Scott Bayens: Is the dream of owning a home in Roaring Fork Valley still possible?
Type the words “affordable housing” into the search bar of any local paper and you’ll hit a veritable bonanza of articles, commentary and endless letters to the editor on what I would describe as the issue of our time here in our mountain “paradise.”
From Aspen to Glenwood Springs and beyond, it’s an enormous and far-reaching problem and one that epitomizes the larger national crisis of an ever widening socio-economic gap and the price we all pay for neglecting and ignoring the working and middle class.
A recent survey of affordable housing needs here concluded we will require but not be prepared to provide as many as 6,000 housing units by the mid 2020s. As of today we’re behind by nearly 4,000 units region wide — an area that includes not only the Roaring Fork Valley but also the section of Interstate 70 that runs from Eagle to Parachute. Further, that shocking shortfall affects those who make between $50,000 to $150,000 of household income annually.
Yes, you read that correctly. Unbelievably, even those making six-figure incomes here are in need of subsidized or more reasonably priced housing. According to a recent article on the subject, one respondent wrote, “Housing costs compared to incomes are horrifying. I have zero savings because of the rental market. I have little recreation time because I work so much for so little and I have a master’s degree.”
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The disparity of affordable options to the free market is most apparent in the upper valley where the local community plan calls for housing 60% of the workforce, a number local government is nowhere near and likely never to fully achieve. To be fair, Aspen officials are on track to build an additional 300 units in Burlingame as well as the BMC lumberyard along 82 adjacent to the Aspen Business Center. But those projects aren’t scheduled to start coming out of the ground until 2021 and 2024, respectively, so clearly we remain well behind the eight ball.
So why don’t private developers step in? After all, such ventures have been successful and even profitable in other parts of the county. With a few notable exceptions, those who try have been stymied valley-wide by myriad challenging factors.
In Aspen, the city requires developers to provide housing for a portion of the workforce their projects will require upon completion. The principals of such projects rarely build such housing on-site as it takes away from income producing square footage.
The preferred option is a program known as cash-in-lieu. Essentially paying the city a substantial mitigation fee instead of building and providing the housing themselves. Those monies are then used by local officials for their own housing initiatives.
The third option are affordable housing credits. It’s a program designed to incentivize and subsidize developers willing to tackle projects that provide finished product for a lower price. To offset the lower ROI, the city rewards the credits to the affordable developer who can then sell them to other larger developers looking to mitigate their own projects.
Unfortunately, the program is the least popular for a number of reasons the city is working to correct. And so far, longtime local Peter Fornell is the only Aspen developer to utilize and advocate for the option.
Down the valley, the issue is the availability and high price of developable parcels within local towns and cities, again preventing the potential venture from penciling out. Those who look outside the city limits run up against density restrictions as defined by local comp plans.
To make it work, you’ve got to build multi-family complexes, smaller homes, closer together, with access to public transportation, as well as water and sewer.
And if you think this isn’t a problem that affects you, you might want to reconsider as you sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 82 during rush hour. Studies say the time it takes to commute can lead to poor work performance, tardiness, fatigue and turnover. It affects the cost and availability of child care, the loss of family and recreation time and results in higher rates of depression and anxiety, not to mention the obvious impacts to our pristine environment.
In the areas where these projects have been built, they are snapped up in hours’ time. Owners and occupants tend to walk or bike to work in larger numbers, utilize public transportation, and because they have more time and money, contribute to the economy via local restaurants and businesses.
The need is overwhelming. The challenge is indeed daunting. But with the right leadership and policy incentives, the dream is far from impossible.
Scott Bayens (GRI, ABR, CNE) is a realtor with Aspen Snowmass Sotheby’s International Realty with 15 years of experience. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-948-2265.
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