Marolt: ‘Quiet Years’ didn’t have airport or subsidized housing | AspenTimes.com

Marolt: ‘Quiet Years’ didn’t have airport or subsidized housing

Roger Marolt
Roger This

I don’t think we consider employee housing and the airport enough when discussing growth in Aspen. That’s unfortunate because they could be two effective tools in devising plans for what we want our town to look like.

There is a simple example to quantify how the building of deed-restricted housing in town leads to exponential growth.

There is a proposed new hotel that is up for approval this summer. It is going to be about 60,000 square feet. That’s big! As a condition of the building’s approval, the developers have to provide the town with 15,000 square feet of affordable housing. That’s a 4-to-1 ratio of new commercial space to new employee housing. This ratio is painstakingly derived by city staff estimating how many new jobs a project of this size will generate. Are you with me so far?

Here’s the thing about ratios, though, that I don’t think we consider in the town’s growth formula: Ratios work both ways, not just when developers come in with a proposal. What do I mean? Well, I mean that if the city or the county builds an affordable-housing unit, then Aspen needs to allow additional commercial space four times as large as that housing unit in order for the people living in the new housing to support themselves and their families.

Think about this profound effect on growth. For every employee-housing unit we build, this town has to grow five times as large as that new home is (the new home plus the commercial space needed to support it).

And if you think the math for the government building more affordable housing is bad, wait until you have a look at the economics. A basic tenet of economic supply and demand says that for any product priced below the free-market equilibrium price (e.g., subsidized, deed-restricted housing), demand is basically unlimited.

What this tells us as a community is that we have to give up the idea that we can provide affordable housing for everyone who wants it because there is a never-ending line of people, whether we can see them standing at the doors to the housing office or not, who will want it. Here’s the hard truth: Aspen will always, forever, continually, constantly and for all geologic time have a shortage of affordable housing. Our housing crisis cannot possibly be solved with subsidies. We have never come close in the decades we have tried. Ironically, building affordable housing has only made the problem worse by drawing more people here who want it. Why believe things will be different in the future?

As for the airport and its impacts on growth, it is a little harder to quantify. It is even more difficult because we essentially have two airports. We have the commercial one, and we have the private one. The only things they have in common are the runway and control tower.

It is important to differentiate between the two because each has a different effect on growth. I can’t prove it, but I bet the private airport generates a lot more growth in Aspen than the commercial one.

Would it be a big surprise to learn that folks who fly in and out on $50 million private jets require more people working for them to ensure their stays here are as close to perfection as money can buy? It’s why we love them, right? My guess is that more of us work directly or indirectly for the jet-set crowd than we do for the regular Joes who have to take off their belts and shoes and hold their hands above their heads before boarding giant, flying sardine cans to get where they’re going.

I think that the private-jet crowd adds more to Aspen’s growth than even this, though. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that the owners and executives of large companies that have retail stores in town also own big, private jets. I think at least part of the reason they pay outlandish rent for retail space in downtown Aspen is so they have a business purpose to fly into Aspen, thus generating tax deductions for their private jets and second homes. The tax savings could easily offset the Aspen rents their stores pay, and that only encourages developers to build more.

One solution to control growth, then, could be to lengthen the runway for commercial flights and reduce the number of parking spaces for private jets. I don’t know — just trying to think outside before we get completely boxed in.

Roger Marolt is not sure that controlling growth in Aspen is the selfless thing to do, but it seems to have popular support anyway. Email at roger@maroltllp.com.


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