Elizabeth Milias: The ‘L’ word
The Red Ant
What is a “local”? I’ve been writing The Red Ant for many years and originally raised this vexing question in 2009. The answer wasn’t entirely clear then, and it’s even less so today.
Long the source of small-town pride, being an Aspen “local” has always been brag-worthy and cool, replete with accompanying privileges: local’s discounts, local’s night, local’s passes. But just how is “local” status attained? OK, so you have to live here. But where; what about Pitkin County or Snowmass? And for how long? Is there a threshold after which you’re officially in the club? What happens if you lived here but now you’re only part-time? How does one stay in “local” compliance? Do you have to own your home? What about renters, some of whom have rented for many years? Does a new lease with that address on a driver’s license count? Surely it can be a combination of things, but which ones? Do those in free market housing qualify? And are there special rules for them? Are residents of subsidized housing a special class because they work or used to work here? What about other workers? Mayor Torre frequently refers to “actual locals.” How this this group different?
Most importantly, who decides?
The reason for my renewed interest in “what is a local” is, of course, local politics, no pun intended. The recent emergency ordinance freezing new short-term rental as well as development permits purports to be because these economic activities are detrimental to the community, specifically because they “displace locals.” That’s a weighty accusation for sure, but without knowing who is a “local,” it’s next to impossible to corroborate the veracity of this claim.
There was certainly a time in our none-too-distant past when Aspen was experiencing tremendous growth. “Scrape and replace” projects were rampant while the town, resort and community were evolving. During this period of development and growth, there was indeed worker “displacement,” and the community boldly responded to these impacts with the real estate transfer tax (RETT), employee mitigation and a growth management quota system (GMQS) to create and develop subsidized housing. As a result of that foresight, today we have a subsidized housing portfolio with over 3,000 units, housing those who are undeniably “locals,” except of course for the scofflaws, but I digress.
Today, confirmed by the 2020 US Census, we are now in the post-growth stage. Our population has only grown 1.2% and new housing units grew just 2.3% in the past decade. We are not growing and are development-wise at what is called “build-out.” This does not mean there will be no more construction. The development pipeline is full, and beyond that, there will always be re-development, which is technically “economic activity,” not growth. It’s a great accomplishment to achieve a high level of economic activity without growth. And yes, economic activity has real impacts, but these are quite different from the impacts of growth. We absolutely need to look at STRs and re-development and how these impact the community. New impacts call for new tools. Where we once built our way out of the impacts of growth with more growth, we cannot continue to do that. We don’t want more growth, and besides, we’re out of space.
Aspen is generations ahead of other mountain resort communities who are scrambling to respond to the impacts of the Great Migration and the Great Resignation by developing and growing to accommodate their displaced workforces. We’re playing a different game. We too have a housing crisis, but it’s not a shortage. If we manage our existing inventory efficiently, we don’t need more.
Back to the question of what is a “local” and why it matters. Simply put, it doesn’t. The recent blowback for challenging the assumptions of the emergency ordinance has been swift and heated. She who reveals the sordid underbelly of the subsidized housing “sacred cow” is immediately vilified. I’ve heard from “longtime locals,” “retired locals” and “local” politicians who fervidly ignore the facts. (Recall, these are the housing authority’s and census bureau’s facts, not mine.) Unless we want real growth via changes to our urban growth boundary and land use code, we need to completely overhaul our housing program to make it efficient. Ironically, to a one, the admonitions each acknowledge that our housing program is a disaster, but mere suggestions of ways to save it are apparently insulting, exclusionary and “reek of elitism.”
I love the debate. These emotional outbursts and personal condemnations only serve to further illustrate my point. I remind, according to the AACP, our guiding document, subsidized housing in Aspen is a privilege, not a right. Yet some “locals” in subsidized housing and their outspoken counterparts insist that the current rules that permit keeping one’s empty bedrooms empty, passing one’s unit to a child, building new ownership units for anyone who wants to live affordably in Aspen and enabling everyone to retire in their units are sacrosanct; aspiring “local” workers and the critical worker housing needs of the community be damned.
To which I say, “Pssssst, your entitlement is showing.” (Might want to tuck that back in.)
No one is suggesting anyone in compliance lose their housing. We do, however, need to make changes on a “moving forward” basis because the current housing program is unsustainable. Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net