Aspen Public Radio, by organizing the first two public-forum discussions about affordable housing earlier this year, has done an admirable job initiating a community/valley wide discourse about the challenges of creating locals’ dwellings. Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Co. and Basalt Town Council member, recently wrote a provocative piece for Outside magazine that has furthered this spirited dialogue. The essence of his column is that resort towns in the West, and truly towns and cities everywhere, “have to embrace higher affordable housing density levels within their municipal limits by going up and not out.” He warns that these resort towns must change and evolve, or he fears they might just wither away. I doubt they will disappear, but they could become unrecognizable if we are not careful. His treatise is not intended to be the final word, but it is certainly stirring the pot.

Aspen, luckily, was one of the first resort towns in the 1970s to establish a “workers’ housing” program, which was a controversial proposal at that time. Then the 1 percent real estate transfer tax, passed in 1990, established a permanent funding source to produce what is now called affordable housing. Almost 3,000 units of affordable housing, a mix of sales and rentals, have been built by both the private and public sectors. 

Our local progressive governments in Aspen early on instituted a philosophy of having developers “pay as much as possible their own way.” As a result, the SkiCo, especially, and the private sector, generally, in the city’s development process, have contributed significantly to the production of affordable housing up and down the valley. It is important now for the two governmental members of the Aspen/ Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) to determine if this entity is the best organizational tool to successfully continue producing affordable housing for the upper valley. Snowmass has also produced a significant inventory of workers’ housing just to the west of the base of the ski area and also near the Rodeo grounds.  

Because of the efforts to date, close to 40 percent of our workers still live in the greater Aspen/Snowmass area. In many resort towns, more than 80 percent of the workers still commute. We have to be very careful, when adding to our affordable housing inventory, to compromise as little as possible the very features that are so unique to our resort towns, and which are the reasons people come to visit and stay.  However, what would our resort towns be without such a motivated, positive, bright and reliable work force? 

The ADU (accessory dwelling unit) program from the late ‘80s was ambitious and laudable, but only 25 percent of the 200 or so ADU units built have ever housed a worker. We were probably too naïve to have believed owners would voluntarily use the ADUs as intended. We felt it was fair not to have “big brother and sister” peering over the shoulder of these ADU owners. In retrospect we needed more of a stick to balance with the carrot. Perhaps, as Auden has suggested, this mechanism, the ADU, could be offered again as a choice with enforceable penalties, if they are not rented to full time to local workers.

Can we accommodate anyone who wants to live in the greater Aspen/Snowmass area? Our carrying capacity is finite. I agree, as Auden argues in the Outside article, that we must not exceed our carrying capacity. Our town has barely 7,000 permanent residents, and the county has approximately 15,000 full time residents. Approximately 85 percent of the county is public land. A certain percentage of the remaining private land is either too steep or in the flood plains and not buildable. This coupled with our innovative growth management plan places a premium on every square foot of developable land.  

We face the challenges and unintended consequences of every successful resort town: traffic jams in the morning and evening, high prices for free-market real estate, pressure on our sense of community, the challenges of integrating the Latino community into our daily life, too many visitors crowding our trails, climate change and not enough affordable housing. None of these issues can be ignored. It can be challenging to live here, but the rewards of living here are still manifest.

The Burlingame affordable housing community, just beyond the Maroon Creek Club, is again an example of worker housing next door and good neighbors to a private golf, tennis and residential club. The Burlingame project is effectively tucked in behind Deer Hill and out of sight. Where else could so many and such a variety of units have been built with more to come? Though not without its challenges, this project has served well so many locals and kept them close to their work. It’s a living example of a large, smart, close-in affordable project. There are other important unimproved sites within Aspen that would be conducive to building affordable housing. It might even be possible for several non-profits to join forces and work in harmony with the city to produce multi-organizational locals’ housing.

Let’s continue making affordable housing, but not at the expense of open space and never at the cost of overly compromising our town’s soft and hardware. Is it possible to protect the environment, keep our town’s vital assets in good condition, maintain our community character and still produce affordable housing to meet the demand? We shall see, and it is all about balance. As the Aspen Public Radio series and Auden have advised, the answers lie in a continued dialogue.


Bill Stirling served as Aspen mayor from 1983-1991 and has worked in local real estate for over 40 years.