Milias: Startling housing truths |

Milias: Startling housing truths

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant
Elizabeth Milias

As The Lumberyard subsidized-housing project barrels toward its development entitlements this spring, the “major public project” process consists of just two steps: City of Aspen Planning and Zoning Commission sign-off, followed by City Council approval.

The details are in place: 500,000 square feet of construction on nearly 11 acres for 277 housing units comprised of 467 bedrooms in three 49-foot-tall buildings, plus a street network, landscaping, parking for 436 cars, a bus stop, and other site improvements. Early cost estimates approach $500 million.

The entitlements require many variances, including drastically rezoning the parcels from SCI (service, commercial, industrial), CON (conservation) and RR (rural residential) to RMF (residential multi-family) and other considerations for the planned development such as design, height, bulk, mass, density, and a new stoplight on Highway 82, not to mention a growth-management review and design-standard variations, several of which are incomplete or not to code.

Buried in the dense P&Z packet on The Lumberyard are several interesting and heretofore unknown tidbits. Coupled with the results of other housing-related research I’ve done recently, here’s a quick housing update:

  • Voters will not be asked to approve the financing of The Lumberyard, despite its nearly $500 million price tag. Even with the more favorable borrowing rates associated with General Obligation debt because of required voter approval, the city appears to be planning to again pursue Certificates of Participation (COPs) as it did when building the disfavored Taj Mahal City Hall. The COPs are more expensive, but the city can again skirt the taxpaying public because these do not require a public vote — a tactic employed with increasing frequency for unpopular and fiscally-irresponsible endeavors.
  • The Lumberyard will be all rental housing. Revealed for the first time in the P&Z packet is this all-rental scenario, notably because the city cannot sell a COP-financed asset. Despite the city’s aversion to publicly discussing the project’s financing to date, such considerations are integral to the project itself, particularly the unit mix. Why so many two- and three-bedroom units in an all-rental complex?
  • Free-market “buy downs” will not happen in Aspen. In fact, they specifically “will not be pursued” as highlighted in the much-celebrated 2022-26 Strategic Housing Plan because of the obvious, prohibitive expense. Yes, they’re doing them in Eagle County, but no, not here.
  • Regional collaboration on housing might benefit the Western Slope — but not Aspen. The upstart, regional housing coalition comprised of eight Roaring Fork Valley government entities aspires to enact a buydown program using use-it-or-lose-it American Rescue Plan grant money from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs earmarked for housing solutions. Given that grants will go to “locals” purchasing homes for $800,000 or less who place deed restrictions on them, the local real-estate market puts any implementation well outside of Aspen’s borders and likely the county’s as well.

Aspen’s seat at the table can, however, still serve a constructive purpose: With nearly 6,000 subsidized-housing bedrooms in the APCHA portfolio that does not include 865 additional bedrooms in Snowmass Village or countless others owned by local employers, we are a shining example to the other jurisdictions of how not to run a housing program.

  • APCHA regulations do in fact permit remote work. On page 6 of the APCHA regulations, Section 6 on APCHA eligibility, it clearly states that “To be eligible to rent or purchase a unit in APCHA’s inventory, unless an applicable deed restriction otherwise requires, eligible applicants/households must work full time, 1,500 hours per calendar year in Pitkin County and/or for a Pitkin County employer and earn at least 75% of household total income in Pitkin County.” APCHA likes to deny that remote work is allowed because it is clearly not the intent of the program. However, from a legal standpoint, remote work is a-OK.

I asked several Colorado attorneys to review the matter, and all agree that according to the regulations, an APCHA resident working the requisite hours remotely from his unit in Pitkin County is indeed in compliance. The “and/or” is read as “or” by the courts in Colorado and is consistent with statutory interpretation principles everywhere.

This is great news for the hundreds of APCHA residents who work remotely from their units. And remote work has become the defacto next step once someone wins the housing lottery, knowing that their employer and income never matter again. But what about the long-term sustainability of the program? Shouldn’t APCHA change this poorly conceived provision so as to require local employment?

It can’t. Imagine having literally hundreds of blatant cases of non-compliance, easily proven with 1099s and W-2s. This would create a massive upheaval to the system, forcing many households to forfeit their units and likely leave the valley. APCHA does not enforce its own rules as they stand today. They would never enforce rules that disqualify a broad swath of current residents, even if they do live subsidized and work for Google, Facebook, and Amazon from 81611. Remote work is allowed. Case closed.

Despite being contrary to community values, building more housing remains the political solution, but is it the best one? Why aren’t we talking about taking care of what we already have and ensuring it’s still standing for the next generation?

Is $500 million best spent developing 277 new housing units when 244 existing units are set to evaporate when their deed restrictions expire? Perhaps we should preserve these first? Contact