Pitkin County has $10 million in the bank for spending on affordable housing needs, and the county commissioners are eager to start investing the cash.
The “dedicated housing fund” is set aside for buying or building workforce housing for locals and county employees. The county has $5.8 million from its housing impact fees and $4.3 million in mitigation from developers’ payments in lieu of building actual units.
While amassing the fund in recent years, the county has not invested in new housing. The commissioners agreed Wednesday, in a daylong meeting on housing policy, that it’s time to start spending it.
“The money buried in the backyard is not doing us any good,” said Commissioner Rob Ittner, calling for the government to “get aggressive” on creating more affordable housing for the lower-income local workforce.
The commissioners also held a closed-door meeting Tuesday to discuss possible properties to acquire.
During their public discussion, the commissioners agreed to focus on buying upvalley land between Aspen and Basalt, though their general policy would allow them to develop housing within the county’s urban growth boundaries as far as Carbondale.
Commissioner Jack Hatfield specified his interest in buying land adjacent to the county’s Main Street office building, and the commissioners agreed to focus on partnering with the city of Aspen, town of Basalt and the Aspen School District to build projects together.
“Let’s get networking,” Hatfield said.
Some have seen the bursting of the local real estate bubble as an opportunity for the county to acquire potential housing property at cut rates. Home prices in Snowmass Village have dropped 41 percent in the last year, according to county data, while homes in Basalt dropped 36 percent. But the commissioners were wary of getting wrapped up in shopping for the best deals in the upper valley.
“I would be less concerned about price,” said Commissioner Michael Owsley. He said the county should begin spending a certain amount of the housing fund — perhaps $1.5 million, he suggested — on an annual basis, regardless of market factors.
“If you are always looking for the bottom of the market, it’s going to be elusive and you’ll end up never buying anything,” he said.
The commissioners largely disapproved of using the funds to buy homes or condominiums off the free market and then convert them to deed-restricted housing. Such purchases, they agreed, tend to put an undue strain on buyers by subjecting them to homeowner’s fees and assessments associated with free market developments.
The commissioners agreed that the ideal investment would be to buy land and then build new housing on it, modeled after the county’s 13-unit Stillwater project east of Aspen.
Partnering with private developers is also not an ideal strategy, they concurred, because the county would give up control of a project and possibly run into conflicts of interest with the builders. Such a strategy has been used in the past, however, for housing projects like Pitkin Iron and the city’s Marolt Ranch.
Commission chair Rachel Richards added that the board will need to invest time, along with money, if it wants to get affordable housing development and investment done right.
“This is not something we can defer to our staff on,” she said.
The county had previously targeted devoting half of its housing fund to creating units for county employees and half for the general workforce. That policy, however, is not binding.
County Manager Jon Peacock described Wednesday’s meeting as the opening of an initiative to form a five-year plan for the county’s housing fund.
Much of the session focused on the increasingly complex face of local housing demand, in light of both the recession and the aging population of the Aspen area.
The number of jobs in the county has decreased by more than 1,700 since 2007, according to county demographic data. The jobs that have remained pay less than they previously did, by an average of $3,000 annually. Meanwhile, the construction industry that fueled the local economy for the better part of the last decade has sputtered, with more than 400 full-time construction jobs lost in the last three years.
Yet county population has continued to grow over the same period by about 1,000 people, according to state demographer statistics cited at Wednesday’s meeting.
The county also will have to refine parts of its housing policy in coming years, the commissioners agreed, as baby boomer locals reach retirement age, leaving the workforce but staying in local affordable housing units.
Estimates presented Wednesday showed that there were 206 retirees in local affordable housing units in 2008. That number is expected to grow to 625 by 2017 and then to 1,142 by 2032.