Guest commentary: Proceed with caution in modifying STR, new residential development and affordable housing
For the past four decades, Aspen has been coping with protecting our village scale, providing affordable housing for seasonal and full- time workers, and preserving our Victorian, Bauhaus and modern architectural heritage. Our town is essentially divided into three groups: locals, second homeowners and visitors. Politics since the early 1970s have been controlled by the locals, who have found ways to raise money from sales taxes, real estate transfer taxes and various innovative methods for funding our community’s infrastructure, including affordable housing.
Modern Aspen was founded and inspired by well-to-do visionaries who saw the beauty and potential for this special place. They saw it as a place where the whole person could evolve and thrive. These post-World War II modern founders tied together culture and commerce by starting in the late 1940s the Aspen Institute, Aspen Ski Co., Aspen Music Festival and Aspen Airways.
Approximately 60% of Aspen residential properties are owned by second homeowners, many of whom have had their homes for decades. These owners are financial supporters of the Music Festival, Aspen Institute, Theater Aspen, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, Aspen Art Museum and dozens of other arts and nonprofit organizations that have become an essential part of our DNA. Where would this town be without the vision and financial support from this group of Aspen property owners?
Second homeowners are the benefactors who helped make it possible for the mind side of the Aspen Idea to thrive. They have supplemented the hotel, lodge and condo visitor bed base by providing essential short-term rentals. Many of these homeowners rely on this income to carry their property costs. The town relies on the bed base. I believe it is important not to attack this indispensable group but to reach out and include them in the on-going dialogue.
In the mid 1980s Aspen became a commodity. Word had gotten out that one could make a tidy profit owning, improving and selling Aspen real estate. The emergence of VRBO in 1995 and Airbnb in 2008 as major players in the rental market and the worldwide pandemic in 2020 drastically altered the real estate landscape. Ironically, pandemic-threatened urbanites began to flee the cities in search of safe, fun, beautiful and interesting mountain communities. The sudden arrival of so many new visitors, who bought and leased high-end homes, caused an unprecedented surge in real estate market value. As one broker said recently, “The upper end of the Aspen real estate market right now is beyond rational.”
These phenomena mentioned above have been evolving over the past three to four decades with the unintended consequences placing tremendous pressure on our neighborhoods, services, local workers and affordable living. The city overreacted with the moratorium, but the need to balance supply and demand is essential. I acknowledge the need and efforts by our local governments to protect residential neighborhoods, monitor short term rentals, continue to produce affordable housing, to carefully monitor residential development and protect our sense of community. All attractive resort towns are currently dealing with overseeing short term rentals. There are some interesting and effective measures under consideration in nearby towns for us to analyze. I appeal to our local governments not to be draconian and not to limit short rentals to only full-time residential owners. Limiting the numbers of short -term rentals and licensing for these rentals makes sense, but do not target second homeowners.
Not every person who moves to Aspen is owed permanent, affordable, long-term housing. The purpose is to produce what is possible with our available resources. Perhaps at the city’s Lumberyard project, a certain number of units could be designated for those on the lowest rung of the economic ladder to create a balance of ethnicity, income and length of time in town in this proposed project.
Demolition of older, less functional, existing homes is always good for a community, as it upgrades the housing inventory. However, all the affordable housing needs cannot be raised on the back of the new residential developers. Increase mitigation fees, as is practical and smart, but do not be unreasonable. It is always about balancing the town and the resort. The governments need to be careful about a quota system for razing out-of-date homes. Maybe all homes older than 40 years, which are not Victorian or part of the post-World War II Bauhaus and modern group, could be razed automatically. Why penalize families who have owned houses for 40-plus years?
Please bear in mind the unique history of the evolution of our resort town. Do not automatically categorize second homeowners’ short-term rentals as being the only or major cause of our current challenges in your affordable housing mitigation actions. These second-home benefactors are part of our community, as will also those constructing new homes for their families and friends. They, too, want to see Aspen grow and evolve in ways that are in the best long-term interest of the resort, the town and the community.
Bill Stirling is the co-founder of CORE in 1994, mayor of Aspen 1983-91, co-founder of the Aspen Resort Conference Series held in Japan 1989-99 and a small business owner starting from 1978.
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