or in the booming I-70 corridor gas and oil industries. As today’s commuting work force living in free market homes take downvalley jobs or retire, there are few entry-level homes for the new workers needed to take their place.Those who hope to lead Aspen should be aware of the bigger picture, because Aspen clearly has the opportunity to work with other municipalities on a regional basis, but only if our leadership thinks on a regional basis, and we have preserved some of our resources to bring to the table to do more than just talk.Rachel Richards is a former City Council member and mayor of Aspen, and a current member of the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners. She lives in Aspen, in affordable housing.