City Hall

The Aspen City Council discussed revising the land-use code in ways that will spark affordable housing development during a work session on Tuesday.

The Aspen City Council on Tuesday took a comprehensive look at ways city codes can increase and incentivise affordable housing efforts.

During a work session, Ben Anderson, principal planner with the city, and Phillip Supino, community development director, presented seven areas within the land-use code that regulate affordable housing. The conversation covered ways affordable housing mitigation is calculated as new developments occur, and ways developers can buy down existing infrastructure or buy into planned deed restricted projects.  

Council was asked to rank priorities as the city community development department works to hone the code to better meet goals of increasing affordable housing for Aspen’s workforce. As noted in a memo to council, much has changed since the postponement of this conversation in March.

“The world has fundamentally changed in the last three months and the short- and long-term impacts to Aspen’s development economy are yet to be understood. While it is clear that affordable housing is and will continue to be a community priority, understanding the downstream effects of any potential policy change is a process outcome that is important now more than ever,” the memo states.

While Anderson walked council step by step through the code’s stipulations around incentives, bonuses, credits, inclusionary zoning and impact fees, he stressed in his memo that all of the land-use code provisions intersect in creating Aspen’s affordable housing landscape. 

“It cannot be overstated how inter-related and varied are the number of [land-use code] sections which impact the affordable housing system,” the memo reads.

The freshest wound to Aspenites may be the waivers earned by Lift One Lodge and Gorsuch Haus, two hotels scheduled to be built at the foot of Aspen Mountain. Both are considered small lodges, and thus, through the land-use code, did not have to mitigate for affordable housing at the same rate as other hotels or commercial development.

On Tuesday, council lamented the code language that allowed the controversial developments to waive that mitigation.

“Many years back, we had incentives to try to reduce the size of lodge units to try to incentivize affordable lodging options. We want affordable places for people to stay when they come to visit,” Councilmember Ann Mullins said.

But Mullins said the housing mitigations reductions may have gone too far. She also pointed out that smaller units typically come with larger shared spaces and gathering areas in a hotel — a trend that may change due to the spread of the novel coronavirus and future precautions within the travel industry. 

Councilmember Rachel Richards pointed out that though the city gave incentives for smaller rooms in the program, with the hope that the price point on those rooms would also be lower, there was no way of ensuring that that was indeed the outcome. 

Additionally, the program was created in reaction to the trend of Aspen’s small lodges slowly being torn down or used for private housing. But she said it is possible that the short-term rental market through online platforms such as Airbnb and VRBO have replaced that lost inventory.

Mayor Torre also agreed that the small lodge exemptions to workforce housing mitigation are currently too generous.

“The pendulum probably has swung too far the other way,” he said.

The council identified other quicker fixes, such as some zoning overlays that would allow for more dense affordable housing, or codes surrounding a lot subdivision.

Other tactics to create affordable housing will be longer projects. This spring, the city received an analysis of its fee-in-lieu program. The rate in which a developer can throw money into a pot instead of creating new workforce housing was more favorable than building affordable housing on site or elsewhere in town, or than buying into a affordable housing credits program, by purchasing mitigation equivalents from another developer investing in affordable housing construction.  

To get those numbers balanced out, the city will need further consultation, as well as more public outreach.

The city also will examine the different requirements for commercial development and residential development. Whereas new commercial development must in some way account for housing 60% of the new jobs the building will be creating, residential scrape and replacement or addition do not have the same requirements.

But, Torre said that with the emerging rent-by-owner economy, many residences in Aspen are, in fact, businesses. 

Councilmember Ward Hauenstein said a new, larger home being used as a vacation rental requires staff, in a way that a resident-occupied home with a new addition would not. He asked that as the city considers upping the workforce housing mitigation on residential development, they take into account how the home will be used.

“I’m looking for equity where someone is not penalized if somebody is going to be living in it. If someone is going to be using it as a spec home development, then they should be paying full workforce housing mitigation for it.”

The community development team will summarize council feedback and create a priority list of land-use code revisions based on Tuesday’s discussion. It will be back in front of council for approval in an upcoming work session. 

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.