Aspen grapples with sustainability

When the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan gets going again, and it can’t happen too soon, one of the nuts to be cracked in the discussion is something Aspen is dealing with right now: How much resident restricted housing is needed, where and for whom?

It’s a complex question.

A couple of recent stories in the Aspen Times reflect the current situation in the Colorado town and perhaps a window on Whistler’s future.

A study done in February of 2002 found 49 per cent of Aspen employees were housed locally. Aspen officials said then that their goal was to house 60 per cent of the local work force in town. That goal has since been revised to 55 per cent.

In Aspen, as everywhere else, infill affordable housing – social housing in existing neighbourhoods – has always faced tough opposition. Some infill housing was built in Aspen but in recent years the housing authority has looked to some of the open lands outside of town in the wide (compared to Whistler) Roaring Fork Valley. The benefits were obvious: there was less opposition from neighbours and more housing could be built, making a substantial dent in the affordable housing problem.

But environmentalists, people advocating for preservation of open spaces and those in favour of so-called smart growth principles – the benefits of density including utilizing existing services and utilities – opposed using up open land for affordable housing.

"Affordable housing’s days as a sacred cow appear to be over," Times reporter Scott Condon wrote.

The Aspen economy has slowed in the last couple of years, as it has all over North America, which has led some to question the need for more affordable housing. A few people have noted that employee housing projects haven’t been fully occupied until November or later the last two winters, when the beds used to be taken by September or October.

Others have countered that now is the ideal time to build more affordable housing, an opportunity to catch up to the community’s needs. They also point out that through the miracle of the Internet hiring practices have changed, meaning jobs and beds are assigned before the season starts but employees don’t show up until they are needed.

In a second story last week it was reported that Aspen’s first $1 million employee-restricted home is now on the market. The house, a two-year-old, 3,000 square foot Victorian, is classified as Resident Occupied, or RO. That means the owner must live and work full time in Pitkin County. The Times reports that RO housing was established to accommodate local professionals who earn too much to qualify for the housing authority’s lower-priced homes but don’t make enough to buy in the free market.

The $1 million price tag was based on the original price of the lot ($165,000), the cost of the home’s construction ($776,945), plus a 4 per cent annual increase. The median price of a single family home on the open market in Aspen last year was about $2.6 million.

If Aspen, as it has in the past, offers a glimpse of the future affordable housing is eventually going to be an issue for virtually everyone who works in Whistler. Once the current generation of professionals, managers and anyone else who works here and owns their own home moves on or retires how is the next generation going to be able to afford to live here?

But aside from providing affordable housing for various income levels, how much affordable housing is going to be needed? Neither Aspen nor Whistler has enough at the moment but as Michael Kinsley, a researcher at the Rocky Mountain Institute and a former county commissioner told the Times, affordable housing can’t be isolated from the larger question of how big the valley population should become. "What we’ve never confronted is what the total number should be. It’s a question we don’t like to ask," Kinsley said.

It’s the question at the heart of Whistler’s Comprehensive Sustainability Plan.


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