Elizabeth Milias: Aspen’s workforce housing dilemma: We’re not housing the workforce (part 1)
The Red Ant
Aspen’s housing program was originally referred to as “employee housing” because the social compact with the community was to house local employees. This morphed into “affordable housing,” as retirees were permitted to remain in their units when their working days were over, and it was a generic term that additionally conveyed the hefty subsidy that paid down the cost for buyers.
Today, Aspen’s housing program is neither for just employees nor is it the least bit affordable, certainly not to build and not even for the buyers if you consider what it is they’re actually purchasing. Ideally, a better name would be “workforce housing” because that is specifically what we need, but that would imply a major cultural shift in how we approach our publicly subsidized housing.
When the Law of Unintended Consequences is the de facto executive director of Aspen’s subsidized housing program, it’s no wonder we don’t have a grip on our 3,000-unit portfolio.
Between subsidized apartments and homes that we’ve built and sold, and subsidized rentals, there are well over 6,500 bedrooms in inventory, including those owned by the Valley’s largest employers. Optimized for occupancy, we should be housing at least that many workers. But we aren’t. Instead, the bulk of our ownership units are three bedrooms or larger, including 653 single family homes (including trailers), which implies that we are subsidizing housing for families and retirees. And we are. It’s our 1,400-unit subsidized rental inventory, comprised of predominantly smaller units with fewer bedrooms, that is more likely to house the service industry workers who arguably crank the gears of our resort economy.
What we’re being told today and what we’ve been told for decades is simply that “we need more housing.” But in reality, no, we don’t. Nor do we act like it. Over the four decades of our housing program’s existence, the community has made it a high priority to grant subsidies to form and retain a middle class in Aspen and to enable retirees to stay in their homes, without being made aware of the inherent trade-offs.
It should be argued that when we are spending $1 million per unit to build subsidized housing, we ought to have one employee in every bedroom, but that’s not what the community has repeatedly expressed, therefore we do not.
According to an APCHA report, 66% of those in APCHA housing today are of working age, 18-65. The remaining 34% are non-working family members or retirees. A tidal wave of older workers is expected to retire in coming years, further exacerbating the issue.
Today, a three-bedroom unit or single family home is more likely than not to house just one and maybe two actual workers. And that one worker may very well not work in Aspen’s service industry in a job that directly impacts the resort economy, leaving that role to be filled by someone who lives elsewhere and commutes to town.
Earlier this year, city staff made a presentation to council in support of developing the Lumberyard. Data from the 2019 Regional Housing Study showed that the primary reason we’re being told we need more housing is that people already living in Aspen can’t afford it.
There is no context for what the actual workforce needs. Clearly, just because there are people who want to live in Aspen and can’t afford to do so, we cannot afford to subsidize everyone.
Data also shows that Aspen is not growing. The cold hard facts that comprise the entire premise of “housing mitigation” is not, as intended, going toward housing net new workers created through new development, but rather, to providing subsidized housing to families and retirees.
One significant case made for developing the Lumberyard is that we have far too many workers commuting to Aspen, blatantly ignoring the reason, which is the deliberate trade-off we’ve made to prioritize non-working members of our community in our housing inventory.
The community has long aspired to house 60% of the Aspen workforce in subsidized housing. Therefore, with approximately 10,000 jobs in town and an optimal utilization of our existing 6,500-bedroom housing stock, from a building standpoint, we have met and surpassed our goal. However, the electorate is supportive of a number far less than one worker per bedroom.
In fact, today we’re closer to 0.35 workers per bedroom. At this utilization rate, we will need 17,143 bedrooms to house 6,000 workers. Given that APCHA alone currently has 5,700 bedrooms in its 3,000 units, the housing authority will need to triple its inventory to meet the 60% goal. That is real growth.
We’d have to completely alter our community values and tolerance for density and sprawl to achieve it. And just imagine the impacts of the population growth associated with housing not just the vital employees, but the non-workforce residents who come along with them, including the very real impact on critical services, schools, open space and overall quality of life.
With numbers like that, and the $1 million per unit cost to build, might we be far better served by a more robust valley transportation investment as opposed to shoe-horning another 17,000 bedrooms into the City of Aspen, population 7,400?
It is critical that we simplify our housing program, and, in order to maximize utilization, focus on bedrooms instead of units. More to follow in Part 2 on Oct. 25. Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net
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Columnist Paul Andersen continues to hope that the moral arc of the universe trends toward justice.