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For the week of Nov. 17, 1999 through Nov. 23, 1999

Two high-profile resort areas brainstorm the future

Spiraling costs threaten the fabric of Sun Valley and Aspen


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

Forced by a skyrocketing housing market, Aspen Mayor Rachel Richards lives in one of the resort area’s 1,600 affordable housing units. So do two of four members of the city council and many of the city’s planning staff.

So it’s no surprise that affordable housing is something the Colorado resort city takes very seriously.

Most residents of Aspen and other mountain resorts would agree that their town’s verve is found in its sense of community, history and whatever social diversity it can muster.

But Richards fears her city is losing some of the diversity that makes Aspen’s community healthy. The community’s pulse is getting weaker, she said, as affordable housing stocks, driven by the existing market, go the way of the dodo bird.

"Aspen’s unique spirit is in danger of eroding into a bland and irrelevant society lacking its former character," reads the introduction to the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority’s housing guidelines. "The key to reversing this trend lies in restoring the ability to attract, nurture and learn from these disenfranchised characters.

"The image of Aspen as an organized facade needs to be injected with a ‘messy vitality’ that originally created Aspen’s renowned cultural and sociological diversity."

Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commission chairman Peter Ripsom fears that Ketchum, too, is in danger of losing its "messy vitality."

"Most people can’t just plunk down the money it takes to live here, and it’s starting to be the whole valley," he said. "In order to keep the vitality of the community, you have to have mixed housing."

Last month, Ripsom and 16 other local planners and residents—from Ketchum to Sun Valley to Hailey—went to Aspen to investigate what the Colorado city is doing to deal with its growth and preserve its sense of community.

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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average United States household makes about $38,000 per year, and the median home cost is close to $100,000. That means the average American household annually earns 38 percent of the cost of its home.

Not so in the West’s high-priced mountain resort towns. According to the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber of Commerce, the median cost of a home in Ketchum in 1997 was $778,000 compared with the average Blaine County household’s annual income of about $50,000. Aspen’s average home cost is $3 million inside the city limits, and the average Pitkin County household garners between $60,000 and $70,000 a year, according to the Aspen Chamber of Commerce.

The bottom line in both areas is that many people who work in the resort centers cannot afford to call them home. In both counties, the average household makes less than 10 percent annually of the average cost of a home in that county’s primary resort city.

Aspen has been able to move aggressively on affordable housing because of a healthy tax base.

Half the proceeds from the city’s 1-percent real estate transfer levy—a tax on real estate sales—goes toward land acquisition or subsidization of affordable housing. According to Aspen’s finance office, about $1 million goes into the housing fund each year from the tax. In good years, however, as much as $4 million has gone into the fund.

"We’re fortunate in that we have good financial backing in this city," Richards said during one of the meetings with Wood River Valley officials.

Ripsom agreed with Ketchum city administrator Jim Jaquet that Aspen’s ample funding is the primary difference between the two cities in the affordable housing arena. They’re not using any secret or unknown methods, Ripsom said. They simply have the funding to get projects off the ground.

During the next 20 years, Richards said, it is the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority’s goal to build between 800 and 1,300 more affordable housing units in and around the city.

According to the city’s community plan (comprehensive plan), 60 percent of the city’s workers should be accommodated by some form of affordable housing. However, that mark has not been met because of booming job growth there, according to Aspen planning administrator Julie Ann Woods.

On a tour of several of Aspen’s affordable housing projects, Wood River Valley officials made clear how impressed they were with the quality of projects there.

"We looked at a lot of affordable projects, and clearly it can be well done," Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commission member Peter Gray said in an interview. "Clearly it can be done in a way that doesn’t affect a neighborhood.

"No one should care if it goes next door to them. How can anybody complain? They’re well maintained and well planned."

The tour of Aspen’s affordable projects showed they are clean and unobtrusive. Units can cost anywhere from $35,000 to $200,000, depending on the size and location. Most are deed-restricted units—meaning their rate of inflation is set to a certain maximum, but the city employs a variety of methods to arrive at different forms of affordable housing.

Density requirements have been liberalized in exchange for affordable units; commercial developers are required to accommodate a percentage of a building’s potential employees in the same building; and the housing authority can use city money to buy down the cost of existing units that have been leaping in value.

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To every coin, however, there is a flip side. Sun Valley resident and KART board director Pawan Mehra, who went to Aspen primarily to investigate its transportation woes, indicates he philosophically disagrees with the Colorado city’s affordable housing program.

"While on the surface, Aspen’s subsidized housing appears to work, I have deep reservations, which were confirmed by some of the people I talked to…," Mehra jotted down in notes he took on the four-day trip.

Mehra said the voting public and city decision-making pool are skewed by the presence of affordable housing because the city’s citizens no longer represent the city’s financial reality.

"Aspen has approximately 6,000 registered voters," he wrote. Then, he analyzed the clout of subsidized housing residents in the registered voting pool.

"They currently have 1,600 subsidized housing units and growing, with a dwelling average of 2.2 to 2.8 residents per unit, which even at a conservative two voters per dwelling, creates a subsidized housing voter lobby of 3,200, or a very powerful majority."

Mehra also pointed out that the majority of property taxes are paid by market driven properties.

"Since taxes are based on the market, people living in market houses are paying 10 times the taxes than those living in subsidized housing," Mehra writes.

"I don’t believe that an imbalance this extreme will stand the test of time!"

 

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Copyright 1999 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.