How candidates in Aspen’s March 7 city council election say they would solve the affordable housing crisis
The Aspen Times
Editor’s note: This is part of a series about mayoral and City Council candidates’ views on the top issues Aspen faces today.
The cornerstone of all Aspen issues is affordable housing. Without a place to live, child care, locals-focused shops and restaurants, and traffic management are not relevant to Aspen voters.
And many City Council members maintain that affordable housing is among the most important issues the body faces.
Currently, the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority has 3,200 in the program. According to the strategic plan, 72% of deed-restricted units are within the City of Aspen.
The City Council published the Affordable Housing Strategic Plan for the years 2022-26 following a retreat in December 2021.
“We are struggling to now keep up with the market shift in utilization of many homes for residential to commercial in the form of short term rental,” the introduction reads.
The document sets a goal to add 500 units to the affordable housing stock by 2026 with about half of those units achieved without new development.
The city of Aspen is the largest affordable housing developer within the city. Two major affordable housing projects are in the pipeline and will require input from the incoming council.
The Aspen Lumberyard Affordable Housing Development will be the largest building endeavor undertaken by the city. If the development application is approved by the Community Development Department, construction at the 11.28 acre site in the Airport Business Center will likely start in 2024.
The city has well-lined affordable housing coffers, but because of the sheer scope of the Lumberyard, the price tag is expected to hit over $330 million. Construction is expected to take at least 12 years of phased construction, as the city secures funds.
The project will consist of 277 affordable housing units across three four-story buildings. The buildings will house 104 one-bedroom units, 91 two-bedroom units and 82 three-bedroom units.
Supporters of the Lumberyard hail its potential as a game-changing development for families and longtime locals to own and rent or own in the city. Critics highlight its high cost and worry about traffic impacts.
“I do support the Lumberyard. I hope it becomes like a Burlingame-esque housing for families,” said City Council candidate Sam Rose. “I really hope the housing we prioritize is some place where families can grow into so we don’t lose people in this community that are committed to it.”
Incumbents council member Skippy Mesirow and Mayor Torre were both involved in the multi-year process to determine the specifications of what became the Lumberyard project. Both expressed support for maximizing affordable housing units during the many work sessions involving the project since 2019.
However, council candidate Bill Guth said that population and traffic growth within the city gives him pause, and he suggested introducing free market units into the plan.
“That’s a major, major growth driver, whether it’s affordable or not,” Guth said. “And maybe that needs some balance. Maybe it needs to be balanced out partially with free market (units) where there’s a good chance that people will not be living in it full time.”
Mayoral candidate Tracy Sutton said the timeline and cost for the Lumberyard project looked excessive to her.
“I think that if we’re able to spend those dollars maximizing what we already have — one of the things that I found interesting was perhaps redeveloping the area out at the golf course — I think there’s some strategic things that could happen more quickly than some of these other items on the agenda, such as the Lumberyard project,” she said.
Development-neutral practices seem to be the future of increasing the affordable housing stock in the city and in the county.
Mesirow positioned himself as the strongest advocate of development-neutral methods.
“One of the three new policy architectures I’m putting forward is a new model for delivering affordable housing, the development neutral model, which delivers affordable housing without new development. It’s a completely different way to look at the problem,” Mesirow said. “And it responds to the issue of today, which is displacement of workers living in nationally occurring free market housing, with vacancy investment properties and STRs, as opposed to our current system which responds to the problem from the 1980s, which was new commercial development, creating new jobs and attracting people to town. So we’re operating under a system that can only deliver affordable housing with growth, which we don’t want and responds to a problem that is no longer ours.
Mesirow also supports a vacancy tax to discourage empty free-market units.
Torre also advocates for the importance of development-neutral practices. It was one of the core strategies enumerated in the Affordable Housing Strategic Plan.
The plan listed replacing expiring deed restrictions with permanent deed restrictions and incentivizing voluntary “right-sizing.”
“We have limited opportunities for building more. And so looking at the opportunities for no build solutions is something that we very much need to do,” Torre said. “Whether that’s the expiring deed restrictions and confronting those or, you know, utilizing partnerships — like we’ve seen a few happen here in the community in the recent years — (we need to) improve our existing housing stock so that it doesn’t need to be replaced and rebuilt.”
Sutton said she would need to learn more, but voluntary right-sizing seemed like a viable option to her.
“There’s a lot of people who (live in) three- and four-bedroom units and had families that are getting older, and they don’t really need that much space. But they don’t want to get back into the fray,” Sutton said. “So I think it would be interesting to look into the solution of incentivizing them to give up their larger units for families in the area and moving into the top of a priority was for a smaller unit, because I think that’s a win-win situation.”
APCHA is exploring a right-sizing program. The housing authority surveyed homeowners in 2022 about what it would take them to relocate to a smaller unit. And the APCHA board continues to discuss the future of such a program.
Guth also expressed support for development-neutral methods. But he also posed a question about surveying current APCHA tenants and owners on their occupations, potentially prioritizing some occupations over others.
“Do we need more short-term seasonal housing? Do we need more entry-level housing? Do we need more housing for families? You know, the answer is yes to all of those, but what’s the order of priority? And that requires some data collection and some data analysis that we’re currently not doing,” Guth said. “There’s a fear of collecting this data amongst current APCHA owners and residents because they think that it will be used against them. And I have zero interest in using any of that information against anybody. I think it should all be anonymized and aggregated, so that we can make the best decisions for our community.”
Currently, APCHA does not track or monitor occupations and only sees the information in the context of residents showing that they work 1,500 hours per year in Pitkin County.
For Rose, development-neutral methods include expanding on existing infrastructure.
“Step one is maintaining what we currently have. Step two is then looking for development, neutral housing, meaning existing infrastructure. And the examples I have of that or potentially putting a second floor on the Red Brick or Yellow Brick for affordable housing. And in addition to that, it’s working with the development community.”
Rose currently serves on the city Planning and Zoning Commission. He said that he would encourage some affordable housing practices he has seen there.
“On planning and zoning, we just approved a project where they build two homes on a lot near Power Plant Road and Smuggler,” Rose said. “And they also going to build two four-bedroom (accessory dwelling units), which they plan on selling to the Aspen School District for teacher housing.”
All candidates agreed that the city must prioritize the purchase of expiring deed restrictions.
Incumbents Mesirow and Torre pointed to it as a No. 1 priority from the Affordable Housing Strategic Plan, and also said that prioritization is not a direct result of Centennial Apartments.
The city of Aspen was set to buy the deed restrictions at Centennial for $10 million, but the deal fell through in 2020 because the two sides couldn’t agree to terms.
Some tenants are now facing high rent hikes that started this year.
Guth, Rose and Sutton all criticized the City Council for not securing the deed restrictions or outright ownership on Centennial when they had the chance. Still, it is not certain that the tenants are locked into their raised prices as the city, county and APCHA continue to engage in months-long legal talks with the relatively new owners of Centennial, a large firm out of Indiana.
Mesirow said that another tenet of his platform, an office of government innovation, would directly address the need to buy up expiring deed restrictions.
“One of the other three things that I’m putting forward as this big policy shift is an office of government innovation because the way that we do things like … budget, have City Council meetings, run campaigns, in many ways fights the outcomes we want,” he said.
All candidates agree, however, that the responsibility of providing affordable housing to Aspen residents and workers can and should be shared.
“This is a regional issue. So we looked for not just public private partnerships, but other partnerships with the county and other valley municipalities as they tried to solve the same problem for their communities,” Torre said. “And then it is directly related to both workforce issues, as well as environmental and transit issues.”
Partnerships are part of the city’s larger Affordable Housing Strategic Plan.
Part of the entry reads: “Project risks can be transferred to private partners, and greater price and schedule certainty can be achieved. There can be opportunity for innovative design and construction techniques,and public funds can be freed up for other projects or purposes. These potential benefits come with limitations such as increased financing costs, limited flexibility and often few bidders to partner with on such projects.”
Aspen Housing Partnership rentals is a public-private partnership that resulted in 45 deed-restricted units in 2020.
Guth strongly supports more public-private partnerships for the city’s future.
“Let’s partner with people who can execute on (affordable housing) more efficiently than we can. And let’s be smart about it, so that we’re really putting our dollars and our efforts to best use,” he said. “And that doesn’t mean just building more, right? It means building more of the things we need most. And it means building them the most efficient way we can. And it means allowing others to shoulder some of the responsibility of what we’re building.”
He also said that his background in real estate development would not conflict with his role as a council member.
“I don’t have any specific projects or anything that I anticipate going in front of City Council. Even if I did, I would have to recuse myself. So I’m not doing this out of selfish interest in any way, shape, or form. … I think that my skill set could be very valuable for our community.”
Rose would like to see more programs to incentivize and assist locals to buy. His time as a volunteer firefighter with the Aspen Fire Protection District exposed him to a program he would like to see expanded.
“One of the more broad ideas that I have related to affordable housing is something we did at the Aspen Fire Department where if you lived in firefighter housing and then ended up winning an APCHA ownership lottery, you could use that rent that you put into living at the firefighter housing towards a down payment of actual ownership,” Rose said. “And I think that’d be a beautiful thing to look into as far as trying to distinguish between workforce housing and community housing.”
Voters can check their registration and address through the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.
In-person early voting runs Feb. 21-March 6 at the City Clerk’s Office in City Hall. The polls will be open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Election Day is Tuesday, March 7. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
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