Elizabeth Milias: Aspen unsatisfied | AspenTimes.com

Elizabeth Milias: Aspen unsatisfied

It seems the Whos down in Aspen’s Whoville are not the grateful and joyful bunch most anyone on the planet would be if they were fortunate to live here.

The 2022 Aspen Community Survey was recently released, and people’s satisfaction with the services provided by the local government declined 19% in two years to its lowest level since 2006. Plus, they feel the city can’t be trusted to look out for residents’ interests, which are primarily tied to issues of affordability.

The survey’s leading questions did not even attempt to conceal the government’s agenda. “What suggestions do you have for keeping Aspen a great place to live, work and play?” Well, not just affordable housing, how about affordable living! The responses reveal that many here see it as the government’s responsibility to address the lack of affordable bars, restaurants, shops and groceries, and, of course, housing. Such subjective questions about “feelings” are paramount to asking people if they wish they were richer, skinnier, prettier or in better shape. The results are predictable and would be the same anywhere.

You have to see it to believe it, but the actual responses are nothing short of embarrassing, not unlike a recent letter to the editor. In response to my column questioning the wisdom and viability of housing non-workers in our subsidized housing inventory amid a widespread labor shortage, I was seriously asked, “What was someone who doesn’t work here and who can’t afford free market rent to do when they want to live in Aspen if not allowed in Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority’s system?”

These are my favorite survey responses:

— “Affordability and services to support the working class need to remain big priorities for the town.”

— “Someone needs to address the lack of affordability for the working class. There are no bar menus that we can afford anymore.”

— “We need to step back from catering only to the tourists. I understand that they pay the bills but this is OUR town.”

When people cannot afford something, is it the government’s or the community’s responsibility to make it affordable for them? This is the critical question. The dense report yields a predictable set of recommended actions ostensibly to quell the rising discontent, which is primarily among year-round residents, men, business owners, and those 35-52. It reads like a socialist manifesto with special carve-outs for Aspen locals.

— We have an urgent need to improve affordability and reduce income inequalities between visitors and locals, and should look to other cities for best practices.

— We need to prioritize subsidized housing not just for the workforce but for others who wish to remain in the community.

— We must help local restaurants and bars stay in business through increased controls over commercial developers and the prioritization of developments that provide affordable options.

— Current full-time residents and workers should be prioritized over tourists and newer “wealthy” residents.

— We need places where locals can connect.

— And, of course, we need more diversity to strengthen our sense of community.

Living in the utopia that is Aspen requires deliberate trade-offs and lifestyle choices. Perhaps it’s a willingness to have and make less, or endure inconveniences and expenses in order to live in a place that others only aspire to visit. Aspen is indeed wonderful, but living here is not for everyone. No one is stuck here.

Furthermore, our local politburo sits on an empty restaurant space where Taster’s was, another beneath the old Cooper Street Pier, a subsidized restaurant in the Wheeler that isn’t particularly affordable, an empty Armory, an underutilized Old Power House, and a nearly vacant new Taj Mahal City Hall where they deliberately eschewed food vendors on Galena Plaza. Many easy solutions are already in the hands of the government. But like with subsidized housing, the answer is always to assail the free market for “more” instead of utilizing what we already have in abundance. (Speaking of subsidized housing, APCHA has recently enabled its residents to make more while paying the same rent through generous exemptions. So, for these residents, “affordability” is actually increasing relative to the rest of the market.)

Notably, the consultants conclude that the effects of COVID-19 had little impact on the survey results, but I disagree. To neglect the historic significance of the disruption that riled markets for three years, created record real estate prices, caused restaurant prices to increase and brought record inflation, encourages the city to enact future policy changes based on an event that is now in the past. The focus should be entirely on people’s dissatisfaction with how the city dealt with the pandemic, not the effects of the pandemic itself.

The survey is an indictment of a city government that is detached from its constituents who trust it less than ever and see our electeds acting more and more irresponsibly with fake, leading outreach, misguided policies and careless spending (Taj Mahal City Hall, $4.5 million bus stops) from within an echo chamber that only considers one narrow viewpoint. In other words, the survey’s push for a Make Aspen Affordable agenda in response to resident dissatisfaction is more about the city’s and its leadership’s incompetence than anything else.

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