Rachel Richards has a cup of coffee getting cold on her counter, next to an uneaten egg sandwich, which eventually gets consumed in between energetic policy discussion and rushing out the door. Her house is brightly lit by bay windows that take up one wall by an overstuffed, inviting couch.
The rest of the apartment — a two-bedroom affordable housing unit at Hunter Creek — is tucked away behind a noren tapestry, which ties together the japanese decor throughout.
Richards’ mother told her she’d be mayor one day — a role she served in from 1999 to 2001, and then was elected to Aspen City Council in 2003. Term limited this year as a Pitkin County commissioner, she carried out a successful campaign for city council this spring and on June 10 was sworn in to begin another four years of government service. She jokes she’ll retire from elected office once everything has been fixed.
“Everything is first,” she responded, when asked if she’s ranked her priorities while in office. Though, she knows one of the biggest decisions the council will make will be complete within the next few months, as they hire a new city manager for Aspen.
“If anything, everything flows from getting the right manager, and then getting them adapted and broken in and integrated into the system,” Richards said.
But, just as in her campaign, she stresses affordable housing as a top-of-the-list issue.
“Housing production is an obvious big issue but that goes so wide, there are so many things underneath there,” Richards said.
She refers to the Aspen bus system, before there was the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. She said the county and the city were able to strengthen public transportation funding by repealing and replacing a city tax with a county tax, and she suggests a similar method may be a way to generate funds for housing.
“Maybe the city’s .45 sales tax for housing and daycare could be a repeal and replace, bump it to .60 and have some more money for actual childcare facility construction and have the county have a (funding) source,” she said.
She pointed out that the Aspen Airport Business Center doesn’t contribute sales tax to housing and isn’t part of the real estate transfer tax program that the city uses for housing funds. Yet the many new housing developments are slated for the unincorporated community just outside of Aspen.
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“It would take time, a lot of time, to work through these issues,” Richards said.
Richards will serve as the alternate member on the newly formed governing body for the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority. While the previous city council had no members that lived in the APCHA program, Richards knows the ramifications of policy changes first hand.
One of the first issues the board will tackle is a proposal to reduce the size requirements of affordable housing units. She looks around her apartment, pointing out that a queen size bed takes up nearly all the space within the bedroom.
“I don’t want to build housing that people can’t wait to move out of,” she said. “We don’t want to build a permanent transient community.”
She knows that transportation issues are important to Aspen and its workforce and points out that a strategy for getting people into Aspen has been up for debate during her entire 25 years of public service.
“The frustration of people coming to work here is real,” she said.
But the issue is cyclical, she said — the problem subsides enough in the off-seasons that the issue gets put on the back burner.
“Right now everybody is [focused on] quarterly profits ‘what’s gonna happen in the next three months,’ but communities don’t evolve in three months, they take time to mature,” Ricahrds said.
She said her intention on council is to keep her eye on the big picture.
“For me it’s always the long-term look, where are we going to be in 20 years?” she said. “You have to be looking much further ahead on all this stuff.”
The council is scheduled to have a group retreat the first week of July. While she said she doesn’t anticipate troubles working together as a team, the retreat is a time to lay out protocols and expectations for their group efforts.
“How do you get to where you are working in a cohesive manner even when you disagree, and how well do you disagree?” she said.
She said she is already in talks with city staff about protecting the area’s public lands, as the Trump administration reduces protections for wilderness areas nationwide. She wants to increase childcare options and intends to take a close look at the city budget when those talks begin in the fall.
As far as her own budget, Richards is still looking for a part-time job that can supplement her city council salary, while working around her city council schedule. She put an ad in the paper earlier this spring, seeking work as a part-time assistant for a business or a family. Because of the council meeting schedule she is never available Monday or Tuesday nights, and the APCHA board will be meeting Wednesday evenings. After the council work session Tuesday she drove to Breckenridge to attend a Colorado Municipal League meeting, but left that conference early to be back in Aspen for today’s full-day meeting of the Elected Officials Transportation Committee. She has started renting out her second bedroom to a local, for some supplemental income.
She has made her cellphone number public for citizens to contact her, and said she is easy to find, and open to all ideas. She said she won’t necessarily be distracted by the squeakiest wheel though.
“You like to listen to everyone and hear what they have to say and sometimes some good ideas come out of nowhere and sometimes they are ideas you’ve been thinking about and someone else has just expressed them better,” Richards said. “It’s more about evaluating the content then who said it or how often it’s said.”
In her nearly three decades of listening to public comment, she knows she can count on Aspenites to differ in their opinions. But her hope is to push policy through community consensus.
“Over time we are going to have to, as a community reconcile our differences and make some decisions, maybe that will happen in my four years maybe it’ll take longer than that,” Richards said. “Communities grow up, just like we do.”
Editor’s note: This is part of our entrance interview series, featuring Aspen’s three new elected officials. A piece about the new Mayor Torre ran on Tuesday with an article about new Councilman Skippy Mesirow to follow. Find them at www.aspendailynews.com.