Guest commentary: Keep an open mind about STRs, residential real restate

Bill Stirling/Guest Commentary

Aspen has been coping with village scale, protecting residential neighborhoods and finding ways to expand affordable housing for the past four decades. Politics are controlled by the locals. As with every attractive destination tourist resort town in America, many of our second-home owners and locals have rented short term to supplement the traditional lodging of condos, hotels and small lodges, and to cover the maintenance, upkeep and mortgage costs of their second homes. They are subject to the rules and regulations passed by local government.

Aspen became a commodity in the mid ’80s, when people came to Aspen not just for the unique lifestyle and quality of life, but to own, improve, build and profit by selling and renting real estate. The emergence of VRBO and Airbnb as the major sources for renting the second homes and primary residences radically changed the rental landscape. COVID ironically caused the phenomenon of urbanites fleeing to safe, beautiful resort towns, like Aspen, and the real estate prices shot skyward. Like with all overheated markets, such rapid appreciation does not last forever. Please do not go too far with your changes, when many of the issues were caused by the recent pandemic period, and already the natural ebbs and flows of our economy are already slowing things down.

It was not surprising when the Aspen City Council decided to call a timeout, hire consultants to engage with the Community Development Department and try to more closely monitor and bring under control demolition and redevelopment, affordable housing mitigation for residential development along with the future of short-term rentals in the residential neighborhoods. The city has worked hard and with all due haste to bring the proposed revisions and changes to the table. The proposed changes often have complicated calculations and are not always easy to understand.  Not unexpectedly, the city has expanded the moratorium by two months.  

Addressing short-term rentals is being done by every ski resort town in Colorado and in attractive tourist communities elsewhere. Limiting the number of STRs in residential neighborhoods is probably necessary. It is good that the city is not limiting STRs to homes just owned by locals and not limiting the number of rental days each year. However, not allowing any new short-term licenses to be issued is too restrictive. Those who got their STR licenses late last year were lucky to get in under the wire. Not everyone was so lucky. Also stripping STRs away from properties, when they sell, seems unnecessary. Requiring STRs to be safe, up to date, limiting the number of renters and following certain basic health and safety standards is good.

Limiting the number of demolitions per year to six seems absurd. It would be a Wild West show on Jan. 1 each year, as owners rush to get in line to submit their demolition applications to Community Development. The only time we had more than six houses demolished in the last seven years was during the 2021 COVID explosion. 

I would suggest the following workable exceptions: except for Victorian and post-WWII houses, all homes over 50 years could be automatically razed; all homes under 1,500 square feet could be automatic; then issues of functionality and safety could come into play, creating another category of exceptions. These exceptions would not be included in your proposed cap of six. This will be beneficial for long-term locals and second-home owners who decide to leave, upgrade or need to sell for health or financial reasons.  Then you could have a limit of six each year beyond these smart and fair exceptions. It is actually a good thing to have a turnover of out-of-date, poorly conditioned, unsafe and very antiquated homes, as it injects a certain vitality and new life into our neighborhoods.

There is the 1% real state transfer tax on every sale of real estate in the city. Look how that fund has grown during this real estate surge. In addition, the city is considering asking voters to add another rental tax of 1-3% on every rental, which could also be devoted to the development of affordable housing and other projects. Already every STR (less than 30 days) pays the city sales tax.

I would strongly advise that you back off from so dramatically increasing the cost of affordable housing mitigation fees for all new residential development. Credits for the existing house to be demolished, below grade space and garages should not be eliminated. All affordable housing fees cannot be raised on the backs of new residential developers.

Please be open, thoughtful and responsive in the public hearings. That is what a public hearing is for, to bring the citizens’ voices into your process, so you can learn new things, that could be useful in tweaking and possibly modifying these proposed ordinances. I hope you will consider these suggestions.

Bill Stirling was mayor of Aspen from 1983-91.