Elizabeth Milias: Aspen’s broken social compact

In America, people must consent to government authority. This consent takes the form of laws, order and, often, a social compact. Social compacts exist when a community forges an agreement with itself about the value it creates. Social compacts encompass broad concepts such as accountability, legitimacy, transparency and public trust across social, economic, ethnic and religious lines to theoretically resolve disagreements and enable harmonious coexistence.

In 1990, Aspen voters first approved a 1% real estate transfer tax (RETT) to fund subsidized employee housing; the social compact guiding the tax intended for the funds to be utilized to provide housing for the local workforce. Imposing taxes upon oneself placed public trust in the local government to “do the right thing” for local workers and the community, and consequently, as property values began to skyrocket, to help ensure a stable, high-quality workforce for the long term. This intent was clearly paramount in the minds of both Aspen’s free-market residential homeowners who pay the tax, as well as the housing program’s beneficiaries who voted the measure in. The social compact was born.

Originally called “employee” housing, the city’s RETT-funded housing gradually came to be deemed “affordable” housing once the program evolved to permit nonworking beneficiaries to live in the subsidized units. For a time, the program was affordable. Precious little remains of its original affordability, and as a result, I always refer to it as “subsidized” housing because that is simply what it is.

Aspen’s bureaucracy, however, now refers to this housing as “community” housing, and so it has become, perhaps inevitably. Still, the term “community” concedes that Aspen’s subsidized housing long ago ceased to be for workers, nor is it by any stretch affordable. This semantic shift makes clear the government’s deliberate decision to alter its social compact with the voters and property owners whose taxes have long made the program possible.

The new compact provides subsidized housing with no long-term goals for how much will ever be enough for residents who no longer work in resort or community-serving jobs. In place of the program’s original intent, our housing program now recklessly chases the infinite demand for housing by people seeking to live affordably in Aspen. So, as plans to collect ever-escalating fees and taxes to build and accommodate this ongoing demand for Aspen’s idyllic lifestyle on an subsidized basis, one thing is clear, the original social compact is irrefutably broken.

Have we all been played? Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority’s 3,000-plus unit subsidized housing portfolio has nearly 6,000 bedrooms, while the city has a documented population of 7,721. Yet allegedly we have a housing shortage. We don’t. We have a labor shortage exacerbated by a subsidized housing program that no longer prioritizes housing actual workers. And the city’s grandiose future plans, such as those for the Lumberyard, have zero intention of addressing our actual needs.

APCHA has proven incapable of properly managing the current subsidized housing stock. Our local governments build expensive new projects to deflect and distract from addressing the ticking time bomb of expiring deed restrictions, where hundreds of current subsidized housing units will revert to the free market in coming years. APCHA, in its conflicted dual role as both subsidized housing program operator and regulator, refuses to disclose who it is we are housing, where they work and whether or not they actually comply with their own permissive governing rules. Our electeds prefer not to know; such knowledge might conflict with their unwavering desire to deliver more.

What very little remains of the social compact will deteriorate even further with the 277-unit Lumberyard project. A $425 million project cost is the equivalent of $55,000 from every one of Aspen’s 7,700 men, women, and children — an astonishing figure. Perhaps compared with the $90,000 national debt share each of us shoulders, $55,000 to build 277 subsidized housing units may seem like a bargain. To me, it feels like yet another violation of Aspen’s social compact. Funding more subsidized housing units with not just the RETT but ever-higher and arbitrary mitigation fees charged to a dwindling population of free-market homeowners is like eating one’s seed corn. Even so, the city of Aspen boldly assaults the social compact and arrogantly comes back again and again for more.

Under leadership devoid of real-world experience that operates on feelings while ignoring facts, Aspen’s original social compact for worker housing has become a thing of the past. Today, it’s no longer even about workers, as city leaders casually dismiss the pressing need for proper housing for the workforce. Instead, in a misguided attempt to tame the free market and punish those who buy into it, they seek to fulfill their long-term desire for a utopian subsidized community. The Lumberyard alone will grow our full-time, year-round population by 10%, and will clearly impact our quality of life, far more so than robust seasonal tourism, not to mention stress our vital infrastructure including the hospital and schools. And in the end, there still won’t be anyone to do the work.

The social compact was the glue that held this community together. What now? Contact