Elizabeth Milias: Aspen’s Workforce Housing Dilemma, Part 2 (Employers House Their Own Workforce)
The Red Ant
To continue beating the drum for more and more subsidized housing signals a misguided attempt to build ourselves out of a problem of our own making. The choice to subsidize middle class families and house retirees in housing stock originally intended for workers goes hand-in-hand with the choice to relegate the working class to commuting from farther and farther afield. We cannot have it both ways. If the community needs workforce housing, we should build housing for the workforce. It’s that simple. The problem is, there is little political will to do so.
The current underutilization of our existing inventory has notably driven the Valley’s large employers to take workforce housing into their own hands by providing units to their own employees, who just so happen to be our critical workforce. SkiCo has 307 units (691 bedrooms), including those currently under construction at Willits in the mid-valley. Aspen Valley Hospital has 72 units with 91 bedrooms. The Aspen School District has 60 units with 121 bedrooms and is currently asking voters to finance an additional 50 units. And recently, the Aspen Fire Protection District received unanimous approval to build 16 rental units for its employees on land west of the ABC for a total of 39 bedrooms in the district. Notably, all of these employer-controlled units are rentals, filled with current workers and often their families.
In Vail, the housing program is simple. Anyone of any income can purchase a property of any size and receive a $65,000 subsidy on average when they place a deed restriction on it. From then on, the unit must house at least one active worker and the lease can be whatever the market will bear. Same with the resale value; the owner can sell without an appreciation cap, but the title is deed restricted into perpetuity so the unit will always house at least one worker. With the goal of one day housing 1000 employees in this fashion, Vail has paid the subsidy over 150 times to-date, or $9.75 million. In Aspen, at our rate, to house those same 150 employees we’d have shelled out over $150 million.
The promise to build more and more subsidized housing is a perverse tradition, honed over the decades by Aspen’s elected officials because of housing’s political expediency, however, this strategy is far from sustainable. For one, there is unlimited demand for subsidized housing in Aspen. Even if we tried, we could never build enough for those who simply want it. Secondly, at a building cost of $1 million per unit, we’re already looking at new revenue streams to augment the housing fund. And most notably, we’re nearly out of land to develop.
We also have a ticking time-bomb that remarkably is not getting the urgent attention it deserves. In the early days of Aspen’s subsidized housing program, it implausibly seemed reasonable to establish many deed restrictions with a sunset clause. At the time, 50 years must have seemed like an eternity because many complexes picked this as the magic number. Others have deed restrictions that are set to expire 21 years after the death of the last county commissioner who approved the project; in this case, 72-year-old Michael Kinsley. The restrictions on eighty units (112 bedrooms) at Castle Ridge will expire in twelve years. Come 2032, it is entirely rational for the owners to sell their properties on the free market, cashing in and forever removing them from inventory. We’re looking at a total of 496 subsidized housing units, both rental and owned, comprised of 787 bedrooms, evaporating into the ether unless the government steps in and “buys down” the expiring deed restrictions. Council half-heartedly contemplated this hefty proposition in 2019 when a $10 million attempt to save all 143 rental units at Centennial failed. Now under new ownership, Centennial’s future is anyone’s guess.
The solution is far more simple than the problem. Stop building. When you try to build yourself out of the problem, you become the problem. It’s time to acknowledge the cause of the problem, which is the trade-off of not housing actual workers. Then, the practical and fiscally prudent focus must shift to optimizing our existing inventory in order to increase the number of actual workers per bedroom. This includes the immediate prioritization of and financial commitment to resolving the expiring deed restrictions to preserve those 787 bedrooms. No one is suggesting that anyone be kicked out of their homes, but we do need to have an honest conversation about the future of subsidized housing that should absolutely include changes to the guidelines for future utilization and retention of these critical community assets that cannot be replaced.
We own the Lumberyard land. It’s not going anywhere. Therefore, in contemplating its future and potential density, to build anything other than small, high-density rental units for the actual workforce would be negligent, aside from the fact that there are plenty of working professionals with families who are surely clamoring to move in. Stop. A rush to start building is not the answer. Let’s first fix what we have.
APCHA’s long-awaited HomeTrek database will come online for the public in early 2021 and is certain to reveal widespread underutilization and malfeasance. What then? Contact at TheRedAntEM@comcast.net