Elizabeth Milias: Who lives there?
The Red Ant
We are finally inching closer to learning just who owns and lives in our subsidized housing units and under what circumstances. The long-awaited HomeTrek database is up and running, recently populated with data from APCHA’s 2021 ownership affidavits. With 89% participation in this housing census and many instances of answers left blank, the data, while incomplete, is still a solid baseline and stands to highlight the capabilities of this much-needed digital automation of our housing program.
Data always comes with some surprises, and what has been quickly ascertained by an inaugural report is no different. As additional information comes in and the APCHA rental survey is conducted in early 2022, we will really begin to get our heads and hands around this monster of our own making. But, in short, this particular legacy of our former housing director Mike Kosdrosky is the first sign of true progress toward transparency for an unwieldy program that for over 40 years has had none.
It’s a shame not to have enacted a mechanism to compel 100% participation; it is public housing, after all. But the 89% level certainly illustrates some very revealing facts about the APCHA portfolio. As of the report date of September 13, we have 3122 units spread among 277 separate properties, including the 48 City of Aspen proprietary units for municipal employees. The bulk of the units are one and two-bedroom places, making up 61% of the inventory. Three-bedroom units comprise another 22%. Studios count for 13%, and the remaining are four-bedroom units with just 20 five-bedroom abodes. These individual unit counts notably include free-standing homes in the APCHA portfolio.
It is also telling to finally see where the fruits of our community investment have gone in terms of who, income-wise, has purchased units. APCHA sales are fundamentally based on income level, with Category 1 being at the bottom and Category 5 then “Resident Occupied” (RO) at the high end. The HomeTrek report surprisingly revealed that a full 74% of our housing stock has been sold to folks in Category 3 and higher. Just 5% has been sold to Category 1. This disparity is on one hand shocking, given the nature of the service industry workforce needed in a resort economy, but on the other hand, perhaps intentional. One could argue that the financial responsibilities of home ownership, especially in Aspen, are uniquely unsuited to the lowest local income brackets. In any case, the dearth of low category housing is glaring.
Another long-suspected mystery has been solved: unit utilization, in other words, how many occupants per unit, per bedroom. In many cases, unit occupancy is in line with one or more persons per bedroom. However, as feared, there are some troublesome revelations of under-optimization and several very empty nests. There are 118 two-bedroom units, 53 three-bedrooms and 10 four-bedroom units with just one occupant, and, alarmingly, one five-bedroom with the same. It gets a little better in units with two occupants, but there are still 110 three-bedrooms, 16 four-bedrooms and three five-bedroom units with just two people living there. Guest space is nice and all, but that is certainly not the intent of the program. This initial report identified 451 empty bedrooms in housing designed and built for local employees, highlighting the need for robust policy change related to right-sizing.
And notably, the retirement tidal wave is no longer a worrisome rumor. Buckle up. While today, 77% of our subsidized housing is owned by people under 65, 60% of today’s owners are 50-plus. Even with retirement policies changing to require a minimum of 10 years in the local workforce in order to retire in one’s unit, the loss of units for the active workforce is going to continue to grow and an increasingly rapid rate.
In late 2022, Burlingame 3 will be coming online, representing the addition of 79 one-, two- and three-bedroom units, but this is no substitute for the number of units going offline due to retirements. Combined with the staggering number of empty bedrooms and the impending loss of 496 units to expiring deed restrictions, the recent HomeTrek revelations are nothing to put on the back burner. If nothing else, let this new, official information serve the APCHA board to make specific policy changes in order to maintain and properly manage this priceless community asset, and to direct decision-making toward meeting our actual workforce housing needs, such as rental housing for workers at the Lumberyard.
The HomeTrek database and all it can potentially yield will surely evolve, but the initial reports are very much in line with what many, including The Red Ant, have long assumed. We have a lot of work to do, but the roadmap is now in place. The problems are identifiable and the needs are glaring. With a substantial housing budget yet limited land to purchase and build upon, now more than ever, it is incumbent on APCHA to effectively and efficiently manage the portfolio we have. Then, and only then, will it make sense to contemplate building more.
A new housing director starts work next week. With this new database and a recently reconfigured APCHA board, hope springs eternal for progress and continued transparency. Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net
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A faithful reader, known to his internet friends as “Ski Bum,” sent me the following quote after my last column. It seems fitting this week.