Elizabeth Milias: Subsidized housing: a privilege at a time when privilege is a bad thing

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant

Does the community exist to provide subsidized housing and support its residents, or do subsidized-housing residents support and provide for the community?

It depends who you ask. Reminiscent of former mayor Mick Ireland who referred to Aspen as “a workers paradise,” Councilman Skippy Mesirow echoes a similar sentiment, “Housing is our number one issue as a community. If workers don’t live here, who is it (the arts, transportation programs, environmental causes) for?” From his neophyte perspective, the primary reason we don’t have more subsidized housing is because of “prejudice,” a systemic bias against those who live there and NIMBYism for wanting subsidized units built elsewhere.

A member of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) board as part of his council responsibilities, Mesirow has his fingerprints all over the agency’s yet-to-be-ratified strategic plan for the next five years. Buckle up. With “Kumbaya” playing in the background, we now have “compassion,” “empathy,” “inclusiveness,” “thoughtfulness,” “connectedness” and other political correctness and feelings peppering an otherwise sober policy document. Apparently, specific word selection was a matter of significant debate throughout the strategic planning process. Guess why.

Housing is indeed the holy grail in Aspen. But if it’s not bought or rented on the free market and subsidized by taxpayers and real estate buyers, what should we call it? Workforce housing? That doesn’t address the increasing number of eligible retirees living there. Affordable housing? At $1 million per unit to build, that hardly seems appropriate. Community housing? It’s hardly inclusive when one segment of the community pays and the other segment lives there. The Red Ant elects to call it “subsidized housing” because that is factually correct. It’s not to hurt anyone’s feelings nor to derogatorily label it, but we have to call it something and it simply is what it is. APCHA, however, will now call it “affordable workforce housing.” Go figure.

Among other noteworthy program values including public trust, quality service, transparency, accountability, effectiveness and innovation, equity — the provision of equal access to housing for qualified workers at various income levels — is explained by Mesirow in a recent posting on social media as “how we leverage our privilege.” Yes, the specter of earlier Mesirow accusations of APCHA’s “red lining” lives on and foretells his thinly veiled implication that the program is inherently biased. Ever the apologist, what could he possibly have up his sleeve? If current national events are any indicator, don’t be surprised when he later proposes the payment of reparations to those who left town and bought free-market housing downvalley because they never won the housing lottery. I’m joking, but not really. His virtue-signaling monologue more than merely hints at a desire for special set-asides and perhaps even quotas for a program that relies on the public’s support and trust to meet its objectives.

Mesirow’s foundational righteous indignation and placement of unfounded guilt upon developers and free-market property owners is reflected in the inclusion of a troubling hint of further taxation to support the maintenance and creation of more subsidized housing. Notably, as part of APCHA’s goal of ensuring financial and housing stock well-being within the financial realities of the city and county, there’s a vague strategy listed that proposes the identification and expansion of additional and independent funding sources. Apparently the significant RETT and sales tax provisions no longer suffice, despite $24 million in the bank. In short, the tax man cometh, but we aren’t told when or what he will be wearing.

His palpable disdain for development in general, and as a funding source for subsidized housing specifically, places the current housing mitigation requirements squarely in Mesirow’s crosshairs. Because its current mitigation rates are significantly lower than commercial rates, free-market housing has been singled out as having the largest negative impact on subsidized housing creation. This is because “it sits empty most of the year and displaces community.” Skippy’s rhetorical question — “How do we get them to pay?” —implies just one thing, an occupancy tax.

At this point, none of these woke, hyper-progressive tactics are included in the strategic plan itself, but a cursory analysis of Mesirow’s lengthy summary of the work product and associated enthusiasm and emphases indicate his personal priorities. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate his plans.

While APCHA has made tremendous strides in recent years, most notably creating a digital database that will soon provide a Zillow-like public marketplace for comprehensive housing information, as well as a highly professional staff who manages the 3,000-unit program, now is most certainly not the time to add controversial social-engineering policies and political pandering to a highly democratic, publicly subsidized program that is on track to actually live up to its lofty responsibilities to both its tenants and benefactors.

Aspen’s decades old housing program, while imperfect, is considered the industry gold standard. It should in no way be manipulated to fulfill one elected representative’s social ideals. Contact at