Guest column: Failure is not an option in seeking affordable workforce solutions

By Gail Schwartz
Habitat for Humanity of the Roaring Fork Valley
Gail Schwarz

“Failure is not an option,” said Clark Anderson, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Community Builders in Glenwood Springs. “At the same time, when we look at the gap between where we are and where we need to be, failure is the most likely outcome under the circumstances and systems we have in place right now.” Clark’s comments served as an introduction to a panel of County Commissioners representing Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield Counties at a Regional Summit on Solving the Affordable Housing Crisis, which Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley hosted at the Aspen Meadows in March.

The bright spot in what may feel like a dim outlook is that our local governments — both cities and counties — are uniquely poised and qualified to address some of the most challenging affordable housing pinch points. Local governments alone cannot do all the heavy lifting, but they can make the lift easier for local businesses, nonprofits, philanthropists, developers and financiers by adopting land use policies that encourage and facilitate the creation of more affordable housing stock to stabilize our communities.

There is a construct of current land use policy that is headed toward the failed outcome that Clark mentions. Today, for every new development that is approved in communities from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, only 10 to 30 percent of the new units are required by code to be dedicated to affordable workforce housing. Unless our local governments make changes to adapt to the workforce housing crisis, we will continue to see the vast majority of new developments sold on the free market with prices continuing to rise as demand increases.

Inevitably, every new free market unit sold, especially in the upper valley, will only exacerbate the affordable and workforce housing problems we are facing. New and existing free market homes are out of reach of most working families in our communities and new free market homes drive the very job creation which compounds the problem. Case in point: Pitkin County, wherein approximately 70% of existing homes are owned by absentee owners that require all kinds of services from workers who drive to Aspen daily from further and further away..

Our local elected officials need to come to the realization that future growth should be managed with new land use policies that encourage development of housing affordable to the workers essential to our communities and the future of our economy. It is not only incumbent on the government to build more affordable units, but also to incentivize the private sector to create more viable solutions. Political leaders are making decisions every day that will shape the future of our regional economy and should put in place land use plans and policies that foster the kind of development that will help stabilize our workforce and thereby ensure the long-term stabilization of our economy.

While our elected officials represent different constituencies, collaboration amongst them is essential in order to solve the affordable housing crisis regionally. We are all part of a broader “community”; the housing challenges we face in the Roaring Fork Valley are different from — but are still connected to — challenges faced in other parts of our region. We need visionary leadership from one end of our region to the other that recognizes and responds to our current realities. Today, wage earners throughout the region at every level are struggling to find housing, a troubling scenario which is increasingly commonplace in resort markets across the state and the nation. With workers driving from as far away as Grand Junction to their jobs in Aspen, local government leaders must put their collective heads together to balance employment and housing opportunities in ways that better align with community goals.

The three County Commissioners on the Housing Summit panel were able to agree on a few basic principles: affordable housing requires a dedicated revenue source; clear land use policies with dedicated affordable housing goals must be implemented in every county; local government needs to be involved on the front end of development projects so that they aren’t sidelined after years of private sector work; and public-private-nonprofit partnerships can help move projects along more quickly.

We have devoted decades to the creation of local smart growth policies aimed primarily at preserving the open spaces, natural beauty and character of our unique communities, but now we must explore and find ways to adapt to and accommodate the ability of more working families to live closer to where they work. 

To rebalance this work/live dilemma, we will need to recognize and deal with the fact that our development priorities must be reordered to build more housing for local families and less for absentee owners. Until we do, we will continue down the path of depleting the workforce that is essential to local businesses, non-profits, and critical institutions such as our hospitals and schools that we absolutely depend on every day. If employees cannot access or secure stable housing, we will lose our workforce and put our economy in jeopardy.

It is incumbent on every citizen to make their voices heard in pursuit of the priorities that will address the future of housing in our region and preserve our quality of life. Join the working group from the Summit on Governmental Policy to continue the conversation of the role of our local elected officials to address the crisis.

Gail Schwartz is the President of Habitat for Humanity of the Roaring Fork Valley. As a former Colorado State Senator, business owner and community planner, she has a unique understanding of the affordable housing crisis on the Western Slope and in the greater Roaring Fork Valley and is committed to being part of the solution.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.