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Aspen’s affordable housing program is showing its age

Marketplace Contributor Aug 26, 2016
Aspen, Colorado, where the average price of a single-family home is more than $5 million. Ben Markus/Marketplace

Aspen’s affordable housing program is showing its age

Marketplace Contributor Aug 26, 2016
Aspen, Colorado, where the average price of a single-family home is more than $5 million. Ben Markus/Marketplace

Some people might see Sara Garton, a 74-year-old former copy editor, as a threat to Aspen’s affordable housing system. She’s lived in her one-bedroom condo in an affordable housing unit for 30 years and has no intention of moving out.

“We are in what we call the black hole of affordable housing — can’t get out,” she said. “I can’t afford this lifestyle in New Castle.”

New Castle is about an hour and a half away, a town on the interstate where housing prices are a lot cheaper.

Aspen has one of the craziest housing markets in the country, where more than half of the population lives in affordable housing. In this glitzy ski resort town, a double-wide trailer can sell for $1 million.

City leaders recognized the problem early on, created by a housing demand that quickly outstripped supply, and they started an affordable housing program for workers in the 1970s.

But what started as workforce housing is now showing its age, increasingly becoming retirement housing, raising fundamental questions about the program.

Take Garton’s case. Her Aspen condo could sell on the open market for $1 million, but since it’s part of the affordable housing program, she estimates she could only get about $170,000 for it. So why would she sell?

There isn’t a retirement home here, and she doesn’t want to leave the city she’s called home for decades.

Aspen is a town where fund managers drive Ferraris and bartenders get around on bicycles. The program was built so both could live here.

“The people who created the program back in the 70s, they never thought they were going to get old,” City Councilman Adam Frisch said. “And they never thought the buildings were going to get old.”

Frisch said Aspen was ahead of its time developing affordable housing — other resort towns like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, copied a lot from it. But he said controlling the price of half the city’s homes has had unintended consequences.

“When you have an unlimited demand for something and you put a capped price on it, regardless of what it is, market forces get out of whack,” he said.

Most of the owner-occupied affordable housing units were built decades ago, and many haven’t been maintained. Everything from the plumbing to the paint needs work, but there’s little incentive for a condo owner like Garton to renovate because the price is capped and she won’t realize any big gain from the improvements. Plus, there can be up to 60 bids on a property, selling it “as is.”

Then there’s the looming problem of retirees. Half of residents in Aspen’s affordable housing units are 10 to 20 years from retirement. It’s unlikely they’ll leave to free up that space for young workers and families.

“It’s a ticking time bomb,” Mike Kosdrosky said, who runs Aspen’s affordable housing program. “If we’re not going to address it, then we’re going to be in a world of pain 10 years down the line.”

Aspen’s restrictions on new development limits the space to build many new units. Getting housing in Aspen can be a matter of luck. To get a coveted unit, you have to win a lottery.

“The old way of the lottery used to be ping pong balls, and they used to do it in a very public way in a big ballroom at the local hotel,” Kosdrosky said.

Now it’s done by computer. Still, there are perennial lottery losers like Christine Benedetti, a freelance journalist. She’s started a group to advocate for younger families, hoping to push the city to solve the retiree issue, for one. In the meantime, she’s on the outside of Aspen looking in, living 20 minutes away from the culture and the jobs.

“We had someone who won the $500,000 lotto ticket at the gas station, and you still can’t buy a home for that much. You want to win the housing lottery over the actual lottery.”

With the average price of a single family home now more than $5 million, she’s not kidding.

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