The house at 1230 East Cooper Avenue, about five blocks east of City Market, where Habitat for Humanity hopes to build a duplex.
The house at 1230 East Cooper Avenue, about five blocks east of City Market, where Habitat for Humanity hopes to build a duplex. Credit: Chris Council / Aspen Daily News

ASPEN – The Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority board of directors approved a pre-development agreement on Wednesday with Habitat for Humanity of the Roaring Fork Valley, which could lead to the first low-income Habitat project in Aspen.

The agreement allows the nonprofit home-building organization, with the housing authority’s assistance, to seek approvals from the city of Aspen to build a duplex at 1230 E. Cooper Ave., five blocks east of City Market.

Habitat hopes to build a three-story, 1,600-square-foot duplex on the property, creating two three-bedroom homes for qualified buyers.

The housing board’s members unanimously approved the preliminary agreement. One member, Bobbie Burkley who lives next door on Cooper Avenue, abstained.

Tom Smith, the housing board’s attorney, described the agreement as “more of a road map than a binding contract.” And he referred to Habitat as the housing authority’s “unofficial partner” in the project at this point.

A more formal agreement is anticipated after details of the project are worked out. For now, Habitat is expected to be the official applicant to the city of Aspen and pay for the cost of gaining development approvals.

Then the plan is for the housing authority to give the land to Habitat, which will then build the two side-by-side homes and sell them to a qualified buyer, in this case, someone with less than $56,000 in household income, in accordance with the category 1 guidelines of the housing authority.

The current agreement does, however, name Habitat for Humanity as the “exclusive developer” of the property.

That’s a reflection of the housing board’s recent decision to turn down a reportedly $1.1 million offer from an unidentified neighbor of the property to buy the same lot that Habitat wants.

Tom McCabe, the director of the housing authority, said he did not think the offer, which came through a local attorney, was made specifically to block the development of affordable housing on the site.

“They weren’t anti-Habitat, just looking for an opportunity as well,” McCabe said.

Habitat for Humanity raises funds as a nonprofit, provides financing for buyers, subsidizes the cost of its homes, and requires a buyer — who must need a home — to put in 250 hours of sweat equity alongside volunteers to build their house or other Habitat homes.

There are 2,800 deed-restricted housing units in Aspen and Pitkin County today, but category 1 ownership units are rare. And both units in the Habitat duplex would be category 1 units, for sale.

Currently on the lot at 1230 E. Cooper Ave. there is a wooden A-frame house built in 1965. The house has 1,375 square feet of space and sits on a 6,000-square-foot lot.

The housing authority bought the funky ski house at a foreclosure sale in 2009 for $289,753. Today, the county assessor values the land at $130,000 and the house at $172,000, for a total value of $302,600, a sure tear-down in the surreal Aspen real estate market.

Scott Gilbert, president of Habitat for Humanity in the Roaring Fork Valley, said it would cost between $250,000 and $275,000 each to build the two units in the duplex. The units would then be sold for between $125,000 to $150,000 each, with Habitat covering the substantial gap between the cost and the selling price.

“We build it at cost and sell it for what people can afford,” Gilbert said.

Habitat retains the right of first refusal if the original owners ever sell the property, and the sale value is capped by a low annual appreciation rate. The next buyer would be chosen by Habitat, but they would have to meet the housing authority’s category 1 guidelines.

The housing authority has not served lately as a developer of housing units, and the board welcomes Habitat’s approach to getting the category 1 homes built, McCabe said.

One important detail still not clear to Habitat or the housing authority is whether a duplex can be built consistent with the current zoning on the lot where Habitat wants to build.

The lot is in the city’s R-15A zone district, which requires 15,000-square-foot lots for new homes. A new single-family home can, however, be built by right on the smaller lot, but a duplex is less clear.

McCabe, however, said there is language in the zoning code suggesting a duplex is OK, as long as one of the two units is deed-restricted. And in this project, both units would be.

Also, the city itself owns a right-of-way between Cooper Avenue and the existing and proposed housing site, which could shape review of the project.

Gilbert said the duplex would have the same footprint as the existing home, although it would be taller, and that Habitat works hard to ensure that its homes fit in with specific neighborhoods.

Scott McHale, of the Aspen architectural firm of Rowland and Broughton, is working on the design of the Aspen project, Gilbert said. McHale was recently honored by Habitat for volunteering on 11 other homes in the region in the last six years.

Since 2000, the Roaring Fork chapter of Habitat for Humanity has built five duplexes and seven single-family units, meaning 17 families now have homes. One Habitat home is in Emma, four are in Carbondale, one is in Glenwood, five are in Rifle, and six are in Silt.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborated on this story with the Aspen Daily News, which published a version on Saturday, April 5, 2014.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...