Elizabeth Milias: The housing fix is in | AspenTimes.com

Elizabeth Milias: The housing fix is in

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant
Elizabeth Milias

The subsidized housing industrial complex has been unmasked. Revealed through facts, not feelings, Aspen’s worker housing shortage is not due to a lack of inventory. With over 3,000 subsidized housing units of various bedroom sizes in the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority’s inventory, today’s shortage is due to a mismanaged housing program that enables empty bedrooms and prioritizes housing middle-class families and retirees over the actual workforce.

To deflect, the city of Aspen points its fingers at free-market real estate, claiming the “great harm” it does to the community — when in fact, it is the free market that provides jobs, generates tax revenue and supports our local businesses. What is doing great harm is the lack of leadership and political will to address our housing problem with the same fervor that we attack the free market. Local bureaucrats refuse to quantify how much new housing will ever be enough. Are they ignorant, just thinking about this for the first time, or defiant, knowing but ignoring the facts because “more” must always be the answer? The recent emergency ordinance sends one message to the free market: “You have too much, so we’re coming for you.”

Unsurprisingly, Councilman Skippy Mesirow intends to add “thousands” of subsidized housing units by 2040, despite claiming to be anti-growth. In a predictably tone-deaf social media post, he espoused his Orwellian plans to quash development, buy down private property for his friends who can’t afford to live here and utilize new technologies to track the occupancy of private residences (and tax them when they’re empty). Empty bedrooms for me, but not for thee. The guy makes Mick Ireland look like a Reagan Republican.

It’s not the residents of Aspen’s subsidized housing who are the problem; they just live in a toxic culture within a broken system. Many have been programmed by guys like Ireland to embrace this privilege as an entitlement. Marinate in that cesspool long enough, and you, too, will begin to covet what others have, blame the free market and support steps to punish it. The three stages of subsidized housing vitriol are class-envy, resentment and retribution. We just reached the retribution stage.

Despite the community’s original intent, instead of essential workers, we are currently subsidizing Aspen’s middle class in our housing inventory — people who don’t and won’t work in the service industry economy. They and their retired counterparts are sophisticated; they’ve reached the critical mass to demand preferential access to the municipal golf course.

Sadly, the 10.5-acre Lumberyard stands to be developed into more of the same: housing for families and future retirees. The city asks what people want them to build there, not what the community needs. Of course, our current owners and aspirants of subsidized housing want newer, larger units with underground parking for themselves. Where does that get us with housing for the service-industry workforce?

Today, there are 1,187 subsidized-housing bedrooms within the city limits owned by 50- to 69-year-olds, according to the Housing Authority’s data tracking. That’s 45% of our 2,627 in-town bedroom inventory. The Housing Authority’s retirement age is 62 — so, if just half of these places house couples, nearly 1,800 workers will be displaced when these bedrooms go offline. If the Lumberyard is built with 300 units — half of them studios and one-bedroom units, and the other half two-bedroom units — that’s just 450 new bedrooms, less than 40% of what we will soon lose to retirement. The trend line is horrifying. It is impossible to build our way out of this problem.

We are in a housing crisis, but it’s not a shortage. It’s time to worry less about hurting people’s feelings through effective management and oversight and instead take these drastic steps to save our housing program:

• Stop selling deed-restricted housing. Each Housing Authority sale from this point forward, including Burlingame 3, must revert to rental. Right-sizing, compliance, financial qualification, work requirements and maintenance are easily addressed with yearly leases and annual requalification, and appreciation goes away. It will take a generation for full turnover, but it’s a monumental step in the right direction.

• Build a campus of small, efficient, short-term rental units at the Lumberyard for the seasonal workforce, with six-month leases: November to May. This is not where you bring your dog or raise a family; it’s where you live when you come to Aspen to work and ski. It’s on the bus route, so you don’t need a car.

• Alternatively, develop the Lumberyard as a retirement community. Seriously. We need turnover in our housing inventory when people retire. If the community chooses to house retirees, let’s do that, but efficiently.

• Immediately require right-sizing and create retiree buyout incentives to escalate the process. Start at the top, with APCHA deputy director Cindy Christensen, who lives alone in a three-bedroom unit. Empty bedrooms can no longer be tolerated.

• Subsidized housing is a community asset. End entitlement programs like leaving your deed-restricted housing to a child. This is not private property.

The perversity of permitting glaring inefficiencies within our housing program while punitively sanctioning the private sector is appalling. Without immediate changes, our failed housing program will never house the essential service industry workforce we rely on. And no matter how much is built, we will never have enough.

It’s time for tough choices. Without them, the city has no grounds to bemoan a worker-housing crisis, because they’re at fault. Sign the petition to repeal the emergency ordinance. The moratorium is simply a distraction. Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net