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Housing squeeze highlights limited Mid-Valley affordable housing options

Elise Thatcher

The rental housing shortage in the mid Roaring Fork Valley is ratcheting up. As Aspen Public Radio has reported, rapidly increasing prices and restrictions are having a significant impact on residents. In our second story in our series, Aspen Public Radio’s Elise Thatcher takes a look at the subsidized housing options in the Mid-Valley.

  Brenda Hough is tucked inside Starbucks on a rainy morning in Rifle. She lives here with her boyfriend and is a home health and hospice nurse. Most days Hough drives up and down the Roaring Fork Valley for work.


“So I am a case manager, so I see patients in their homes,” says Hough. “I’ve got very wealthy patients and very poor patients. So I’ve had them living in mansions, right to living under the bridge.” Her boyfriend is an electrician and works in Aspen— so they’d both prefer to live in the Roaring Fork Valley. Their first choice was Carbondale, but now they think they’re more likely to afford Glenwood Springs, if they move.


“Honestly Carbondale truly is out of [our] range,” sighs Hough. “Unless you really are able to get on something fast and move on it, but it’s just so few and far between.” The couple are like other residents who are either being priced out of the Mid-Valley or don’t make the cut with increasingly choosy landlords.


Government subsidized housing has long been an option for residents in the Upper Valley, where property values skyrocketed decades ago. Pitkin County and Aspen have partnered to create one of the biggest affordable housing programs in the state. Someone interested in renting or buying through the program can start by calling one central phone number to get the details.


But for residents in Basalt down through Glenwood Springs, the options are confusing. Say Hough and her boyfriend wanted to rent in the affordable housing inventory. Here’s what they’re looking for. “We want a little space,” muses Hough. “You know, a decent sized house-- a garage, big yard, nothing super spectacular.”


But they don’t want a townhouse. Both have kids who visit, so they need more than two bedrooms. That automatically rules out the vast majority of rental affordable housing options from Basalt to Glenwood. Most units are smaller.  Hough and her boyfriend could go through what’s called a voucher program.


“So they go out, and find a community they wish to live [in],” explains Katherine Gazunis. “And a landlord  who is willing to work with us.” Gazunis is Executive Director of the Garfield County Housing Authority. “We pay the landlord,” she continues, “the difference between what the tenant can afford, and the fair rent that [they charge].”


Right now more than 400 people are receiving that assistance, to the tune of more than $3 million last year alone. But Hough and her boyfriend likely earn far more than the cutoff for qualifying for such assistance.


If they decided to compromise on the size of their home, and rent one of the existing affordable housing units, it would be tough to land a spot. There’s about 200 units, ranging from studios to several bedrooms, scattered from Basalt to Glenwood Springs, with few vacancies. Hough would have to call several different places to figure out if a spot opened up, because there’s no central office. Seniors have more options, with another approximately 200 units to apply for. But again, the vast majority are booked up. Aspen Skiing Company and the Aspen School District have affordable housing programs of their own, adding more Mid-Valley units to the mix.


“We have around 234 deed restricted homes in that Roaring Fork Valley area,” says Kristel Langford. She’s also with the Garfield County Housing Authority. “154 are Carbondale, Glenwood Springs has about 7 deed restricted homes, and Garfield County has about 43.” Langford helps people who want to buy these homes, created mainly by development requirements. Buying a place usually has income and job requirements. And judging from the interest she’s had, Langford believes there’s a demand for more.


She has three homes under contract that would have been close to what Rifle residents Brenda Hough and her boyfriend are looking for. The units have three bedrooms, a garage, and cost less than $300,000.


“In the Carbondale area we recently sold about 4 or 5 homes. Right now I have 2 available homes on our website,” says Langford. “We are expecting a couple more homes coming out in the future.”


Those two available, though, wouldn’t be a good fit for Hough. At two bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms, these are too small. Plus, with a more than $400,000 price tag, the units are beyond their budget.  


In the Upper Valley, Snowmass Village has a well established affordable housing program with hundreds of units for people who work in Pitkin County. In Aspen, Chris Everson is Project Manager for the City of Aspen’s part of the Aspen Pitkin County worker housing program, which is selling off the last new units at Burlingame Ranch. The one we’re standing in is under contract.


“These are affordable, for sale condominiums. We recently completed the construction of new 82 condominiums,” says Everson, glancing around a one bedroom condo, around seven hundred square feet big. “And we’re starting to look forward to what might be the City’s next affordable housing development.”


The extensive Aspen and Pitkin County program, which boasts under 3,000 units, is likely to continue growing. That’s because inventory is shrinking for a number of reasons. “There seems to be a consensus on the City Council, or least last we spoke in January, that rental housing is what’s needed most,” says Everson. “So that should be the focus of the upcoming public outreach.”


Aspen will hold events this summer to get feedback from locals, to find out what kind of development they’re comfortable with. That would apply to three town properties. The multi-million-dollar funding of that housing program is in stark contrast to the collection of separate affordable housing options in the Mid-Valley and Glenwood Springs. And it’s not clear whether local governments have the appetite for expanding the latter.


Editor’s note: Our series continues next week. We’ll find out whether developers are proposing new projects, and if there is support is for more building in the Mid-Valley.   

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