Elizabeth Key: Aspen’s housing noose tightens
Special to The Aspen Times
Last summer, on my lowest day, I shamelessly wept in public. I melted out of my car, my butt hitting the asphalt, door left ajar, spine curled under like a kicked dog, splayed fingers catching my tears. My pent-up anguish, frustration and fear gushed from my body in rivulets of snot, tears and saliva. It was an unexpected meltdown, a cleansing purge of the emotions I could no longer control.
When I was finally brave enough to ask for a divorce, I knew I would lose my home, but I never thought I would lose the valley where I was born and raised or the community that defined me during my lifetime. I had seen myself grow through the community’s eyes and watched them age through mine. Each wrinkle a communal gift, each haircut a conversation, each achievement a celebration, each encounter the glue of wallpaper of my life.
There are those who bought newspapers from me for 50 cents in the courtyard of Clark’s Market during middle school. Those who accompanied me on car trips to the big top in the big city. Our mothers conversed in the front seat while we tried holding our breaths in the backseat through the length of the Eisenhower tunnel.
The children I grew up with splashing in the hot springs on summer days, daring each other to dive off the Olympic heights of the diving board, and bumping our bodies down the seams and twists of the water slide, followed by a game of putt-putt on the faded greens beneath.
There are those who have checked me out for decades at City Market and look like Father Christmas, who converse in the royal we. “And how are we doing today? We are fine today. Yes, we are doing just fine.”
There are those I know by voice in the farmers markets or know their dog’s name but have neglected to remember theirs. There are those of nameless faces who have given me a hundred smiles, the occasional wave, and possibly a knowing glance. All of these people, generations worth, are the fingerprints of my identity and add depth to my life experience. It is no small thing to lose a residence but losing a community is to be ripped from your roots.
My housing issue was daunting, seemingly insurmountable. I was parched in this wasteland of a housing market, a barren search radius encircling my ZIP code and beyond. During this time, my good friend and neighbor said, “It just takes one.” It just takes one break, one chance encounter, one act of compassion, one dot on a Zillow map to change homelessness into stable housing.
I took up his mantra and forged ahead, looking for one rental, one apartment, one condo or one house. I pushed my notifications and placed Realtors in the favorites on my contact list. I looked at depressing and unaffordable rentals with broken fluorescent lighting, low popcorn ceilings, and dark crevasses for bedrooms. I allowed myself to be vulnerable to hope, envisioning the abundance of security and stability. I knew I was not alone in my search, and I tried to view that as a comfort rather than a competition.
During this time, Anne “Annie” Vores was also looking for stable housing in Snowmass. Annie has carved up the slopes of Aspen and Snowmass as a ski and snowboard instructor for the past 50 years. She has probably produced hundreds of moguls with her turns, her line permanently imprinted in the memories of the mountains.
As Annie stretches into her twilight years, she finds that the community she has contributed to for decades may have become uninhabitable for year-round residents lacking seven-figure bank accounts. The co-tenancy agreement she entered 30 years earlier fell apart when her co-tenant’s husband died, and the wife decided to sell.
Annie said she never used employee housing because she could always find a home until recently. She is currently living in Aspen Ski Company housing with her partner of 17 years, Tim. Annie said Skico has been very accommodating, but they have a length-of-stay policy.
“It’s like, well, doesn’t the 50 years I have worked count for anything?” Annie and Tim need to move out in the fall. Now, the housing market is bleak, and they may be forced from their community.
Tim laments the lack of support for older populations who have served the valley for decades. “There wasn’t a policy of how retirees might be able to stay here once you stop being of value to the economy,” he said. “You’ve got to move. … An immediate goal was can Annie make it to her 50th year of working on the mountain? Kinda as a personal achievement.”
Aspen City Councilwoman Rachel Richards has worked in the Aspen government for decades. She has advocated for the affordable housing program during her career, but she said many community members actively lobby against it.
“It has reached this crisis point where some community members say, ‘Hey we should turn into a rental-only housing program, so that way we kick out anybody as soon as they are disabled, or old. … They don’t think about the consequences to the community by not allowing anybody to develop any equity and not have any security,” she said.
Along with the local housing crisis, the pandemic has caused a cultural and economic shift worldwide. It has exacerbated and accelerated many issues across the country, but the disparity of wealth in Aspen makes the results especially acute and glaring.
“I believe it is obvious that our community and our valley are being hollowed out of permanent residents and long-term community members on a daily basis,” Richards added.
Remote work has availed people who were previously relegated to urban coasts to choose to live where they vacation. Surging housing demand has overinflated the market, making once-affordable housing a valuable commodity. Owners displace much of the local long-term renting population to cash in on the housing market or switch to more lucrative short-term rentals. This leaves locals homeless, cast out from their long-established communities.
Richards said the Glenwood and downvalley communities, which previously absorbed displaced Aspen locals, have shifted housing priorities in favor of tourism: ”They can now short-term rent their units for a weekend and make what they used to make in a month. It’s not that Aspen’s short-term rentals are killing everything. It’s that everybody is short-term renting.”
Aspen’s Mayor Torre said the city of Aspen is trying to regulate short-term rentals and address development to protect the local community.
“We are trying to put some mitigation in for these monster homes that are taking housing away from people, he said. “We are putting in regulations even around the demolition, the taking down of some houses currently housing a local.”
Parker Lathrop is an Aspen native and the chief deputy of operations for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Department.
“I have a lot of friends who had that ski bum lifestyle,” he said. “They lived in the old Aspen ski lodges, or they rented a smaller home, whether at the base of Smuggler or the West End.”
Parker noticed that housing was torn down or remodeled as values increased, permanently removing affordable housing options for the local community.
He had a discussion with a group of his lifelong local friends at a recent gathering. He observed Aspen locals being washed down the valley and recreating with their displaced community in the downvalley towns.
“They have that same community that used to be up here in Aspen developing in the midvalley,” he said. “They miss being in Aspen next to the ski mountains. … All the people they spend time with, everyone, is down in that midvalley now, so they aren’t missing it as much as they thought they would.”
He reflected how they’d prefer to have stayed in the upper valley, where their roots are, if the housing market hadn’t gentrified them out. “Unfortunately, the mid-valley is also becoming financially unattainable for the working class,” he added, “pushing them farther down the valley and even out of the valley, down the 1-70 corridor as far as Grand Junction.”
Richards said that downvalley communities are no longer interested in housing the upvalley workforce. She said, “If you look at the new free-market units that are coming online outside of Pitkin County, they are all geared toward second-home ownership pricing.”
Denise Drake moved to Aspen in 1979 and currently works for a senior caregiving company. Her longtime roommate suddenly moved without notice, leaving Denise responsible for a two-bedroom apartment she couldn’t afford. She has actively been looking for a home since October and is currently living with a friend. She initially looked into moving to Grand Junction but has decided she can’t bear to leave the valley despite the distressing changes.
Now she sees the wealth infiltrating downvalley communities. “Basalt has been Aspenized,” she said. “The billionaires pushed the millionaires to Basalt. It’s the greed. It’s the Airbnb. That’s what is really killing this valley. … It’s lost its charm. It’s the money. The people don’t appreciate what Aspen used to be. They have no clue of the history.”
THE REAL NEED
Mayor Torre has worked in the Aspen City government throughout his career. He also noticed a lack of support in the private sector for housing mitigation: “We need a paradigm shift. We need less greed and more compassion. We feel a need for housing, we know it’s growth, but we think this is good growth and community-building growth.”
When Aubry Mineghino first moved to Aspen from Maui nine years ago, she rented a place without a kitchen for $1,000 a month and did her dishes in the shower. She and her dog spent last winter sleeping in her Toyota Sunrader camper that she parked on quiet streets all over Aspen. At night they slept homeless among some of the country’s most expensive and typically empty real estate, while the median home price in Aspen this past year pushed $15 million.
“It was super tough to find legitimate spots that weren’t in people’s neighborhoods,” she said, “I would pull up late, then wake up early and then go to the Aspen Recreation Center shower, sauna and go do my day.”
Mineghino, who is a massage therapist, said, “My clientele is very high-end. I have a lot of clients who have homes that they live in for one week out of the whole year. … It’s a weird in-between of empty homes in the valley and the difference between people that make a lot of money and us hardworking people that live in the valley who support the wealthy.”
Deputy Parker said, “I definitely know some people who have been in the valley for a long time that are now living out of their vehicles — a fair amount of people call their cars home.”
Mineghino feels like homelessness is being normalized in the Roaring Fork Valley. “From my end, and other people I know in the valley, they have all lived in their trucks, or they have had no housing for a while. It’s just become ‘Oh, you live in your truck? OK, great.’”
Not having access to secure housing is stressful and takes a toll, Aubry said. “It feels hard to focus on daily life and what matters most when you have to figure out housing. It takes away from the rest of my life and relationships. … It really stirs up everything else in your life when you don’t have a home.”
Mineghino hopes that increased awareness of the locals’ struggles can inspire change to make Aspen a more inclusive and vibrant community.
“People who are coming here from LA or Miami or New York. They are totally oblivious and unaware,” she said. “If we had housing for everyone, you would have more people waiting at your table or checking you out at the grocery store.”
She said that her income has nothing to do with being homeless: “We’re humans, of course. Our worth is not our monetary income. It’s crazy. I just never thought that I would be making $70,000-plus a year and be homeless.”
At the same time, Councilwoman Richards recognizes that Aspen no longer has the workforce to support high-end tourism. She said, “The guests are not going to get their services or the expectations for the high dollar they are paying (to be) satisfied.”
She believes that Aspen needs to reconsider bringing in large numbers of tourists.
“You can’t just keep bringing them in and have them find out that the breakfast shop is closed, they can’t do housekeeping changeovers on your room, there are no cabs in town,” she said. “This is bad, and it’s going to continue to get worse.”
Many of the solutions to this crisis are as scarce as housing. Richards implores the private sector to be more conscientious and not rely on the city of Aspen to supply the majority of affordable housing.
“If everyone thinks the government is going to solve everything for the private sector so it can crank out $2 million homes and still have a workforce, the government is not going to be able to do that,” she said. “I’d like to see hotels closing off a few rooms and housing their own workers in their hotels.”
NEED TO DO MORE
The city of Aspen is attempting to aid in this crisis by building more affordable units and adding stricter regulations. Still, much of the Aspen community will be wiped out before anything significant can be accomplished.
My “just one” came from a last-minute call from a Realtor while I was dreading the move to Fort Collins.
Community isn’t about commodity, but it does take investment. The wealthy have been skimming a living wage off the working class, who are an integral part of a functioning society.
The ecosystem of community needs balance. The mass indifference of the elite is dehumanizing and demoralizing. The headstones of closed signs “due to staff shortage” represent the locals who have lost their homes and livelihoods.
People need to step out of the echo chamber of wealth and stop cannibalizing the community they depend upon. Open your hearts and homes to the people you are displacing. I recently opened my home to a homeless local. Hire locals and pay a living wage.
The private sector can save the historic Aspen community. It only takes one act of compassion to change a life.
Elizabeth Key is from Aspen and lives in Redstone. She can be reached at email@example.com.