Homes in Aspen and surrounding Pitkin County are routinely listed for sale for amounts in the many millions, out of reach for most mere mortals – and most professionals, even those with a doctor’s salary.
But Aspen is also a progressive town, a blue dot in a purple state. And it was one of the first in the country, in 1974, to establish a housing program for local workers. For more than 40 years, the program has ensured that these workers can make their homes in Pitkin County. At present, some 45 percent of them do.
It has been the model for affordable housing programs in other resort towns around the nation, including Telluride, Jackson Hole and Sun Valley. The program has been the major way that Aspen, a “middle-class city with a billionaire problem,” has coped with the influx of almost unimaginable wealth.
But the benefits accrue largely to the middle class. 37 percent of Aspen’s affordable housing is occupied by workers defined as “upper-moderate income” or higher, and 63 percent is occupied by low/moderate-income owners, according to statistics provided by the Aspen/Pitkin Housing Authority.
Just how high can a person’s income be? At the upper end, there is no limit at all, although net assets can’t be higher than $900,000. At the lower end, a family with two dependents, an annual income of $50,000 and net assets of no more than $100,000 can qualify to purchase a home.
The most expensive homes – the ones that the doctors might buy – can cost more than $1 million. One unit was recently listed at $1.6 million. On the lower end, units sell for as low as $48,500; however, these units rarely come on the market.
How the program works
Housing is divided among eight categories, including both properties available to own and rent. There are different income and net-asset limits for each category, with the least expensive units going to those with the lowest incomes.
Developers building new projects within the city are required to contribute to the affordable housing program. The idea is that companies should help make it possible for their workers to live in town.
Affordable housing can be built by the developer, at the site of the new project or nearby. Developers can also opt to pay cash to cover the cost of such housing rather than build it themselves. There’s also a program where developers can buy credits in an affordable housing development to offset the impact of their own projects.
These affordable housing requirements for developers have become one of the flash points for locals who supported a successful referendum in May to clip the power of the City Council. That referendum requires the Council to forward for a popular vote any deals with developers that give them a break on certain zoning requirements, including those requiring developers to build affordable housing.
Housing program needs updating
The city’s affordable housing program has its limits and is in sore need of updating. Mike Kosdrosky, 44, the new director of the housing authority, is the first to admit this.
His own personal situation illustrates one of these problems. With the salary of a public servant, $90,000, he could have qualified for the program himself. But ultimately he and his wife chose to purchase a home in Basalt instead.
For them, a sticking point was that houses bought under the program are deed restricted so that the value of the property can only increase by about 4 percent a year. This limits how much capital owners can accrue. For a family with college bound children and looming retirement costs, buying a house that won’t gain in value over the long term may not seem like the best decision.
Another issue in Aspen is just how hard it can be to secure affordable housing units.
As Aspen’s population ages, more housing units are occupied by retired workers who want to stay. Some people are still in homes purchased in the 1970s, explains Cindy Christensen, the authority’s long-time operations manager. She herself lives in a condo she bought for $180,000 under the program in the mid-1990s, according to data compiled by AspenJournalism.org.
The problem with finding local housing was evident inside the modest housing-authority offices.
On an April day, a receptionist explained how the program works to a young woman who said she had just been hired by the local hospital. The receptionist told the woman to check the website and call rental properties every day until a coveted space opened up. The woman left with a pile of papers but no place to live.
While the program has sometimes seen a glut of units on the market, a look at current listings available in late April showed just four properties, ranging from nearly $122,000 for a one-bedroom, one bathroom, 678 square-foot unit to nearly $450,000 for a 1,268 square-foot two-bedroom, one-bathroom condominium. No rentals were listed.
There’s no question that these properties offer a steep discount. That same week, the cheapest unit available in the core of Aspen was $375,000 for 315 square feet. Trailer homes can cost as much as $1 million. Meanwhile, on the high end, there is a $10.5 million five-bedroom, six-bathroom, 5,000 square-foot home.
Down valley, in Basalt, it’s also tough to come by reasonably priced housing in the private market. The average listing price for a three-bedroom home in late March, on the website Trulia, was $1.3 million. In Glenwood Springs, an hour away, it was $360,000.
Aspen’s housing program hasn’t reviewed its requirements for ownership since the late 1990s. Kosdrosky is now overseeing a large data gathering operation to help inform city officials as they consider reforms. The process is expected to take four to five months.
Among the questions they are considering: Should the city be offering more rental options suited for low-income families? And how in this age of Internet and telecommuting do you actually figure out who meets the requirements of being a full-time worker employed in Aspen?
As it is now, many local high-school graduates can’t afford to come back to live in Aspen. “It’s a small town…and it’s not really a growing town,” says Warren Klug, the general manager of the Aspen Square Condominium Hotel. “There are people who come here and bring their own businesses and make a living, but it’s not easy…. I wish there were more housing available up here for the folks doing the hard work.”
Correction, July 1, 2015: Due to a calculation error on the part of the Aspen/Pitkin Housing Authority, this story originally stated that 79 percent of Aspen’s affordable housing is occupied by workers defined as “upper-moderate income” or higher, and 29 percent is occupied by low-income owners, according to statistics provided by the Aspen/Pitkin Housing Authority. In fact, 37 percent of Aspen’s affordable housing is occupied by workers defined as “upper-moderate income” or higher, and 63 percent is occupied by low/moderate-income owners.
Photo credit: Kashif Pathan, Creative Commons, Flickr.