Tony Vagneur: Worker housing showing diminishing returns
February 10, 2018
I readily admit to being one of the "old school" people Auden Schendler talks about in his recent opinion piece in Outside magazine. According to Schendler, an Aspen Skiing Company employee, we conservationists, preservationists, or whatever, from 40 years ago don't get it – we need get over ourselves and make room for a whole generation of young newcomers clamoring at the gate of government subsidies, wondering where their "affordable housing" is coming from.
Schendler unequivocally states that we must look to increased density as a way to better house resort employees. Infill and density. Or, as the president of the city sponsored Next Generation Advisory Commission said, ". . . we need to allow some current open space to serve housing needs."
Being young like that perhaps obscures any memory or knowledge of the often bitter, death threat- laden campaigns that led to what little amount of open space there is in a town (and county) damned near choked to death by development. To give an inch of that hard-won open space away to development, affordable or not, would be sacrilegious.
To further cloud the issue is the realization that as of yet, it doesn't seem that anyone has unambiguously defined what the goal is – are we looking to house employees in cubicles or provide affordable housing to people who may put down roots in the community? There's a lot of daylight between those two concepts.
Apparently, either way you wish to perceive it, we will never get to the point where Aspen can house all (or even fifty percent) of its employees or its less-than well-heeled citizens. In a town governed by a development friendly council and staff, we will forever be chasing our tails, trying to keep up.
But before we buy into the argument that this is a big problem, maybe we should step back and look at the situation. More employee (or affordable) housing is being built all the time. Aspen just approved ten units to be built on W. Hallam, and has 28 more units up Castle Creek on the back burner, depending on the outcome of a neighborly lawsuit. Pitkin County just bought Phillips Trailer Park containing 40 units.
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Basalt, the King (or Queen, if you prefer) of valley sprawl (think Willits, City Market, et al.) can emerge from the extensive mess it created by becoming some sort of unintentional trendsetter with the creation of density. A large number of affordable rental apartments and deed restricted condos are coming online in Willits, plus 56 affordable rental units in Basalt.
More importantly, perhaps, is to recognize that the private sector should be responsible for housing its own workforce – when did this become a responsibility of government? That is just another way of underwriting private enterprise, something that makes no sense in a town blessed by success. It's like saying, "Go ahead, grow your business, hire more employees, and don't worry, the government will grease the wheels of employee housing."
Another aspect of this argument is that people should live in a town they can afford. If you don't have the means for housing in this neighborhood, it's rather arrogant of you to assume the government will subsidize your housing for you. The private sector needs to pony up, and some, like the Skico, have.
Which points to the fact that maybe we've reached the point of diminishing returns. Possibly we have been too successful, have allowed too many starter mansions, have over-built the downtown, have allowed the West End to sterilize itself – maybe we are choking the golden goose to death, one building permit at a time. The solution to this can go two ways – either there won't be enough employees to sustain this crazy success and we'll cut back on development, or maybe if we cut back on the success, we will find we have plenty of employees with a place to live.
The government can help in ways other than subsidizing housing. For one, get rid of the TDR program. If it hasn't served its purpose by now, it probably never will. That will limit the size of houses in the county to 5750 square feet, and put an end to anything any larger being built. The county should also require lot sizes to be at least 160 acres in size, reducing the sprawl that bothers some people. If every starter castle takes 6 – 10 people to keep it functioning, let's quit approving starter castles.
Make employers responsible for housing their own employees and there will undoubtedly be a downturn in either the number of employees or the number of businesses. We can't encourage growth on one hand and expect government to provide affordable or employee housing on the other.
Schendler's idea of mother-in-law apartments is a good one, although the city tried that numerous years ago and got ripped off.
There are no easy answers, but thanks for stirring the pot, Auden.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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