Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Aspen's community housing efforts praised

Nonprofit group puts issue front and center

Express Staff Writer

Speakers at a weeklong series of events on affordable housing praised local efforts, but said steps taken at other resort communities are examples of how much more could be accomplished.

About 25 people attended the presentations at the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum on Monday and on Tuesday, conducted as part of the Community Housing Week organized by the Ketchum nonprofit group Advocates for Real Community Housing.

"We're starting to see some action, but not enough is being done," Citizens for Smart Growth planner Aaron Domini told the audience.

Every year, the gap between the cost of buying a house in the Wood River Valley and the average salary of local wage earners grows larger. Prices are being driven up largely by buyers from out of the area who have made their money elsewhere. An additional factor, said Becky Zimmermann, a planner with the Denver-based planning firm Design Workshop, is that investors are turning to resort real estate as a more secure investment than the stock market.

The lack of affordable housing has restricted the ability of local governments and businesses to choose the employees they would like and is changing the demographics of Ketchum.

"Without people tuning the skis and working in the local coffee house, the quality of life here is going to decline," Domini said.

The affordable-housing shortage has also dramatically increased the amount of traffic congestion on state Highway 75. In 1997, about 700 people commuted to work in the Wood River Valley each day; in 2002, that number had risen to 1,167 people. It is certainly much higher now.

A study conducted in 2002 by the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority concluded that the Wood River Valley needed 665 deed-restricted housing units. The area now has 22 such units, with 40 more planned or under construction and 100 proposed.

The resort city of Aspen, Colo., with a population of about 8,000, has 2,400 units of deed-restricted housing, Zimmermann said.

She said the area's median income is about $53,700, but the median home price is almost $4 million.

Those two categories began to diverge in Aspen earlier than they did at most other resorts, and officials there began an aggressive affordable housing effort about 25 years ago.

"As it relates to affordable housing, you want to be like Aspen," Zimmerman said.

She said efforts there have succeeded due to development of a clear set of guidelines, coordination of programs among public and private entities, the conversion of hotel and motel units to employee housing and passage of ordinances that combine both sticks and carrots.

She said, however, that the loss of hotel rooms has made Aspen more dependent on business from vacation home owners.

Among the projects built there are:

· Burlingame at Aspen, an 82-unit modular-home development. The modular construction, Zimmerman said, results in "tremendous" cost savings.

· The Marolt Ranch, a 100-room dormitory built on city-owned land after voters' approval.

· The conversion of a hotel into 26 housing units, each of which is owned by a local business for its employees.

· The conversion of a hotel owned by the Aspen Skiing Co. into 26 affordable units as mitigation for expansion of a day lodge.

Zimmermann said government officials in some resort towns have opened discussions with the U.S. Forest Service about building community housing on federal land.

Zimmermann advised officials that whatever they decide to do, they should do it soon.

"The cost of affordable housing is not going to get less," she said. "The longer you delay acting, the more it's going to cost to do something."

Ketchum is quickly approaching a point of having to make some decisions. By the end of this year, it will have almost $2 million to spend on community housing.

In an interview after Tuesday's presentation, Ketchum City Councilman Baird Gourlay said the city needs to pressure the Blaine--Ketchum Housing Authority "to put bricks to mortar." The city is considering building up to 30 units on its Park and Ride lot, located at the corner of Warm Springs and Saddle roads.

Gourlay said he supports looking into modular housing.

"Pre-fab now is not what people think," he said.

Councilman Randy Hall said the presentation had convinced him that "it can be done." However, he also pointed out that Aspen's requirements for housing linkage (mandating housing with new development), open-space preservation and parking had reduced downtown development.

"There's a balance in there," he said.

Zimmermann told her audience that even though time is of the essence, they should not expect miracles.

"It took decades to get into this mess, and it will probably take decades to get out," she said.

The presentations will continue at the nexStage Theatre through Friday. On Saturday, a housing fair will be held at Roberta McKercher Park in Hailey from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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