Roger Marolt: Losing ground for affordable housing
We are on the verge of losing a sizable chunk of employee housing. Once it’s gone, it’s never coming back. It is made up of housing that was never owned or controlled by the government. These are houses and condos bought by Aspen workers back when free-market was far from free but definitely not impossibly expensive.
Not that long ago some Aspen homes were affordable, not for everyone, but within reach for those who showed up with a small nest egg from the real world to use as a down payment and secure a mortgage that could be paid off working for a local wage. Then, the trust-funders were replaced by the hedge fund managers and housing got tighter.
In the 1980s and early ’90s a million bucks in a trust account could be stretched further. It was a lot of money but not quite enough to make you appear to be more than an approximately average Aspenite. It wasn’t enough to brag about or get all glitzy over. The high cost of resort town living still forced these rich-anywhere-else people to work, but they could at least work locally and afford a local home.
They took jobs in Aspen shops, restaurants and hotels. Some became real estate brokers and ski instructors. There were doctors, lawyers and school teachers in this group. Those who wanted to work remotely ended up on Highlands ski patrol. It worked out well. Many stayed and are now locals. Yep, they’ve been here that long.
In fact, they’ve been living here so long they are on the verge of retiring or have retired already. Either way this will strain the local affordable housing situation further. If retired locals stay in their free-market units, obviously those homes will not be available to the younger workers who move in to take their jobs. But, this is totally beside the point because, even if this old guard moves on down the valley, as many will, few who will replace them in the workforce can afford to buy their homes.
While in the ’80s we may have lost families living in West End houses, we are now losing them from Aspen’s nooks and crannies. There are more older Aspen workers living in free-market housing than one might think. It’s kind of amazing to walk through Aspen’s neighborhoods specifically looking for cabins and cottages tucked behind the modern lifestyle estates. As humble as they look, they are no longer affordable. We are losing hidden ground in creating community through affordable housing, literally.
We are headed toward a day of reckoning. There are going to be hard decisions. The most obvious is regarding open space. What is more important to our community: beautiful landscapes and protected views along our transportation corridor or taking workers off that corridor so they can live, work and send their kids to school in this community? We need to start seeing it as trading one type of beauty for another. We have spent money, time and energy preserving scenery, but what good is that if nobody who made the plan and did the work to preserve it is around to enjoy it?
Another hard choice may involve expanding the highway to accommodate more workers. As many people who don’t commute will tell you, a 30-mile drive to work is common in the cities. And, they are right. But, cities also have three-, four- and five-lane highways to accommodate commuters on these relatively “easy” daily drives.
We also can pin hope on technology. Driverless cars will be a game-changer. Longer commutes will be a snap if you can read a book or snooze while you’re making them. But, they will also make this place super popular with Ikon pass-holders and skiers staying in Grand Junction hotels, too. We’ll require an even larger workforce.
Critics of building more affordable housing in Aspen are fond of getting government out of the way and letting the invisible hand of market economics solve the problem. There is little doubt in my mind that this approach could result in more affordable housing. The problem is that we have crafted something beautiful here that is propped up by lots of regulation and control. If we take away the “artificial” support that resulted in this, we may end with a not-so-nice place to live anymore. Our government needs to put on the bigger gloves and get to work.
Roger Marolt wonders what the housing situation would be if we built 10 employee housing units in half the places we allowed 15,000-square-foot vacation homes. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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