Elizabeth Milias: Aspen vs. The Worker

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant

All the talk of drastic changes to Aspen’s land-use code that will directly benefit the local subsidized housing coffers and result in tangibly addressing a purported 3,000 unit shortfall is very exciting, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, when you pull back the curtain and focus the binoculars, it’s all a charade, smoke and mirrors, lip service. It is distinctly not about housing the workforce. It’s about growth. In fact, if even a tenth of the preposterous 3,000-unit target is actually created (at the Lumberyard, for example), none of those units will be for community and resort service workers. None. Our future “Lumberjacks” will be families and middle-class folks who live in for-sale one-, two- and three-bedroom units.

The workers who are essential to the resort, the ones we have been desperate to hire all season who keep the kitchens staffed, the stores open and the lifts running, won’t be moving in. These folks are looking for seasonal rentals. But the rental units planned for the Lumberyard will be leased through APCHA, which gives priority to people who have lived longest in the county.

This is all by design. Despite all the hype, the city’s strategic housing plan is anything but pro-worker. And in typical fashion, the city’s defensive way of circumventing accountability is to vilify those asking the hard questions and deem them “anti-housing,” a pejorative right up there with “racist.” And to question why the Lumberjacks get 1.4 parking spaces per household is grounds for public denigration. Don’t I know it. The mere suggestion of a contemporary, car-free, climate-conscious and green subdivision in line with our stated community values makes me a heretic at best and Leona “only the poor pay taxes” Helmsley at worst. Wouldn’t a better metaphor have been Marie Antoinette, as in “let them ride the bus”? I digress.

City Council has demonstrated that they are not at all serious about addressing our current housing crisis, which, as I’ve written many times before, is not a shortage. We have plenty of inventory. We are just not managing it efficiently and there is no will to correct the many problems. Nor is the city looking at our housing needs, and that’s for workforce housing. They prefer to focus on the unlimited demand for affordable housing in Aspen because asking people what they want is far less “triggering” than enforcing rules or, heaven forbid, conducting a housing program audit or independent housing needs assessment. Mandatory right-sizing is out, and the impending “silver tsunami” of retirees is simply a datapoint in the argument for building more. Besides, people are threatened by transparency, enforcement and change, and we wouldn’t want that, now would we?

In a letter to a constituent, Councilwoman Rachel Richards asserts that subsidized housing is in fact not for the workforce, rather it’s for people with “jobs and professions that ‘regular’ towns have.” Another indication of council’s lack of concern for our worker housing needs is confirmation from the assistant city manager that a new, fledgling regional housing coalition “is not limiting the target audiences exclusively to the workforce.”

In the meantime, we have a real labor crisis, and no one in a position to do anything about it is looking at this critical issue in tandem with our housing needs. A 2017 regional housing study is the source of the “3,000-unit shortage” assertion that has become a de facto goal, despite no one at the city understanding the methodology used to get there.

Nor does the Basalt attorney who spearheaded the study; he refers all queries to the consultant who conducted it, who reveals that the employee who led the effort has left the firm, and admits that alas, “there is no formula.” The 165-page document contains one sentence on one page that states: “In 2017, the area had a 3,000-unit shortfall, which is projected to increase to 3,400 units by 2027.” And this is what we’re working from and treating as doctrine. Phooey. We don’t need a bunch of consultants to tell us that the region generates more demand for housing than it has. That’s obvious. But it’s time to stop building for unlimited demand and instead address the community’s needs.

How can the city acknowledge that “employment growth is among lower incomes, yet household growth is among higher incomes” while justifying what they’re planning at the Lumberyard unless they don’t give a rip about solving our workforce housing issue?

City Council firmly intends for worker housing to be solved by employers, while the government subsidizes a middle class. Employers, are you hearing this? Fellow citizens? Visitors? We pay into the RETT and make contributions through the sales tax with an expectation that the government will be building, providing and managing sufficient housing for a workforce who is essential to the machinations of our resort community.

Sadly, city decision-makers do not see the housing crisis the same way. In their eyes, it’s not about housing workers to keep businesses open and the resort running. It’s about providing housing for people who want to live affordably in Aspen, which they call “community housing.”

So don’t be fooled. Whether it’s the addition of 300 or 3,000 subsidized housing units, without addressing the underlying needs of the community, all we will get is growth, and our labor and worker housing issues will be worse than ever.

Raise your hand if you are a worker who would eschew your car to live your best climate-conscious life in a brand new, taxpayer-subsidized, car-free rental unit? Contact


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