Elizabeth Milias: No blank check from the BOCC | AspenTimes.com

Elizabeth Milias: No blank check from the BOCC

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant
Elizabeth Milias

“Call the clerk,” they cried. Or at least Councilwoman Rachel Richards did.

Whether by design or the sudden realization that the deadline for space on the November ballot was fast approaching, speaking for her colleagues in advance of Tuesday night’s joint session between Aspen City Council and the Board of County Commissioners, Richards implored the county to reserve space on the November ballot for a potential measure to raise dedicated revenues for a new Pitkin County affordable-housing fund.

“The needs are great and growing,” she wailed, but nowhere in the desperately pleading missive was any empirical evidence: no quantifiable housing needs assessment or plans for one, no mention of auditing what we currently have to determine just what it is we need and for whom, no specifics on an end goal and no details on how the monies would be raised. City Council attempted to compel its county counterparts to impose housing mitigation fees, and start land banking and padding the housing coffers with new taxes and fees for more subsidized housing. In other words, an open-ended blank check.

But luck for Pitkin County landowners prevailed. At least for now. The BOCC — well, all but mad-cap subsidized housing zealot Kelly McNicholas-Kury — said “Whoa.” It was the grown-ups in the room who called out the rushed request and began asking all the right questions.

We have many anecdotes of people “needing” housing, but until we know scientifically just who lives in our existing housing and what they do in our community, we cannot possibly begin to simply raise taxes and fees to build or acquire more. Who would we give it to? And who would decide? The current trend, especially among the larger employers out of necessity, is to purchase or develop their own employee rental housing. You can bet that each of these employers knows exactly who is in their units and what those individuals specifically contribute to their business. My guess is that most are considered “essential.”

We will never be able to accommodate everyone who wishes to live affordably in Aspen. The demand is infinite. At a certain point, we have to prioritize. In our new quest to repurpose our subsidized housing into “community housing,” ostensibly because it is neither affordable nor just for employees, it has become taboo to even ascertain the actual allocation of our housing stock among various constituencies: service, retail, restaurant, real estate, schools, hospital, first responders, nonprofit, professionals, teachers, government employees, retirees, etc. Perhaps we are heavy in real estate and nonprofit, for example, and low in teachers and first responders. This knowledge would only help make the case for unmet needs and ensure the community’s essential needs and priorities are addressed with what has become a scarce resource.

The community’s priorities are greater than just housing. Yes, it’s one of the crises du jour, but where is the broader discussion about growth and capacity? Aspen and Pitkin County are famously no-growth, yet the city has annexed the Lumberyard and mini-storage parcels and plans to build 277 units of various sizes on the site. The Lumberyard and Burlingame 3 stand to add nearly 1,000 full-time, year-round residents to our population, but does this growth somehow not count because it’s subsidized housing? Has anyone addressed this potential population explosion with the schools or the hospital? Contrary to maintaining a steady state, these developments represent enormous impacts to our vital infrastructure before even factoring in the added traffic and loss of the “offseason.” It also fails to account for the 700-plus units coming online in the midvalley.

Indicative of a larger pattern of spending millions to plan subsidized housing developments only to later consider a funding source, the city recently shelved its $50 million proprietary development for “essential” city employees near Thomas Reservoir.  Paying for these massive developments is clearly an afterthought, so Pitkin County landowners are wise to follow along as the city desperately roots around for additional revenue streams. There won’t be a tax measure on this November’s ballot, but the city will be back. Mayor Torre spent the last week shaming BOCC members for their rejection of the city’s aggressive and foolhardy request.

In the meantime, the city continues to buy down free-market properties in the area, recently purchasing a condo in Snowmass and another at the ABC for its own employees at arguably above-market rates. Already, neighbors of those units are sniffing around about potential sales to the city because it pays top dollar, and in so doing, contributes to driving up local real estate prices.

Thanks to the BOCC for pumping the brakes. There are indeed huge trust issues in the community when it comes to the city and APCHA. When such a ballot measure is inevitably brought up again, the BOCC would be wise to require the city to come to the table with an independent APCHA audit, a quantifiable housing needs assessment and a detailed proforma for raising revenue dedicated to a very specific and measurable housing goal to start the conversation. Until then, blindly giving the city more money is on par with burning it.

Rachel Richards says our housing “needs are great and growing.” So too is the need for accountability and full transparency on our existing housing program before we raise another cent.  Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net.

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