Elizabeth Milias: Subsidized Housing — 3,000 more units is 12 Centennials | AspenTimes.com

Elizabeth Milias: Subsidized Housing — 3,000 more units is 12 Centennials

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant

As city council plows forward in its unguided quest to deliver more subsidized housing, numerous formal and ad hoc groups have been meeting to discuss the flawed premise driving this alarming push. Bright minds and fact-based policy discussion are what this topic has long deserved.

How did we get here? After the resort opened in 1948, Pitkin County began to grow, and it really got cooking in the 1960s when the population increased over 10% and Cemetery Lane, Mountain Valley, Aspen Square, and the Smuggler and Aspen Village trailer parks were built. The population grew 5% during the 1970s, which ushered in the Airport Business Center, the high school campus, the hospital on Castle Creek, as well as Midland Park, Aspen’s first foray into subsidized housing. The 1980s delivered the massive Centennial and Hunter Creek housing projects to address the community’s growing workforce housing needs.

In the 1990s, when the Ritz Carlton, the elementary school and new library were developed, population growth slowed to 1.6%, but subsidized housing was built in earnest, with Williams Ranch, Ute City Place, Common Ground and Twin Ridge among the largest. In the 2000s, while population growth remained low (1.5%), the Grand Hyatt, Obermeyer Place and the new hospital were developed, and the subsidized housing boom continued with North Forty, Highlands Village, Burlingame 1, among many others. In the 2010s, population growth was all but flat, yet the subsidized housing portfolio grew substantially: Burlingame 2, 488 Castle Creek and more.

Today, with a population of 17,558 and 3,200 subsidized housing units in inventory, we await 79 new units at Burlingame 3 and anticipate 310 more at the Lumberyard. But it doesn’t end there. A flawed 2017 regional housing study concludes that Aspen is still 3,000 units short. In addition to being preposterous, the whole premise of the study is wrong. It is entirely focused on consumer demand for affordable housing in Aspen, and who doesn’t want that? Demand for any valuable public good provided at a price far lower than its free market equivalent is essentially unlimited. Consumer demand is a free market construct and the absolute wrong way to evaluate the community’s subsidized housing needs. We should be looking at services requiring workers, not households desiring housing.

But we’re not. The city’s strategic housing plan has been released and it is anything but strategic. With predictable, conveniently cherry-picked elements from the Aspen Area Community Plan and the omission of critical considerations therein, the city boldly prioritizes the development of more housing and onerous new fees to pay for it before any straightforward solutions such as right-sizing, inventory maintenance and the lowest-hanging fruit of all, compliance enforcement. It is obviously politically unpopular for city officials to optimize our current housing inventory and far sexier to play developer, therefore, the conspicuous solutions are at the very bottom of the priorities list. In addition to increased fees and taxes, the plan calls for more “policy actions” and making Aspen a “safe and lived-in (subsidized) community of choice,” replete with “child care, health care, housing, transit, parks, recreation and technological connectivity.”

In an alarming revelation, the concept of “buying down” free market real estate and selling it on a deeply discounted basis to “locals” to deliver another 3,000 units of subsidized housing is actually a consideration. For scale, 3,000 units is best illustrated by 12 Centennials (the “blue roofs”). Building or obtaining that quantity of in-town real estate would be nothing short of astonishing, both in its earth-shattering cost and devastating infrastructure implications.

Historically, as our community grew, we saw the impacts of growth and sprawl, and addressed these with strategic tools such as building housing for the workforce, conservation efforts and the urban growth boundary. Today, however, the community has reached build-out. We are no longer physically growing, yet we still have troubling issues: traffic, a need for workers, redevelopment and the rise of short-term rentals. In this post-growth stage, these new impacts cannot be addressed the same way we addressed the earlier ones. We can’t build our way out of our problems. We need new tools.

We have been very successful with our community planning. (The 1966 AACP projected a local population of 38,000.) We have managed our growth, and while doing so, built a substantial subsidized housing portfolio of over 8,200 deed-restricted bedrooms, enough to house 68% of our entire workforce (not just those who work in the community and resort service industry) and 57% of our entire population. That we do not is because of deliberate policy decisions not to optimize our housing capacity.

Our electeds, who have blindly accepted the flawed housing study as well as city staff’s glossy housing plan, ignore the fact that 3,000 more housing units, wherever they are, will effectively double our population. That is real growth.

We were once the gold standard for subsidized housing. Today, we are an example of what not to do. But it’s not too late. We are leap years ahead of other mountain resorts who are currently scrambling to build housing for their workforces. We have the inventory, we have the capacity, we just need the will. We can address our housing issues without hammering a nail.

Another piece of low-hanging fruit? Enable businesses to participate in the APCHA housing lottery. This all but ensures that we are housing actual workers. Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net