John Colson: If it gets to a fight, then you can start swinging
November 20, 2017
Before the oldsters of Aspen start leveling charges of "ageism" and promise-breaking at the younger set of the local working class, perhaps we all should sit back, take a deep breath and see which way the political wind actually is blowing.
All right, then, let us calmly consider the case of the vanishing affordable-housing stock.
I was out of the state, and largely out of touch, for much of October, so I missed the opening salvos of Aspen's latest generational conflict — whether there is any way to make affordable-housing units in town, currently owned and occupied by retirees, available for the legions of currently working locals who need a place to live.
Further full disclosure — my wife and I owned and occupied one of those ownership unit for more than a decade in the 1990s and early 2000s before moving to Carbondale, where we now live in a free-market townhouse at the south end of town.
Anyway, when I got back from out of state I was both alarmed and amused as I read about this newest tempest in Aspen's teacup, which was kicked off by a hot-tempered, mid-October outburst from Aspen Times columnist Meredith C. Carroll in reaction to an earlier, somewhat confusing letter from a group called the Next Generation Advisory Commission.
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NextGen, as they are known, was formed by the Aspen City Council in 2016 (at least, that's when their archived minutes begin) so that the seven commission members can let the city know what's uppermost on the minds of the 18- to 40-year-old segment of the local working class.
Which they did, in a letter to the editor pointing out that a troubling percentage of the town's roughly 1,600 ownership employee housing units (there also are about 1,300 rental units in the inventory) currently are owned and occupied by retirees; you know, people who often have lived and worked here for decades, but who currently are not working, or at least not working full-time, and are not planning to leave.
And therein lies the rub for NextGen and their supporters — as long as the retirees choose to stay in their units, those living spaces can't be passed on to a subsequent set of workers.
According to published accounts, as many as 8 percent of the ownership units are in the hands of retirees. And that number is likely to grow considerably over the next couple of decades, as those now in their 40s or 50s retire — some estimates are as high as 800 units held off the market, or half of the total number of ownership units.
The question is, what do we do about all this?
One local wag suggested in a letter to the editor that we should follow the example set by the 1973 movie "Soylent Green," which posits a solution to rampant starvation and rioting by U.S. citizens in a world where jobs and housing are scarce, and only the rich live in comfort.
The movie's solution?
Round up the rioters, kill them and process them into bite-sized wafers called Soylent Green that can feed the angry masses. The plot is uncovered by the film's star, the late Charlton Heston, who screams as he is carried off by the riot squad, "Soylent Green is people!"
The movie, intentionally or not, is a rewrite of English satirist Jonathan Swift's 1729 story "A Modest Proposal," in which he suggests the best way to deal with Ireland's hordes of starving children would be to fatten them up and feed them to Ireland's wealthy landowners, an idea that Swift viewed as the ultimate "win-win" solution for all concerned.
Not your cup of tea, so to speak?
Well, there's always the option of building more housing, whether for the working class or seniors willing to downsize in Aspen or other parts of the valley.
It would be a very expensive proposition, of course, but surely there would be no objection from Aspen's more gilded neighborhoods worried about their views of town and the surrounding mountains, or even about in-town traffic and other minor considerations.
Oh, there might be? Well, what else?
How about building Soviet-style apartment blocks somewhere downvalley, where land is cheaper than it is in Aspen and where it seems that no development project is too big to gain approval, in either Garfield or Eagle counties?
At the same time, the downvalley governments could start a crash-course of construction for new schools, fix the roads to make the commute less jarring for motorists, perhaps even revive talk of bringing passenger train service back to the valley to spread the commuting traffic load among different types of travel.
I'm sure the governments of downvalley counties and towns, not to mention the builders of everything from schools to roads to shopping malls, would be eager to accommodate the needs of Aspen's burgeoning working class — or, more accurately, its wealthier residents and visitors, many of whom would just as soon remain blissfully unaware and unaffected by the more prosaic details of life among the working stiffs.
In any event, one thing seems sure: The Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority regulations expressly state that those who qualify for its affordable housing units cannot be forced out of them and onto the streets as long as those residents remain in compliance with the rules. And those rules naturally will never be changed to fit the evolving circumstances of life here in the valley.
And if someone makes a move to change those rules, uproot a bunch of lives, then well, that's when the fight can truly begin.
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