John Colson: Way to go, Mesirow (and Aspen’s city council)
Hit & Run
For a number of months now, I’ve been following with interest the case of Skippy Mesirow, an Aspen city council member who works in the short-term rental (STR) industry and who has been accused by others working in the same industry of having a conflict of interest in the city’s ongoing drive to rein in the intensive regional boom in STR rentals.
I suppose I should point out that I do not know Mesirow — as far as I can recall we have never met — and that at times I have questioned his rationality in certain city policy controversies.
But I think he generally believes he is working for the betterment of the town, and in this particular matter it is my feeling that he and City Attorney Jim True are correct in their conclusion that there was no need for him to “recuse” himself from voting on this ordinance.
Questions about Mesirow’s alleged conflict first broke in local news headlines last fall, in October of 2020, when the city took its first, hesitant steps to slow the conversion rate of once-affordable housing units into fast-buck profit generators for property owners, and the resulting debate has continued through passage of the ordinance in question earlier this month.
For instance, at a meeting on Dec. 8, members of the local real estate community showed up in mass to protest the ordinance, including a relatively new provision to enact a moratorium on new residential and commercial development in town.
At that meeting, according to news reports, at least one area real estate broker accused Mesirow of having a conflict of interest because his day job entails work for a national network of STRs — a complication that Mesirow has openly admitted but that the city attorney concluded does not represent a conflict because Mesirow’s income would neither rise nor fall as a consequence of passage of the law, known as Ordinance 27.
After reading reports about that meeting, I couldn’t help but wonder if those same accusations would have arisen had Mesirow voted to stall an ordinance that requires property owners to get a business license and to plug the hole in the city’s finances due to property owners not paying their fair share of lodging taxes into the city’s coffers.
The new law is part of the city’s long-standing effort to slow the conversion of affordable housing units to STRs, which has added to local workers’ inabilities to find housing in Aspen.
One should not forget that the local real estate and construction industries, despite protestations otherwise, have failed to focus their considerable financial clout on providing affordable housing for the town’s working class. Instead, it largely has been left to government to find ways to provide condos, townhouses and other types of domiciles for the workers, and government has stepped up in a very determined way to do the right thing.
Granted, the government’s efforts in this regard have not escaped criticism and condemnation in many ways, but the plain fact is that Aspen and Pitkin County currently have thousands of affordable housing units in their inventory, with plans for more, which can only be seen as a good thing.
I noticed, in the quoted comments from the real estate community, that there was a lack of reference to the need for more affordable housing in the valley, but a lot of talk about how government was interfering with private enterprise in an unacceptable way.
This is the same, tired caterwauling we have been hearing from builders and real estate types for all of the 43 years I have been covering news in this valley, so their position should come as no surprise to anyone.
Interestingly, it would be hard to find anyone in the entire Roaring Fork Valley who will openly admit to being in opposition to affordable housing as a concept. But the proof is in the pudding, and the plain fact that this crisis has gone on almost since Aspen became a ski resort is the proof.
The city council’s steadfast refusal to knuckle under to this kind of pressure was laudable, as is Mesirow’s personal courage in voting to approve a new law that, at first glance, might actually be against his own financial interests. The council members, by their votes, acknowledged the vicious housing squeeze being perpetrated on the lives and interests of the local working class, along with government’s moral obligation to do something about it.
Mesirow has said more than once that he has long been an advocate for affordable housing, a statement that I take at face value in these circumstances, and I thank him for any such work he has done over time.
But the actual effect of the provisions of Ordinance 27 will not be known for some time — this particular pudding will take months, if not years to jell into anything recognizable as a greater emphasis on affordable housing.
And only then, with the benefit of hindsight, will we be able to truly judge who are the winners and losers in this contest.
Travel can lead to self-discovery, as well as a greater purpose. We may learn to improve our own community, enhance our creativity or simply broaden our horizons.