Basalt Vista affordable housing project helps families stay in the valley
At a time when the soaring cost of real estate is making the difficult task of remaining in the Roaring Fork Valley particularly daunting, nine families can rest easier this Christmas.
The nine households won the lottery this fall for the right to buy an affordable-housing residence at the Basalt Vista project. The project is a collaboration among Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork, Pitkin County and the Roaring Fork School District. Twenty-seven units will be constructed behind Basalt High School in three phases. They will be sold to qualifying families at below-market prices.
Heather Short lit up recently while recalling her reaction upon learning they won the lottery for a two-bedroom unit. She rushed over to where her husband, Keith Gabel, was meeting with an executive at the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.
“I almost kicked the door down,” she laughed. She couldn’t contain her tears of joy when she shared the information with her husband.
“This has been our dream come true,” Gabel said. “We’re beyond elated.
“The universe is aligning the stars perfectly for us,” he added, noting they are expecting their first baby.
Gabel and Short moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2014 so he could train as a Paralympic snowboarder. They fell in love with the Aspen area immediately and became determined to find a way to remain.
“We don’t see ourselves going anywhere soon,” he said.
Gabel, 34, who lost a leg below the knee when his foot was smashed in an industrial accident at age 21, is a top competitor at boardercross. He earned a gold medal in the 2015 Winter X Games in Aspen. He has earned a silver and a bronze medal in the past two Paralympics, in 2018 and 2014. He aspires to participate in the 2022 Paralympic Games.
Short, 31, is an instructor in the city of Aspen’s gymnastics program at the Red Brick building and helps with “air awareness” with freestyle skiers and other athletes in the ski and snowboard club.
For the past four years, they’ve experienced the Roaring Fork Valley housing crisis firsthand. They grasped whatever housing tips came their way, moved frequently and often paid high prices for small spaces.
The market options are so limited that the people who should be in the thick of helping with community building are being forced to move away, Gabel said.
“We were just so discouraged looking,” he said.
An acquaintance told Short about the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority. She looked into opportunities and ended up entering the lottery for Basalt Vista. There were 53 applications submitted by 32 families for the five units available for Pitkin County workers.
For Short, the stability of owning a home is priceless. She grew up in a military family and was constantly on the move.
Gabel faced tough times as a youngster after his parents divorced and his mom was facing addiction issues.
“I saw what rock bottom was at a very early age,” Gabel said. “We were dirt poor. We were homeless. Christmas wasn’t a super stoke time of the year, as you can imagine.”
His life changed when he moved in with his dad. He started skiing when he was 12 and snowboarding when he was 15. When he suffered his accident, he elected to go for the amputation of his foot and lower leg rather than wait and hope for recovery. In large part, his decision was made to get back on the slopes as soon as possible.
Basalt Vista also provides vital opportunities for teachers and other employees of the downvalley school district to secure housing. The school district supplied the land for the project. In return, 14 of the units will be reserved for sale to teachers.
Pitkin County provided funds for infrastructure. In return, 13 units will be sold to people working in the county.
Habitat for Humanity is raising funds and overseeing construction of the project. Scott Gilbert, president of the local chapter, is particularly pleased with Basalt Vista because it will be a model for energy-efficient construction and operation. It’s a net-zero project, producing as much power as it consumes.
The project is giving people hope that they can not only remain in the valley, but also own their home, Gilbert said. Many teachers have been resigned to the fact that they probably wouldn’t make enough to make home ownership an option.
“We’re seeing a total change in attitude,” Gilbert said.
There were 15 applications from teachers from 10 different families for the four available units.
Amy French, Habitat’s volunteer coordinator and family service director, said Basalt Vista will keep teachers close to work.
“For many of these families, moving to Silt wasn’t an option,” she said.
Katela Moran Escobar and Jair Bravo are teachers at Basalt Elementary School and were determined to solve the housing challenges in order to stay in the Roaring Fork Valley. They came to the United States from Colombia 10 years ago on a teacher exchange program. They returned to Colombia for a while but came back to the States four years ago and taught in Basalt starting last school year. There is more opportunity in the U.S. than in Colombia, they said. They want their son to grow up in a situation where he can pursue education for anything.
“We were always working (toward purchasing) a house,” Moran said, “but of course, it is difficult.”
They looked into affordable housing at Iron Bridge but learned they made too much. They looked into the free market but made too little. The assistant principal at Basalt Elementary School informed them about Basalt Vista.
They said they thought the opportunity was too good to be true — that an organization would build them a house at a below-market price. Even after winning the lottery, they had to sit down with French to fully comprehend the situation.
Moran even visited a grand opening of a Habitat house in Silt to talk to the owner and the contractor to get a better feel for the arrangement.
“This is really a blessing,” Bravo said.
Once they were convinced they could make it work, they visited the Basalt Vista site with their 10-year-old son, Juan Marco.
“We prayed there because this is a blessing,” Moran said.
They realize how fortunate they are.
“I know a lot of people who haven’t been able to buy a house,” Bravo said. “How sad when people have to leave because of housing.”
They would have continued looking for a house even if Basalt Vista wouldn’t have arisen. Now they can focus on their careers. Moran is a second-grade bilingual teacher while Bravo is a third-grade bilingual teacher. They assist kids from a wide variety of backgrounds. They even make social visits to families to make sure they are assimilating well.
“We are really ambassadors of our culture here,” Moran said.
Both couples said they are excited about the communal aspect of Basalt Vista. As with all Habitat for Humanity projects, the owners can reduce their purchase price by putting in sweat equity. In the case of Basalt Vista, they can earn $25,000 credit on the purchase price for 250 hours of labor per adult. Community groups volunteer labor. Friends of the buyers can also apply their labor for the effort. The adults each must contribute 150 hours. Friends can donate the other 100 hours.
The units sell for $270,000 for two bedrooms and between $295,000 and $345,000 for three bedrooms. The first-phase owners will be able to move in sometime in May.
Bravo said love and respect are part of the project.
“This is something big,” he said. “Somebody cares about you.”
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Aspen Skiing Co. officials made a tag-team appeal to the Pitkin County Commissioners Wednesday urging approval for the proposed expansion of the Pandora’s terrain and other projects on Aspen Mountain. The commissioners continued the hearing until Aug. 28, when a vote is possible.