ASPEN – It was Labor Day weekend of 1978, the end of Aspen’s summer tourist season. Smoke from dozens of barbecues curled toward an impossibly blue sky, and a calm in the air offered the first hint of the long, quiet off-season that would last until Thanksgiving.
Midland Park Place, in Aspen’s East End, however, was abuzz with activity.
While on other streets locals grilled burgers and guzzled beers, here they were moving furniture, unpacking boxes, smiling at children as they squealed about their new rooms, and greeting recent acquaintances and old friends as next-door neighbors for the first time.
Thirty-seven individuals and families were moving into the brand-new Midland Park Place Condominiums, Pitkin County’s inaugural government-built employee-housing project. Surrounding a cul-de-sac at the base of Smuggler Mountain, the eight low-profile units fit neatly into their peaceful residential neighborhood with stunning views of Aspen Mountain.
One of the new residents was Jim Hancock, a twentysomething ski instructor and co-owner of a rafting company. Some weeks earlier, a friend of Hancock’s had seen a newspaper ad announcing a new housing development whose units would be sold to local workers. Hancock was skeptica.
“I never thought I’d be able to afford a place to live in Aspen,” he says—but he and his friend investigated and found that they could split the cost of a $60,000 two-bedroom condo. The selection process would be a lottery among all qualified applicants. Hancock and his buddy threw their names in the hat—and they won.
“It worked out great for me. Probably, more than anything, it solidified that I would stay here,” says Hancock, who lived at Midland Park for seventeen years before moving on with his growing family to bigger units in the employee-housing system. “I didn’t want to commute. I was always involved in the ski world, and [in-town housing] enabled me to do that. But, mainly, having a place gave me a much more secure feeling of being here.”
By the mid-1970s, Pitkin County was riding the tail end of an unprecedented period of growth. The county’s population had leapt from 2,300 residents in 1960 to 6,000 in 1970, a 160 percent increase, and would taper off only after it reached 8,700 residents in 1975. (The county’s population is about 17,200 today.)
Skiing, as a sport, had taken off; as an industry, it brought to Aspen a wave of development more targeted to wealthy tourists and second-home owners than to local ski bums, many of whom moved around seasonally as rents were raised for ski season and homes were remodeled, bought, and sold.
It was in this climate that Aspen’s housing program was born.
Four years before Midland Park was completed, in October 1974, the Pitkin County commissioners had authorized a $25,000 budget to fund a housing authority. The idea of this new office (which was officially created by a separate vote in February 1975) was to study the housing needs of the community, to come up with a set of requirements and incentives to build affordable housing, and to apply for any pertinent state and federal housing program funds.
“It was pretty revolutionary,” says Bill Kane, who was the Aspen/Pitkin County planning director at the time and helped set up the housing authority. “We totally invented the concept of a dual market: a second, more affordable pool of housing that would be traded among local residents and that would be insulated from market forces.”
Today, as the average Aspen home price climbs north of $3.2 million, the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority oversees some 2,800 sales and rental units. There are studio apartments worth $40,000 and million-dollar single-family homes whose sole purchase requirement is that the owner be a year-round resident employed in Pitkin County—and every price in between.
That housing stock serves employees whose household incomes range from $35,000 to $206,000 and whose net assets can range up to $900,000. It’s the main reason that nearly half of Pitkin County’s workforce lives here.
There are lifelong ski bums living in employee housing; there are also rabbis, CPAs, and successful restaurateurs. (See complete list of owners).
The projects, scattered all over town, vary in scale from single affordable units that are required by the City of Aspen to be included in free-market developments to Burlingame Ranch, an affordable-housing village three miles from downtown Aspen that, once built out, could include more than 250 homes for local employees.
Despite that size and success—indeed, perhaps, in part, because of them—the housing program has its issues. Chief among them are concerns about aging complexes with inadequate capital reserves and a wave of baby boomer retirement that could take hundreds of units out of the potential pool for local workers. (Because who wouldn’t want to retire in Aspen?)
Meanwhile, slow job growth, limited land availability, and competition with the downvalley free market are all factors in the debate about how much more affordable housing Aspen really needs, what kind is most appropriate, and where it should go.
Still, there’s no doubt that on the fortieth anniversary of its unassuming beginnings, the housing program has deeply affected many lives, shaping the Aspen community in the process.
The impact on Aspen, according to Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority Director Tom McCabe, can be measured “in a thousand different ways,” from a school system chock full of local children to an all-volunteer fire department to a very politically engaged community.
Kathryn Koch, who recently retired after forty years as Aspen city clerk, is another original resident of Midland Park. In 1978, she and her husband, John, a ski patroller at Snowmass, were newlyweds living in a rented apartment. Because they were determined to stay in Aspen and raise a family, home ownership was the next logical step for the young couple, but the free market was financially out of reach.
The Kochs won a three-bedroom condo at Midland Park, for which they paid $81,500. At the time, owning their own home allowed them to stay in town—where most of their friends still lived—and maybe afford to buy new skis, laughs Koch.
Even more importantly, in the long run, “it has allowed us to stay engaged in the community,” says Koch, who values being able to walk to work, interact with friends and neighbors in her daily routine, and frequently and easily attend Aspen’s cultural events. And as the city clerk, she says, “being able to vote [in the city I serve] has been important for how I see my life and my job.”
The Kochs still live in their condo thirty-six years later. It’s cozy and unassuming, a minuscule kitchen sharply contrasting with the large picture window in the living room that perfectly frames Aspen Mountain.
Over the years, especially when their daughter was a teenager, Koch and her husband talked about but rejected the idea of looking for something bigger and newer. Having more room and a yard to work in was not worth the trade-off of less weekend hiking time. Plus, reasons Koch, more space would have just meant more stuff.
And then she gestures toward the window: “Would you leave this view?”
Pumping up the volume
Housing has long been a big issue in Aspen. As early as 1969, an article headlined “Aspen Worker Housing Hard to Come By” in the Grand Junction Sentinel detailed the woes of young workers crammed four to a room paying exorbitant rents, the Aspen Ski Corp’s plans to address the problem by building low-rent housing, and a proposal to use government park land to subsidize new housing.
When Midland Park was planned and built, housing costs in Aspen were 35 percent higher than the national average (The average single-family home price was about $197,000.) Midland Park kick-started an employee-housing program that was originally quite humble, says Kane: “We were thinking maybe a couple of hundred units.” The idea was to provide Aspen’s workers with a stepping-stone, through equity and a small amount of appreciation, to the free market.
Yet by the mid-1980s, some believed Aspen’s affordable-housing problem had been solved—but not by a “humble” program. While the rest of the nation had been gripped in a recession in the early part of the decade, housing officials in Aspen, buoyed by broad public support, had gone on a spree.
They negotiated with the owner of the Hunter Creek (then called Silver King) apartments to buy four of the eight buildings in the complex and sell the seventy-seven newly deed-restricted condos to employees. Part of the deal included acquiring the undeveloped property next door and contracting with a private developer to build Aspen’s then-largest employee-housing complex: Centennial.
After the 240 units at Centennial came online in 1985—ninety-two were deed-restricted for-sale units, and 148 became affordable rentals—Aspen for the first time experienced an affordable housing glut that, according to the Aspen Times in 2001, continued into the early 1990s.
All told, about 800 units were brought under the affordable housing umbrella in the early 1980s, estimates Gail Schwartz, who at that time was the development director and later the interim director of the housing authority. (She is now a Colorado state senator, with Aspenites among her constituents.)
Land to build on was becoming scarce, and the housing authority’s mandate was to “insulate” — or preserve — housing in order to keep employees in town by either building it or converting it to affordable, says Schwartz.
But more importantly, officials were trying to find the right mix of for-sale and rental units in various price ranges, so that local workers could move through the system as their career and family situations changed. No longer was affordable housing a stepping-stone to the free market, as had been the original intention. It was now acknowledged as a full market in itself.
Large-scale projects like Hunter Creek and Centennial met the goals of housing a lot of people but also, due to the young, transient nature of many Aspen newbies, earned their reputations as employee ghettos.
Centennial’s 148 rent-controlled units housed much of Aspen’s service industry: waiters and bartenders who would come home from work at two or three in the morning and continue their nightlife. The thin walls, close quarters, and people coming and going at all hours sometimes gave Centennial the feel of a frat house, says Ryan Margo, a former Centennial resident who worked on the complex’s maintenance crew. It wasn’t unusual to hear your neighbors closing kitchen cabinets, “heel-walking” across the floor, or having sex.
Common maintenance calls Margo fielded included pleas from drunken residents to unlock their apartments when they couldn’t find their keys and requests to deal with people in the wrong apartments altogether.
“I can’t tell you how many calls I had at 3 a.m. of, ‘There’s a dude passed out in my living room,’” Margo recalls.
The busiest time of year was after Thanksgiving, Margo remembers, half-jokingly, when many Aspen freshmen would host their first Thanksgiving dinner. Possessing only novice domestic skills, they’d stuff the turkey carcass down the garbage disposal—and Margo would be called in to unclog it.
But for all of the abused appliances and damaged carpets, plenty of residents took good care of their apartments, says Margo, including many who chose to remodel rental units at their own expense just to live more comfortably. And it was in a lot of ways a close-knit community: you knew your bartender at Jimmy’s because he lived two doors from you.
For Margo—and many of Aspen’s outdoor-loving, lifestyle-prioritizing types—the urban-style condo developments (albeit urban-style with amazing mountain views) suited them just fine.
“It’s dorm-style living, but the beautiful thing is your backyard is Smuggler Mountain and your front yard is Aspen,” he says. “People learn to live with it.”
Many people liked it enough to make Hunter Creek or Centennial their permanent home. Rachel Richards, a Pitkin County commissioner, bought her deed-restricted Hunter Creek condo in 1988 and still lives there. She was the only bidder for the $64,000 two-bedroom, one-bath unit at a time when many affordable housing units were languishing on the inventory, she recalls.
Yet free-market prices were already well beyond the reach of Richards, a recently divorced single mother working in advertising distribution. She remembers two-bedroom free-market condos in Hunter Creek selling for about $150,000 at the time—more than twice what she paid for the same employee unit.
For Richards, buying a home in Aspen wasn’t about the living space itself.
“As a single mother, it was enough to just pay the mortgage off,” says Richards, who for the first several years had a roommate to help pay the bills and built a closet in the living room so it could double as a bedroom when her son was living with her. “Could I enjoy a larger kitchen and a larger bedroom? Yes. But overall, it was a bargain I made, and I’m still happy with it.”
She credits living in town and not having to commute for her participation in local politics.
“When I moved into city limits, I had another two hours a day, it seemed. I had time to get involved more,” says Richards, who began her public service on Aspen’s clean air board, then rose through the political ranks to become a city councilwoman, then mayor.
But even during the affordable-housing glut, things were rapidly changing. Aspen’s ski bums were growing up, for one thing, and were looking beyond the next ski season for the first time in their lives.
“People were starting to move into that second phase of their lives, to put some roots down, and they were thinking, ‘I’d better get in now because this town is changing,’” says Richards.
Thanks to a rapidly improving economy and tax code changes that benefited investment real estate, Aspen average home prices skyrocketed in the late ’80s, more than doubling from 1986 ($509,000) to 1989 ($1.1 million). They reached $2 million by 1994 and nearly $3 million by the end of the decade.
As home-owning locals sold out to reap substantial profits on residences they’d purchased years ago and non-homeowners were priced out as previously affordable free-market rentals became second homes, the percentage of Aspen workers living in town dropped from 62 to 33 percent over the course of a decade, according to a 1994 Aspen Times article.
Not long after moving into Hunter Creek, Richards noticed that all of the for-sale signs that had once dominated the Aspen Village and Woody Creek trailer parks—considered very far from Aspen at the time—had disappeared.
By the early 1990s, price-controlled housing had become attractive again.
Demand for employee housing can be measured by participation in housing lotteries, the mechanism the housing authority uses to select the “winners” for available units among qualified would-be buyers.
In 1993, the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority (the city and county had joined forces a decade earlier) held its final sale of an affordable housing unit without a lottery for at least a decade, according to the Aspen Times. The twenty-seven-unit Benedict Commons project, completed in 1995, drew 400 people for its lottery. And demand hit a high mark in 1997, when seventy-five applicants vied for a single affordable housing unit on West Hopkins Avenue.
But Aspen wasn’t building much. Fewer than 200 employee units came online in four years in the mid-’90s, the Aspen Times reported—compared to 800 in the early ’80s—and a whole subculture of workers was living in tents and tepees in the mountains around Aspen.
It wasn’t as if the housing program didn’t have enough money to build more. To the envy of other resort communities, the City of Aspen alone generates some $9 million annually for affordable housing. A tax on real estate sales accounts for the majority of the funds—an average of $6 million per year as of late—and a dedicated portion of the city sales tax brings in about $1 million more.
Another piece of the funding pie is mitigation—requiring developers to build employee housing or pay into a fund for it—based on the argument that new development generates or displaces employees, or both. Mitigation was, in a way, the genesis of Pitkin County’s housing program: the county commissioners had, in their attempt to control growth in the early ’70s, stipulated that a portion of all new residential development be affordable.
The housing mitigation requirements are determined by complex formulas, and they’re among the most debated sections of Aspen’s codes. But over the years, mitigation has put roofs over a lot of people’s heads.
On Cloud Nine at Aspen Highlands
Perhaps the best example of that is Aspen Highlands Village. When in the mid-1990s a Houston-based developer proposed a luxury village at the bare-bones base of Aspen Highlands, it prompted a lengthy and controversial review process. In the end, locals lost their beloved A-frame bar and convenient surface parking, but they gained 112 housing units, just steps away from the lifts at Aspen’s “locals’ mountain.” (Free-market units in the development totaled 105 condos and townhomes, plus 31 luxury lots.)
Just before Emily and Dominic Lanese won their employee townhome at Aspen Highlands—on aptly named Cloud Nine Lane—Emily told her husband it was probably time to leave the valley. The Laneses, who had an infant and a toddler, were squeezed into a two-bedroom, second-floor condo in Aspen, struggling with carrying the stroller up and down stairs and having no outdoor space where the kids could play.
They had both held classic Aspen jobs: ski instructor, house painter, ski tech, and restaurant worker among them, and were discouraged after failing to win numerous other deed-restricted units.
Moving into their new, four-bedroom home in the summer of 2001 changed everything. Cloud Nine Lane is a semicircle of six duplexes and three single-family homes, surrounding a playground that the residents built. There’s a well-utilized walking path to the schools and athletic fields and frequent bus service to town.
“We have one car, and it sits in the garage,” says Emily, who works at an Aspen law firm. Dominic works for the City of Aspen.
In the winter, the Laneses can ski right to their front door (when the kids were young they’d load them into a little red wagon to get to the base, Emily says), and on summer evenings many residents, adults and kids alike, hang out outside together.
Not everything is perfect on Cloud Nine Lane. Cheap construction and poor design meant that “we did a lot of work” to make the house more livable, says Emily. That included spreading out a cramped kitchen, rehanging doors that were on backwards, and replacing most of the finishes.
They also had to hang heavy curtains over poorly insulated windows to protect against the cold that would flow in. But with the curtains pulled back, the Laneses enjoy a million-dollar view of Highlands’ slopes. They paid $236,300 for it. The free-market townhomes on nearby Thunderbowl Lane are worth roughly $3 million to $4 million.
Burlingame: the present
By the late 1990s, building more housing meant looking outside of Aspen proper—and thinking outside the box. In 1998, the City of Aspen purchased the 250-acre Burlingame Ranch for $2.6 million, where 250 units could conceivably be constructed. Two hundred seasonal rental units were built nearby, and there was even talk of building housing on the city-owned Aspen golf course.
At the North Forty next to the Aspen Airport Business Center, fifty-nine lots were sold to longtime local employees who would build their own single-family homes, with no price restrictions on cost of construction. The North Forty and other housing aimed at Aspen’s professional class—homes that are regularly listed for more than $1 million—draw national media attention as a travesty of what can be considered “affordable.”
These units have over the years often languished on the sales inventory, as very few qualified employees can afford them, and the ones who can have the tempting option of getting a better bang for their buck by buying a free-market home downvalley that will appreciate at more than the four percent rate set for North Forty.
Burlingame, sited on a historic ranch three miles from Aspen, became the poster child for the affordable housing versus urban sprawl debate that played out over the course of the decade. As real estate prices climbed and a worker shortage intensified, some wanted as much housing built as possible; others argued that creating what was essentially a whole new workers’ village outside of Aspen’s traditional boundaries would exacerbate traffic and congestion and contradict the community’s environmental values. Everyone, it seemed, had a strong opinion.
Aspen voters twice, in 2000 and 2005, approved the project in principle, and due to both the scale of and interest in the project, a sixteen-member task force was appointed to come up with recommendations on unit types, price ranges, and design.
In 2003, a divided Aspen City Council narrowly approved moving forward with the first phase of ninety-one units. Three years later, in the midst of perhaps the biggest real estate boom Aspen had ever seen, the first Burlingame lottery drew 260 applicants for thirty-one units.
But then the city was accused of downplaying the costs of Burlingame, which exceeded $50 million for phase one and had an average taxpayer-funded subsidy of more than $330,000 per unit. Planning for phase two was paused as audits were conducted and the political drama played out. The city was also criticized for spending $35 million at the height of the real estate bubble to land-bank four pieces of property to be developed as affordable housing.
Other issues include an ongoing lawsuit filed by the Burlingame homeowners’ association over faulty siding, lingering questions about how much more density is appropriate at that specific location, and the never-ending debate over whether or not to allow dogs (which were precluded by the original development agreement).
Yet despite all the hand-wringing, Burlingame has become home for many locals, particularly families—the latest in a nearly forty-year-long list of employee housing projects. An extensive playground (which is actually a public park) dominates the entrance to Burlingame, which is tucked a half-mile behind the Maroon Creek Club on a loop road with several small spurs. Children’s bikes and toys add plenty of color to the scene, and the views—spanning from Snowmass to Highlands and toward Independence Pass—are unparalleled, even by Aspen standards.
For Barbara Lish and Jesse Morris, who recently moved into a new two-bedroom townhome in phase two, which will total eighty-two units when finished, Burlingame is the perfect starter home. The couple, says Lish, were lucky: Having lived in three Aspen rentals over four years, they got engaged last November and entered a single employee-housing lottery before winning their Burlingame unit.
The new, green construction (phase two meets high environmental standards) and energy efficiency were key for Morris, who works at Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit whose mission is focused on moving the global economy away from fossil-fuel dependency. Plus, their home has great natural light and “million-dollar views,” says Lish, who works in development at the Aspen Community Foundation.
And like many other affordable-housing residents, she gets more excited about the outdoor space than the interiors. She looks forward to this summer, when she’ll work in the community garden, lounge in a grassy common area reading a book, and watch kids zoom around the sidewalks and neighborhood streets on bikes and scooters.
Lish, who moved to Aspen after much of the controversy over Burlingame had played out, is optimistic about the possibilities. After attending her first HOA meeting, she says, “Because it’s so new and separated from the city geographically, I’m hoping that through the HOA we can make [Burlingame] into the kind of community we want to live in and thrive. It feels nice to own something; it feels like we should be more committed to making the town the kind of town we want to live in.”
Demand for affordable housing wavered during the economic downturn of the late 2000s, as jobs disappeared and people moved away (actually causing more sales than usual as owners’ life situations changed), but it was nowhere near as affected as the free market.
In fact, demand for the lower-priced, smaller homes in the affordable-housing pool remained high, according to a study by Melanie Rees, a workforce-housing consultant based in Crested Butte.
Some, like Kimbo Brown-Schirato and her husband, bought free-market homes downvalley when prices there became more attainable. But for Brown-Schirato, who works at Obermeyer Asset Management in Aspen, the desire to live in employee housing remains strong.
“Now it’s been almost six years, and I’ve been increasingly involved in the Aspen community,” she says. “I’m struggling with being in a bedroom community in Carbondale and the fact that I spend one-and-a-half hours in the car every day.”
Brown-Schirato echoes the sentiments of many young professionals when she discusses the perceived barriers to entry to Aspen’s housing system: Not enough suitable options, especially for dog owners; perception of widespread fraud (people not living in their units, as they are required to, or renting them out, which is permitted only in rare circumstances); and not wanting to have to continuously move as one’s family grows (the system prioritizes one person per bedroom, so a couple typically can’t buy a three-bedroom until they have their first child).
More pertinently in her case, Brown-Schirato and her husband would have to sell their Carbondale home at a loss, because they bought it at the very beginning of the downturn in 2008.
The downturn also came at a time when the nearly forty-year-old program was reaching a midlife crisis, shifting attention away from planning the next project and toward some of the system’s flaws.
Like many a carefree Aspen ski bum, the earlier affordable-housing complexes are aging but have the illusion—at least in the minds of many of their owners—of remaining forever young. Few have adequate capital reserves to replace roofs, siding, or other big-ticket items, an issue which many observers consider to be the housing system’s most pressing.
And with a maximum of a three percent annual appreciation cap on their homes, employee-housing owners have little financial incentive to make costly free-market improvements to their units. The prevailing tendency has been to pass the onus of capital maintenance and improvements on to the next owner and then to the next and the next. The ninety-two owners at Centennial, for example, are now facing some $2 million in projected repairs due to deferred maintenance that hasn’t been dealt with in thirty years.
Some are calling for radical changes in the housing program to address its issues. Tim Semrau, a developer of both employee and free-market housing and a former Aspen city council member, is proposing a plan by which affordable-housing owners who choose to remodel could realize double the deed-restricted value of their units. They could then sell it up to that price—if they could find a buyer—or the housing authority could buy down the unit to keep it affordable for the next owner.
The plan—essentially a parallel market within the housing program—would allow retirees to upgrade and sell their units at a profit to facilitate being able to retire elsewhere, and also incentivize young people to fix up their units to make them more livable in the long term, argues Semrau. It would encourage movement in the affordable housing market—especially from retirees to people still in the workforce, and the government could invest millions in buy-downs and still have money left over in its housing fund to pursue more housing.
The quasi-official Housing Frontiers Group, a volunteer board that grew out of the Burlingame debate, is considering less drastic measures to address capital reserves, such as raising the maximum 3 percent appreciation cap allowed on employee-housing units, and dividing the proceeds, upon sale of the unit, between the homeowner and a new capital reserve fund.
But has Aspen housed enough of its workforce to move away from more building and focus on refining? A number of people seem to think so, including Semrau and Adam Frisch, an Aspen city councilman who also leads the Housing Frontiers Group.
Citing a study that found that 47 percent of Pitkin County workers were housed in Pitkin County in 2012, Frisch believes that Aspen has struck the right balance of affordable-housing dwellers and commuters and must now “look to other community needs.”
But others warn that even though the need doesn’t seem great now, that might change in the future.
Rachel Richards, the Pitkin County commissioner, cited a recent retreat of her board at which members of the business community said that housing demand was as strong as ever and was critical to their operations. The Aspen Music Festival and School, for example, was struggling with bringing summer faculty here because it is unable to find affordable seasonal rentals, she says.
“Any decent project can take years of planning, so you tend to always be behind the curve,” she says. “So in a way, we need more of everything.”
Tom McCabe, the housing authority director, is cautious in his assessment of the future of affordable housing.
“The housing program doesn’t want to waste money; it wants to house people,” he says, adding that investing in older units might be a good idea if indeed demand is dropping. “We need to monitor demand carefully. I still see a demand, but it could go the other way.”
Nearly forty years later, Kathryn Koch, the original Midland Park owner, still believes that she and her husband, John, are living the Aspen dream, thanks to affordable housing.
Because while debates and plans about the program unfold, one thing remains constant: The Kochs and thousands more of Pitkin County’s workers—from retail employees to magazine editors, master sommeliers to mechanics—will wake up tomorrow morning in their affordable studios, one-bedroom condos, and single-family homes, take in the view, and begin another day in paradise.
As Koch puts it, “I come home and just think how lucky we are. It’s a real community, and a great place to live.”
More on the birth of the housing program
Pitkin County’s affordable housing program was born out of the infamous growth control battles of the late 1960s and early 1970s — an era marked by Hunter S. Thompson’s run for sheriff on the Freak Power ticket and documented by artist Tom Benton’s anti-war and anti-development political posters.
It was a time when growth and political ideology were transforming Pitkin County. The population of the county had multiplied more than fivefold from 1950 to 1975 — and along with the people came a building boom. National prosperity and the opening of Snowmass Ski Area in December 1967 combined to draw thousands of lifestyle seekers, many of whom bought condos, homes, or lots here.
Along with the wealthy and well cultured who were attracted to Aspen by skiing and institutions such as the Aspen Music Festival came an eclectic mix of ski instructors and worker bees, coming-of-age baby boomers disenchanted with the suburban lifestyle, hippies, and anti-war types.
And it was this segment of the population — primed in the radicalized university system and cognizant of the environmental and social costs of overdevelopment — that questioned the way things were heading.
Pitkin County didn’t have much in the way of land-use regulations at the time. Its first master plan, adopted in 1966, called for encouraging harmonious growth and preventing urban sprawl — yet allowed for 35,000 residents.
In 1970, two large condo complexes, the North of Nell and Aspen Grove, went up in downtown Aspen despite public protest because neither zoning laws nor the City Council had adequate teeth to control growth.
It was in this climate that Joe Edwards and Dwight Shellman, who ran on anti-growth platforms, were elected to the three-person Pitkin Board of County Commissioners.
The pair would go on to spearhead and usher in county-wide zoning codes and growth limits where none had existed before. They downzoned large swaths of the county (for which they fought and won a recall election) and founded such institutions as the trail network, the mass transit system, and affordable housing.
“We were doing it all at one time,” says Edwards, “and it was communism as far as the free-market people were concerned.”
Although there were few second homes at the time, according to Edwards, “after Dwight and I left, the pendulum swung the other way. The thing about affordable housing is, if we hadn’t started the program then, Aspen would be a ghost town.”
The commissioners weren’t inclined to approve a lot of development, but they wanted to increase the available of affordable housing. So part of the extensive rewriting of local codes included creating a formula that required a percentage of new units to be affordable, according to Bill Kane, who was Aspen and Pitkin County’s first joint planning director, from 1975 to 1978.
But how to ensure affordability? Kane recalls bandying about a lot of ideas, reading a lot of papers, and looking for examples in other communities. In the end, Pitkin County would go on to do its own, totally unique thing.
Meanwhile, responding to statewide concerns about the affordability of housing, the Colorado legislature had in 1973 passed legislation allowing cities and counties to form housing authorities — in order to do so, a petition had to be signed by at least 25 citizens. A similar body was created at the state level that could issue bonds and finance construction of low- and moderate-income housing.
So when the Pitkin County commissioners authorized $25,000 to fund a housing authority in October 1974, it was not until four months later that, after a petition was circulated and the requisite signatures collected, they officially created the authority, in February 1975. The vote was 2-1: Shellman and Edwards in favor, and Commissioner Max Marolt abstaining.
One month later, the BOCC named Brian Goodheim, an appraiser and real estate broker with a background in statistics and computing, as the county’s first housing officer. Paid $980 per month, Goodheim’s job was to inventory the county for potential affordable housing, coordinate federal funds to subsidize future housing (which wouldn’t pan out), and work with local banks to finance projects.
Armed with a philosophy to, as he put it, “devise a series of incentives” to create affordable housing, Goodheim worked with Kane and the slow-growth commissioners to craft what is believed to be the first government-led, workforce-housing policy in the nation. Adopted into the land-use code, the policy included the creation of a “permanent moderate housing” zone and a requirement that 50 percent of new development be affordable.
As for how homes would be bought and sold on this system, “we didn’t know of any other agency in the country that had right of first refusal and appreciation caps,” says Kane.
Goodheim relied on his real estate experience to negotiate with private owners for the county’s initial housing projects. The first, a 12-unit pilot project on Park Circle, was built by a private developer, marketed by Goodheim, and sold by the housing office to qualified locals at below-market prices. (Over time, it became mostly free market.)
Next, he negotiated the purchase of an 11-acre parcel near the base of Smuggler, from a civic-minded seller who couldn’t develop the land due to the new strict land-use codes, for $100. Envisioned for the Midland Park property was a combination of public and private investment to build 37 units, with the sale of the lots intended to cover the county’s costs and extra density for the developer who was willing to build some affordable housing there.
“But there was a feeling among the commissioners that they couldn’t trust private enterprise,” says Goodheim, whose philosophy relied largely on partnering with the private sector. “So I got canned, and the county took over the project.”
Midland Park went on to be designed, built, and sold by Pitkin County, and is now — more so than Park Circle — the model that launched Aspen’s affordable housing program.
Forty years and 2,800 units later, the scope of the housing program amazes three of its primary architects.
“The impact is enormous,” says Kane. “It’s been a remarkable success for Aspen and Pitkin County.”
Goodheim, who is now a software developer and technological consultant in Boulder, has a less rosy view.
“I think it’s been a good thing, but there’s too much of it,” he says. “Every time I go up to Aspen, it breaks my heart to see what it has become in terms of density and growth, and the growth of the housing authority as a governmental empire — it’s very different from the philosophy I had. My intention was to manage growth through — rather than a large staff and a lot of projects — creating a certain percentage so that the limited developments that were approved had a percentage devoted to housing.”
Edwards, who is retired in Carbondale, also expressed some disappointment in what the housing program has become.
“Has it worked? Yes, yes, and yes,” he says, “and we should have done more. It should have been expanded. We were trying to save this iconoclastic dropout community of college graduates that were out here. But Aspen has lost that ambiance, the excitement of that kind of lifestyle. We allowed ourselves to be bought out by wealthy people.”
A housing model for ski country
When Pitkin County launched its affordable housing program in the mid-1970s, no other ski resorts were doing anything like it.
(Mount Crested Butte actually had something on the books in 1974 about new development being responsible for employee housing, but it didn’t take off.)
In fact, the concept of public housing at the time, for most people, generated visions of high-rise urban “projects” for the desperately poor, riddled with crime and gang violence.
But it wasn’t long before other ski towns started to take notice of Aspen’s unique concept, which from the beginning included permanent, for-sale affordable homes for income-qualified local employees — quite different from the seasonal rentals to lift ops and hotel workers that later became more widely available in ski country.
“I remember tons of visits from other resorts,” says Kane. “You can’t mention a major destination ski resort that hasn’t looked at Aspen’s affordable housing as a model.”
For whatever reason, however, it was only in the early 1990s that other resorts began to seriously address employee housing. Many had housing needs assessments done at that time, says Melanie Rees, a workforce-housing consultant based in Crested Butte who conducted the assessments. Meanwhile, by 1993, the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority oversaw some 1,300 units.
“Now that the Aspenization of other Rocky Mountain ski resorts … has occurred, it is Aspen’s model for a solution to the housing crunch that is being increasingly studied in resort towns along the Western Slope,” declared a 1993 Aspen Times story.
Still, most communities eased into deed-restricted housing rather than jumped in, because of a strong sentiment that the market could take care of things as long as government eliminated barriers, Rees wrote in a 2012 report. So, many resort-town programs developed with employment and residency criteria, but no caps on income or resale prices.
By the late 1990s, real estate values had soared, and the gap between free-market and deed-restricted prices had widened considerably.
Across ski country, Rees wrote, there was more acceptance of deed restrictions, higher income levels were being served by housing agencies, and even communities downvalley from the principal resort were getting into the housing game. But most of them were playing catch-up.
“Everyone looks at Aspen and says, wow, I wish we’d done that back then,” says Rees.
Nowadays, most resort communities have some sort of affordable housing program run by the local government, but many still lean heavily toward seasonal rentals.
Summit County has more than 2,000 units that are restricted in some manner for employees — many of them concentrated near ski areas such as Copper and Keystone, and the majority (65 percent) rentals.
The Town of Vail has over 700 units, all rentals. Snowmass Village has its own robust housing program, separate from the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority, consisting of 247 rentals and 177 deed-restricted ownership units.
But it’s not just about volume. With the largest inventory of affordable housing among Colorado ski towns, Aspen can also boast of having among the highest rates of homes that are occupied by local residents year round, despite having some of the most expensive real estate in the nation.
In 2011, Rees found that over 59 percent of Aspen’s housing units were primary homes, compared to 28 percent in Breckenridge and 36 percent in Vail, for example.
Perhaps moreso than the quantity of affordable housing, Aspen’s funding for it is the envy of ski country.
By the mid-1990s, Aspen had in place a roughly .2 percent sales tax and a hefty 1 percent real estate transfer tax assessed on all real estate sales above $100,000.
These days, the sales tax generates about $1 million per year, and the RETT about $6 million; along with other income sources, the city’s housing fund has recently averaged an enviable $10 million annually. (Pitkin County has its own separate revenue stream for housing, development fees that average about $600,000 per year.)
Aspen’s affordable housing taxes were passed before changes in Colorado law made it much more difficult for communities to implement similar methods.
As a result, Aspen enjoys the state’s only real estate transfer tax. In fact, no other community has as significant a revenue stream — Boulder comes the closest with its $1.7 million per year property tax, and Summit County brings in over $1.2 million per year with sales tax and impact fees combined, according to a Rees Consulting study.
All told, Aspen’s average annual housing revenues from fees and taxes account for 55 percent of the combined total from 13 Colorado resort communities.
Yet, plenty of resorts have built successful affordable housing programs that serve the unique needs of their communities. One of the best examples may be Telluride, population 2,300.
Telluride got in fairly early on the affordable housing front, with a large rental apartment complex and a planned community of 184 deed-restricted ownership homes just outside of town that have housed local employees since the early 1990s.
But with most of its employee housing in the form of rentals and development mitigation, Telluride wanted to do more — and “what we decided to do is learn from Aspen,” says Telluride Mayor Stu Fraser.
Fraser, then a town councilman, and several colleagues spent a few days in Aspen in 2001, working with housing authority and planning department officials and touring several affordable housing neighborhoods.
From 2004 to 2010, Telluride built about 100 employee units, patterning its deed restrictions on Aspen’s. Now, about one-fifth of Telluride’s population lives in affordable housing — in carefully thought-out neighborhoods interspersed throughout the town, housing a variety of workers and even powered by solar panels the town bought to reduce its carbon footprint.
From Fraser’s standpoint, the program has been a great success — so much so that Telluride has deliberately back off on building more housing in order to help keep buyers in the wider real estate pool.
“Aspen provided a path for us to follow that really worked out for us,” says Fraser. “We got a lot of information from Aspen and then modified it for us. We’ve created neighborhoods and communities that are beautiful and energy efficient. And we’re seeing a more stable community and more focus on economic development because of more people living in town.”
Editor’s note: This story was done in collaboration with Aspen Sojourner, which published a shorter version of the story in its Summer 2014 issue. The feature also included sidebars on the process to secure a unit, local housing prices, and a timeline of the affordable housing program in Aspen. They are below.
Bagging an Abode
It’s a story that has unfolded countless times: A ski bum comes to Aspen for a winter and stays for the summer. Before she knows it, a few years have passed, and she starts to contemplate settling down. What’s this housing lottery someone mentioned?
Here’s how it works:
First, she must make sure she’s qualified. To purchase employee housing, she must work full time in Pitkin County and meet income and asset guidelines that will determine which of seven price categories of housing she is eligible to purchase.
A single adult with no dependents making $43,000 a year is in Category 2; a couple with one child can make up to $150,500 a year to be in Category 4.
The maximum household income to purchase income-categorized employee housing is currently $250,000. Maximum allowable net assets range from $100,000 for a Category 1 employee to $900,000 for a household buying a resident-occupied, or RO, unit, which is subject to neither maximum sales prices nor income caps.
The Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority publishes a weekly list of for-sale units, including prices and the corresponding categories, in the paper and on its website.
If one or more fits the ski bum’s profile, the next step is to submit a packet, which contains such information as her employment history and tax returns that will determine her qualification.
When the bid period ends, a computerized lottery among all qualified applicants is held—with priority given to minimum occupancy (or one person per bedroom) and to those who have worked in Pitkin County for at least four years—and the lucky winner emerges.
Employee-housing units are allowed to appreciate at the rate of the CPI or 3 percent, whichever is less, and owners are allowed to recoup capital improvements up to 10 percent of the purchase price of the home.
The average price of a single-family home in Aspen, while generally mirroring national real estate trends, has been on a sharply upward trajectory since the first employee-housing residents moved into their units in 1978.
The data presented here, courtesy of BJ Adams and Company, does not include the extreme high-dollar sales—those above $7.5 million—since 2005.
The number crunchers at BJ Adams and Company believe that including those figures skews the average up in a way that doesn’t accurately reflect the larger market.
None of the numbers include employee-housing units’ prices.
Timeline: 40 years of deed-restricted housing
1969 Cost of dorm-style bed in Aspen rooming house: $4 per night. “D.R.C. Brown, Aspen Skiing Corp. president, said at a seminar on the future of Aspen last fall that employee housing would not be built here until employers could no longer obtain employees.” — Grand Junction Sentinel, 1969
1970s Growth in Aspen’s population 1960–1970: 160 percent. Number of local households paying more than 40 percent of their income on housing: 500 Number of additional affordable-housing units needed, according to the 1979 master plan: 250
1983 City and county combine forces to create Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority with a staff and budget of 2 people and $120,000
1984 Number of deed-restricted units sold through APCHA: 32, $2 million total value
1992 Average single-family home price: $1.2 million. Number of units built at Williams Woods affordable housing: 18
1993 Number of affordable housing units in Aspen: 1,300. Aspen Area Community Plan identifies housing as key issue in maintaining community character; sets goal of housing 60 percent of workforce upvalley from Aspen Village. Last sale of deed-restricted unit without a lottery for at least a decade.
1994 Affordable housing completed: Ute Park (7 units), East Cooper (13 units), and Common Ground (21 units). Aspen voters pass a real estate transfer tax to fund affordable housing, by a 70 percent margin.
1996 Average home price: $1.9 million. Number of deed-restricted units: 1,489. Number of people in lottery for 27 units at Benedict Commons: 400. Rent at Alpina Haus (APCHA rental): $250/month. Category 2 max income: $60,100. Category 3 max income: $83,900. Category 4 max income: $121,500.
1997 Employee housing maximum prices: Category 1: $34,400, Category 2: $84,900, Category 3: $125,000, Category 4: $215,000. Typical free-market rent to share an apartment: $750/month. Rent at Smuggler Mountain Apartments (Category 1): $289/month Percent of workforce living upvalley: 45.
1998 Number of workers in employee housing: 3,000. Percentage of free-market Aspen homes that are second homes: 70. Number of deed-restricted units in Pitkin County: 1,589. Affordable housing completed since 1993: 210 units. Length of wait list for APCHA rentals: 3 years.
2000 Number of additional affordable housing units needed, per Aspen Area Community Plan: 800–1,300. Percentage of local employees living in metro Aspen (deed-restricted and free-market): 47 (3,684 households).
2001 APCHA staff and budget: 16 people, $495,000. Number and value of deed-restricted units sold through APCHA: 155, $25.4 million. Number of units in APCHA inventory: 1,937.
2005 Affordable housing completed: Stillwater (13 units). Number of people in lottery for 15 Snyder Park condos: 860 (a record).
2008–2012 $7 million: Aspen’s average annual tax revenue for its housing program; $5.5 million: the combined sum for thirteen other Colorado resort communities, including Boulder.
2012 City of Aspen average annual total revenues of the last six years, including various mitigation fees paid by homeowners and developers, for affordable housing: $10 million.
Who owns affordable housing in Pitkin County?
Below is a list of the owners of all of the units under the jurisdiction of the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority. The table show what the buyers paid for their unit, when they bought it, and what it’s worth as of May 2014.
The table has been initially set alphabetically by the name of the housing projects, but it can be sorted by other values, including owner’s last name, purchase price, purchase date, category or current value.
(Note that because of the alphabetical sort by project name, the list begins with projects that have numbers in their name, such as “300 South Spring Condominium,” followed by”410 West End Condominiums.” The alphabetical sort becomes more obvious further down the list.)
The list initially opens with ten entries, but there are 1,633 entries in total. You can use the “show X entries” tool at the top of the table to show all of the entries.
Property and ownership records are public information and this list was provided by the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority at the request of Aspen Journalism.
While the Housing Authority maintains this public information, they do not make it available to the public on their website in a sortable format, as it is here. Aspen Journalism collaborated with Investigate West to produce the table.
The “current value” fields are blank on a handful of units whose deed restrictions do not include appreciation caps. On the Housing Authority’s database, these units are categorized as “market value” without a specific price assigned to them.
The “current values” are estimated by Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority and are current as of May, 2014. The values are estimated based on the deed restrictions associated with the units and calculations for depreciated improvements that the Housing Authority has approved.
Almost every project name on the list is linked to more information about the specific complex on the Housing Authority’s website, via a section it labels as “HOA Documents.”
Some units are owned by more than one person and if you are looking for a specific owner, you might also try the search function, which can also be used to search for specific addresses.