Part 7: Taxes, incentives help Aspen tackle problem

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— Su Simmons' lawn bursts with color. It is lined with sunflowers, hollyhocks and lupines. On her front porch is a basket of flower petals and her white Jack Russell Terrier, Dixie.

Simmons says her one-bedroom home near Aspen's Snyder Park is a little piece of heaven. Elected officials and government workers would agree. Simmons' and the 14 other homes in the neighborhood comprise one of the most successful projects in Aspen's long affordable housing history.

Simmons, a 26-year Aspen resident who was diagnosed with Scleroderma Systemic Sclerosis seven years ago, sees her house as a life extender.

If not for the project, "I probably wouldn't still be here," she said.

Before moving into the Snyder development three years ago, Simmons owned an affordable housing unit in Centennial apartments on the east side of Aspen. As her disease worsened and she was confined to a wheelchair, friends carried her up and down the stairs every time she left the building.

When the city of Aspen proposed the Snyder development, Simmons went before the City Council and requested a disabled unit. Simmons was convincing she got a unit with an elevator.

"I didn't want a place where people had to carry me. And this place came through, " Simmons said.

In Aspen's real estate market, where the smallest condos sell for more than $300,000 and the median price of a home is more than $1 million, the Snyder development gives Simmons a chance to plant flowerbeds, have her art studio in the basement and, above all, own her home.

"I would not have been able to stay here if we didn't have employee housing," Simmons said. "I moved here to live in Aspen. I never wanted to move downvalley."

Tremendous need

With more than 1,000 homeowner units and another 1,000 rental units, Aspen has one of the most extensive affordable housing programs among North American ski resorts. The community has had a housing program since the mid-1980s and has collected taxes to fund it since 1989. The program is overseen by the Aspen and Pitkin County Housing Authority.

Funded through a real estate transfer tax and sales tax, the housing authority provides everything from one-bedroom and studio rental units to four-bedroom single-family homes to own.

Officials are quick to point out the program is so large because Aspen's affordable housing problem is so massive. And even with such a program in place, Aspen is just about the most expensive place to live in the country.

In the 2000 Census, Pitkin County had the nation's second-largest gap between salaries and cost of housing. The median value of a home in Pitkin County is $750,000, and the average salary is $37,284.

Without the affordable housing programs, Aspen would not be a community, just a collection of wealthy second-home owners, said Cindy Christensen, operating manager for the housing authority.

"In some areas, people only live in a home for a month or two," Christensen said. "We would have a little ghost town. By having more affordable housing in the neighborhood, it is a more vital community."

Former city councilman and 30-year Aspen resident Frank Peters said affordable housing has kept workers in the ski resort. "So many things have changed Aspen," he said. "I do know that some great families put down roots, get jobs and have kids because of affordable housing. And I like them."

Christensen said people from all over the country and even Canada have inquired about Aspen's housing programs.

"I think most of our projects are well done and successful," she said.

Competition for the program can be fierce. For the eight one-bedroom homes in the Snyder development, there were more than 600 applicants.

"Everybody I knew applied," Simmons said. "Everybody wanted to get in it."

On average, Christensen said about 100 names are entered for every unit up for sale and 50 names for each rental unit. The authority predicts prospective tenants can wait two to four years before their names are drawn to rent an affordable housing unit.

The housing authority gives priority based on how long applicants have worked in Pitkin County. The first and primary lottery for owning a home is held for those who have worked in Pitkin County for more than four years, and the longer applicants have worked there, the more chances they get.

Working the system

Before owning a one-bedroom apartment on Main Street, Julie Burns climbed the housing ladder. During her first winter in Aspen, she paid $400 a month just to share half a bed. One summer she lived in a tepee outside of town.

A six-year Aspen resident, Burns had entered the affordable housing lottery 10 times before hitting the jackpot the chance to own a single-bedroom apartment on Seventh and Main streets.

She admits the 550-square-foot unit is a bit small for her and her fiance, but she loves the short walk to work, the energy-efficient solar panels and the sense of community that comes with having a courtyard of staircases and balconies reminiscent of a turn-of-the-century Brooklyn neighborhood.

"Having a home makes all the difference," said Burns, who is getting married in September. "It's a sense of security. You don't feel like you are throwing your money away every month."

For the 28-year-old Burns, Aspen is a revolving door of friends coming and going. She said most of her friends could not live in Aspen unless it was through employee housing and has seen her friends migrate down the valley to Basalt and Carbondale, small communities that are developing their own affordable housing problems because of the pressures from Aspen.

But for those that do put in the time, Burns said, they learn how to make it work. Like her, they go from scraping by the first winter to gradually establishing a life in Aspen.

"Most people learn to work the system," she said. "If you pay your dues, you find a place to live."

City Councilman Tim Semrau said the council would like to see more than half of Aspen's work force in affordable housing.

"In our goal we want to get 55 percent," Semrau said. "We feel that is anchoring the community with real citizens. If we stay at 55 percent, we will sustain the community no matter what happens."

Subsidies and incentives

Aspen's housing authority uses a three-pronged approach to attack the area's housing problem:

n Subsidizing the construction of housing projects.

n Providing incentives for developers to build affordable housing.

n And creating zoning regulations to include affordable housing.

Funding comes from the Real Estate Transfer Tax, a 1 percent tax on all real estate sales in Aspen. The tax raises about $1 million per year. In 2001, voters approved the tax for another 20 years.

Of the 1.7 percent sales tax the city collects, 0.45 percent of the tax goes toward child care and affordable housing. Part of the money raised is used for the operating costs of the housing authority and the rest goes toward funding projects.

Over the years, the authority has built projects as diverse as the blue-roofed condo-style Centennial apartments, the cottage-like Snyder housing and the clapboard-sided Seventh and Main apartments downtown.

Christensen said everyone from housekeepers to doctors are unable to break into Aspen's million-dollar housing market, so the authority has a wide range of housing, including units as high as $600,000.

The city and county also offer incentives for developers to build affordable housing. For example, developers are allowed a higher density if 70 percent of the houses fall into the affordable category.

Offering a higher density allows builders to build affordable housing and still make a reasonable profit. Semrau, who built 95 deed-restricted bedroom units in the private sector before joining the council, said such incentives are critical to get developers involved.

"Make it pay," he said. "It is the best thing for the government to do."

Aspen requires developers to include affordable housing on the site or off the site of their proposed developments. If developers choose not to build, they must pay a fee or donate land to the city for affordable housing.

Adam and Piper Rothberg have found their way into a development on Lacet Court where 14 affordable housing units have been built and six free-market homes sit behind them. Following the 70/30 formula, the developers were able to build six multimillion-dollar homes, which generated enough money for the developer to subsidize 14 townhomes.

The townhomes qualify as residential-occupied units, meaning they must be listed through Aspen's housing authority, can only appreciate a certain amount per year and homeowners must work in Pitkin County. The townhomes house people in all five of Aspen's income categories for affordable housing. The lowest income category is $42,500 for a family of four and the highest is $132,000 for a family of four.

On the day the original owners moved into the unit on Lacet Court, the Rothbergs asked if they could buy it when the owners moved out. Two years later, the Rothbergs moved in and have lived there for three years.

"We were really lucky. We knew the guy who owned this before we owned this," Adam Rothberg said. "There is opportunity if you are well organized."

Because the Rothbergs fit into one of the higher-income categories, their three-bedroom townhome cost twice as much as some of their neighbors in lower categories. But Rothberg gets greater appreciation on his home.

When the Rothbergs sell the house, Adam Rothberg said interest should be high for a townhome expected to cost around $450,000.

Year-round residents of Aspen say it is the community's support that has allowed the city to build so many affordable housing units. Piper Rothberg said it is common to see affordable housing petitioners at the local grocery stores, and Simmons said most officials get elected on affordable housing campaigns.

"That is how you get the local voters," Simmons said.

Learning from Aspen

Residents fortunate enough to get a crack at affordable housing programs give glowing reviews of them. But as a councilman who remembers the political battles, Peters knows it is not all sunshine and roses.

For communities like Aspen and Steamboat Springs, who value affordable housing but treasure open space more, Peters said it takes two weapons: time and money.

"You are not going to solve affordable housing today," he said. "You have to have infrastructure, money and the consent to make something look like what we want it to look like. Housing has to be debated, studied. It is the only way to get anything done."

After hearing about the housing programs in places such as Aspen, Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said finding funding is fundamental to solving affordable housing here.

"What they told us, in order to have affordable housing, you have to have a tax," Stahoviak said. "Somebody is going to have to subsidize it. We heard that loud and clear. How that happens is a whole different story."

Stahoviak said municipalities could no longer initiate a real estate transfer tax like the one in Aspen. But another viable option is forming a housing authority that could ask for a mill levy and impose an impact fee. That was a recommendation made by Steamboat's Two Plus Housing Committee, which was formed in the aftermath of the 2000 defeat of an excise tax on new city development. It was among the six recommendations the group of 17 community members made early this year.

After discussing the issue for several months, city and county officials decided not to pursue a local housing authority this year after a community survey indicated residents weren't willing to pay more in taxes to support affordable housing.

But Barb Hughes of the Colorado Rural Development Housing Corp. said funding does not always have to come from the local governments.

"Most of the funding for what we are building in the mountain communities does not use one funding source," Hughes said. "You have to look for funding in a multitude of places for projects to be feasible."

Hughes said it takes federal and state money in the public sector and help from nonprofits and those in the private sector.

In Aspen, Christensen said the housing authority works with small businesses, which desperately need affordable housing for their employees. Because larger employers such as hospitals and schools have the funds to go out and build their own housing, Christensen said her office works at forming partnerships with smaller businesses.

Christensen said lending institutions are another key factor in outside help. Local banks that work with the housing authority are eager to finance affordable housing mortgages. Christensen said the authority backs the loans, reducing the risk to the banks.

"Local lenders understand the program and support it," Christensen said. "They get people loans and if they ever go into foreclosure, they know how many people are waiting to get into the house. Local lenders don't see it as a risk. They just bend over backwards for us."

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