Basalt debates how to handle retirees in its growing affordable housing inventory
The Aspen Times
The Basalt Town Council is debating whether to make it easier for private sector employees to get into the town’s growing affordable housing inventory or continue to reserve residences for government and special district employees.
The council also is debating how to prevent filling its housing inventory with retirees as the workforce gets older.
What was intended to be some minor tweaks to affordable housing guidelines at Tuesday night’s town council meeting instead triggered the major policy discussions.
The Basalt Affordable Community Housing committee, an advisory group, suggested increasing the priority status for private sector employees who work in Basalt. Town staff brought the recommendation to the council for consideration.
Currently, town government employees have the highest priority for occupancy in the 18 affordable housing units owned by the town.
They are followed in priority by employees who work at other governments or special taxing districts even if they work outside of Basalt.
The housing committee advised boosting employees of businesses in the town ahead of employees of other governments or special districts on the priority list. The reasoning, said town planner Susan Philp, is to give employees of Whole Foods or other businesses in town a better shot at securing housing.
“It never gets to a normal business owner in Basalt,” Philp said.
When units become available, they get “picked off” by other governments or districts, if the town government doesn’t need them, she said.
Councilwoman Katie Schwoerer said the proposed change would give a Basalt-based employee of Aspen Skiing Co., for example, a higher priority for housing than a deputy for the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. She said she is opposed to that change. Businesses such as Aspen Skiing Co., City Market or Whole Foods — “behemoths with massive funding sources” — shouldn’t get a government subsidy to house their employees.
She indicated she wouldn’t be as opposed to giving a higher priority to employees of smaller private businesses.
Councilman William Infante said he supports assisting town enterprises, big or small. However, he said he didn’t really see it as a subsidy. The town recovers the funds it has in the 18 town-owned units through rents, he said.
Councilman Auden Schendler, an Aspen Skiing Co. executive, said Schwoerer had a “reasonable point,” but he asked how the town should improve the priority for employees of some businesses but not all.
The council directed its staff to take the issue back to the housing committee for further deliberation. Whatever policy is adopted will apply only to the 18 units owned by the town. There are roughly another 120 units of affordable housing that were built by developers to satisfy the town’s affordable housing requirements.
The town’s policy for retired folks to retain their affordable housing also was scrutinized. Right now, a person who retires can hold onto their affordable housing only if they volunteer 1,000 hours annually of community service. The housing committee felt that is too onerous. It suggested a change that people ages 65 through 70 would have to work 500 volunteer hours annually and people ages 71 through 75 would have to volunteer at least 250 hours per year.
The policy would apply to all the affordable housing stock, not just the units owned by the town.
Schendler said he is wary of the proposed change.
“Are we not headed down the road that Aspen got to?” he asked. “We’re making it easier to [stay in] affordable housing. Shouldn’t we make it harder?
“I think there’s a lurking issue here,” he later added.
Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said it would be “heartless” for the town to tell retirees that they aren’t wanted anymore and must move out of affordable housing if they don’t perform the volunteer hours. The town would be forced to “boot” out a significant number of people as Baby Boomers retire in coming years, she said.
“I see that coming to many people in the next 10, 20 years,” she said.
Schwoerer said she wouldn’t want to boot people out of the housing where they have lived simply because they retired.
“That’s a really sad commentary on our culture and I don’t want to be part of it,” she said.
Schendler said there is an “irony” to the Basalt board’s position on retirees in affordable housing and growth. Some town leaders don’t want growth yet they don’t want to move retirees out of affordable housing. By allowing retirees to stay, Basalt will be in Aspen’s shoes — with a need for increased workforce housing.
“I think it’s a threat 20 years from now,” he said.
The council majority expressed support for retaining the requirement for 1,000 hours of community service annually for a person to remain in their affordable housing. However, the entire issue was sent back to the housing committee for further debate.
The council will dive back into the policy discussions at its May 22 meeting.
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