Stone: News flash: Affordable housing scarce in Aspen
November 18, 2015
It seems that it is difficult to find affordable housing in Aspen.
I mention this in case you didn't know it. The affordable-housing crisis was deemed sufficiently newsworthy to merit a front-page headline in this newspaper — although personally, I would have guessed that a shortage of affordable housing in Aspen would come as actual news to approximately no one.
Or to be more correct: exactly no one.
There has not been enough affordable housing in Aspen since … well, since roughly forever. Certainly since some time in the 1960s, when Aspen began to achieve real success as a ski resort and young crazies of all sorts flocked here in search of adventure, a few cheap thrills or just a better way to live.
For decades, the first question in any Aspen job interview was: "Do you have a place to live?"
If you didn't, you were told to go find a place — and then come back to see about the job.
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I'm not going to bore you (whew!) with those old-timer tales of sleeping on couches, sleeping on floors, sleeping in vans, living six or eight to a one-bedroom apartment or moving three or four times a year.
But I am going to tell you that back then — maybe 40 years ago — employers weren't worried about a housing shortage. There were countless weird nooks and crannies and odd places to live. And an apparently unlimited supply of people willing to do whatever it took to stay here.
Those were the legendary days of Ph.D. dishwashers — happy to have a crappy job at night, a crappy place to live … and all day free to ski.
So employers just bided their time, offering rock-bottom wages, and sooner or later every job was filled.
Then Aspen's development really got into gear. Starting in the 1980s and gathering speed over the following decades, gentrification became deluxe-ification — and then super-deluxe-ification.
Those weird nooks and crannies were demolished and replaced by multimillion-dollar condominiums and mega-mansions, which eliminated affordable housing for workers at the same time that they created demand for more workers to serve the considerable needs of those new millionaire homeowners.
And right about then, as things began to get out of control, the government stepped in to build … a four-lane highway.
You thought I was going to say "affordable housing," didn't you? Yes, that happened, too, but really the biggest government project to solve Aspen's housing shortage was the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on widening Highway 82.
That new highway allowed Aspen to benefit (if "benefit" is the right word — which it isn't) from a commuter culture, with thousands of unhappy workers driving endless miles and endless hours for low-paying jobs serving the considerable needs of Aspen's new millionaire homeowners (see above).
And I think it is interesting to note that while opponents of the extensive (but still inadequate) local government affordable-housing program often say, "Let the free-market handle the problem," the real free-market solution to the needs of local employers has been that massive government highway program. (Plus the few businesses either farsighted enough or wealthy enough to have secured their own employee housing.)
In fact, the government's affordable-housing program really is not intended — and should not be intended — to benefit employers.
The point of affordable housing is an effort — maybe even a desperate, last-ditch effort — to preserve some kind of true local community in Aspen rather than letting the once-vibrant town turn into an isolated millionaire's enclave serviced by a disgruntled, disaffected commuting workforce.
Some, of course, say that's what we already have.
They may be right, but I think there's still a community in Aspen worth fighting for.
And that, I think, is where we get into the real heart of the immediate housing shortage.
The article in this newspaper that I made fun of (a little) at the beginning of this column actually pointed to something very troubling and relatively new: the desperate straits of families, married couples in their 40s with children, who cannot find a reasonable place to live.
In those bygone days that I talked about — pre-four-lane highway, pre-super-deluxe-ification — there was an unspoken understanding that after you put in your time as a newbie, moving too often, sleeping wherever you could, you eventually would find a more stable situation.
A lot of people came and went in those days. As they still do. But a lot of others found a way to stay. They found a place to live, put down roots, created families and, along the way, created — or, more accurately, preserved — a community.
The highway-commuter culture that seems to be Aspen's current fate creates communities. Elsewhere. Communities of disgruntled commuters who spend too much of their lives driving up this valley to serve wealthy people whom they quite likely (and perhaps quite reasonably) despise.
And the cycle seems to be intensifying.
The City Council is apparently intent on finding (or providing) loopholes to allow developers to avoid building the required housing for the employees of their new projects. Major luxury-brand corporations open local outposts, their pockets deep enough to pay outrageous rent but not, somehow, deep enough to pay a living wage. The mega-million second-home market spreads farther and farther out from the heart of town, scrubbing away any last traces of non-corporate, non-government affordable housing.
And our nifty four-lane highway serves as a (too-often clogged) drain to flush away the remnants of the true community while a relative handful cling to the precarious rocks of affordable housing to keep from getting washed away by the flood.
Is there a solution? There well may be — but it will not be easy.
Nor will it be cheap. But this is a city that apparently can find tens of millions to build a nifty new City Hall — a Loophole Palace, if you will.
Can Aspen find the will and the cash to save itself?
We shall see.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is email@example.com.