Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Without affordable housing, cities will go 'out of business'

Express Staff Writer

Mick Ireland, a Pitkin County, Colo., commissioner who helped create Aspen's successful affordable housing program, kicked off Community Housing Week on Monday with a presentation at the Roosevelt Tavern in Ketchum. Photo by Willy Cook

The rich are getting richer, demand for second and third homes is increasing and the challenges of creating community housing in the Wood River Valley will only get tougher, according to Mick Ireland, a veteran Pitkin County, Colo., commissioner.

Ireland, who's lived in Aspen since 1979 and has been an affordable housing activist for about 20 years, kicked off the second annual Community Housing Week with a presentation in Ketchum on Monday.

"In 10 years, the number of people buying second homes will peak," Ireland told a group of concerned citizens, developers and elected officials at the Roosevelt Tavern. "More is on the way—it's all about the baby boomers."

Ireland's presentation was heavy on charts and graphs depicting a correlation between the rising demand for second homes and the decline of young people and families in places like the Wood River Valley.

"People in their 20s no longer have children (in resort areas)," he said. "You can no longer work two jobs and buy a free-market house.

"That's impossible now."

The lack of deed-restricted community housing is the greatest threat to the future stability of resort towns, Ireland said. Without it, communities will be driven "out of business," he added.

Aspen and Ketchum often draw comparisons not just because of their resort-driven economies and associated challenges, but their physical characteristics. Both exist at the upper end of valleys carved by freestone rivers and framed by mountainous public land with downvalley communities housing much of the workforce.

However, there are about 1,700 affordable housing units in the city of Aspen—there are less than 60 in all of Blaine County—and a total of 2,600 in Pitkin County, which also includes the small towns of Old Snowmass, Woody Creek and Snowmass Village. The downvalley cities of Basalt and Carbondale, often compared to Hailey and Bellevue, respectively, are in separate counties.

So how did Aspen get so far ahead of Ketchum?

Ireland said skyrocketing home prices hit Ketchum and the Wood River Valley later than Aspen, where people began jumping ship in search of more affordable housing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ireland said.

"All of a sudden, we had people leaving town," he added. "It catalyzed things."

Ireland said the lack of housing and ensuing out-migration of the city's heart and soul became such a huge topic in the community that it was the centerpiece of local elections.

"It's like global warming is now," Ireland said after Monday's presentation. "It's been around for a while, but now it's reached a point where everybody is talking about it, and that's what brings about change."

And while Aspen had more land to work with in the 1980s than Ketchum has now, Ireland said there's still hope.

"It's never too late to do the right thing," he said. "Also, if you tell people that you care enough about keeping them in the community, then it sends a message, 'We really do want you.'

"That gives people the motivation to stay—it's all about expectations and perceptions."

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