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Aspen researcher discusses short-term rental regulations and supergentrification

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Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Public Radio
A view of Aspen from Aspen Mountain.

The City of Aspen and Pitkin County are in the process of regulating certain vacation rentals, which are contributing to the area’s skyrocketing cost of living.

The debate goes deep, touching on issues as abstract — and profound — as how to define “the American Dream.”

At a recent meeting on proposed regulations for short-term rentals, Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury responded to concerned second-home owners who spoke out against proposed regulations that would bar everyone except primary county residents from renting out units on the short-term market.

“The American Dream is primary home ownership — not secondary home ownership,” she said.

Jenny Stuber is an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Florida. Her book “Aspen and the American Dream” (2021) explores Aspen’s economy and political structure.

Although Stuber teaches in Florida, she isn’t exactly a parachute academic when it comes to Aspen.

“My interest in Aspen dates back 45 years now because my dad's been a resident of the valley for 45 years,” she said. “And his living in the valley and me going to Aspen — or the Roaring Fork Valley — every year for nearly 45 years of my life really piqued my interest in how social class works, especially how social class works in one of the most intriguing and unequal communities in the United States.”

We started our conversation by trying to pin down the elusive definition of “The American Dream.”

This segment transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Jenny Stuber: "I think the central interpretation of the phrasing and the framing of the American Dream is in fact, the idea of homeownership. And the idea that you've made it when you have your own little slice, and that slice can give you security and membership within a community. It's also a basis, of course for home equity, and we've seen over the last 30 years that more and more people are using their homes as piggy banks for other speculative investments. But I think if we ask a lot of Americans, ‘what is the American Dream?’ — homeownership is certainly a part of the American Dream, the opportunity to work one's way into the middle class or remain in the middle class as part of the American dream…"

A central question of Stuber’s book focuses on access to that dream: She asks, “How is it possible for a town to exist where the median household income is about 73,000 dollars, but the median home price is 4 million?”

Put simply: the answer is complicated. But political power plays a role.

Dominic Anthony Walsh: “One of the things that you write about is that, politically, the power doesn't necessarily lie with the wealthiest of the wealthy because they might not always vote, they might not be registered to vote in the area… who really has the political power in Aspen?”

Stuber: “Aspen reflects what a political scientist named Clarence Stone described as ‘regime politics.’ Clarence Stone worked in Atlanta, and he found in Atlanta that Black Atlantans control the political sphere, but white Atlantans control the economic sphere. And I sort of appropriated and applied that idea to Aspen, where I noticed that there is the simple fact that the political organization – the political institutionalization within the community – is largely influenced by people who live and work in the community every day. So, you have a base of people living and working in the community every day, the times in which voting takes place within elections happens often at a time that is not the high season… I would also say that we have a simple law here in the United States: You can only vote in one place at one time. And I've speculated and wondered that if you are an ultra-high-net worth individual who has a home on Red Mountain, you're more likely to want to have your voting address in Seattle or in Houston or in Chicago – where you work – and you may be more vested in influencing the relationships – economic and political relationships – there. So, because of these sort of – I won't call them idiosyncrasies, but these institutionalized realities of how voting works in the United States, there is an opportunity there for working locals to influence the political landscape of Aspen in ways that they're not fully able to influence the economic landscape of Aspen.”

In her book, Stuber describes how Aspen’s economic and physical landscape has been transformed by “supergentrification.”

Walsh: “I hadn’t heard that one before. I've heard of gentrification, not supergentrification. Could you kind of give an overview of what that looks like in Aspen?”

Stuber: "Supergentrification is a concept that we have to encounter and grapple with once we understand how financial markets really began transforming after the late 1980s, and that means that global financial markets and financial schemes have been substantially deregulated, which have allowed the growth of high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth individuals. So, this financial deregulation has simply produced more and more ultra wealthy, super rich people, and Aspen has become one of the maybe top five places within the United States where that money lands itself…"

Supergentrification, Stuber says, looks like gentrification on top of gentrification: when a super high end luxury store replaces a high end store that replaced a mom and pop shop.

Stuber: “And that's what I see in Aspen is just a transformation of both the residential landscape and the consumer landscape – transformations such that even people who could reasonably call themselves upper middle class would find a hard time living and consuming in the community.”

“Aspen and the American Dream” was published in March of last year. It describes what Stuber calls “the pendulum swing” between development and restrictions on development – a push and pull that goes back decades and is influenced by a number of factors, including global economic trends.

The most recent swing of the pendulum documented by the book: A 2016 action by city council to put a moratorium on certain development while council changed the city’s land use code. The move came in response to an increase in development of multi million dollar penthouses, typically used only occasionally by their wealthy owners.

Stuber: “What (city council members) were responding to was the sense that Aspen just doesn't feel like it used to. It doesn't feel like a place where locals have a legitimate place in town. It's starting to feel like a place where residential ownership – especially in the downtown core – was being taken up by ultra-high-net-worth individuals who occupied their residences for a tiny, tiny portion of the year. But even if they occupied their residences during a tiny portion of the year, they socially, economically and culturally influenced the community in outsized ways in relation to their actual physical presence in the community… And so the powers that be in Aspen really said that this has to stop, we have to find a place where our streets are lively, and where our locals have a legitimate sense and a legitimate opportunity to start businesses, or to get their watch fixed, or to get their hair cut, and so that things needed to change in terms of the land use code.”

About half a year after the book was published, there was another meeting about another moratorium at Aspen City Council. In December, Council voted to implement a moratorium on new short-term rental permits and most residential development.

Stuber: “Man, Aspen loves a moratorium… and what I mean by that is that they do not hesitate — and the success is a different question, the results is a different question — but the powers that be in Aspen – city council and residents – do not hesitate to say, ‘Things are not going in the direction that we want.’ And so what we saw over the last two months is that there's going to be a moratorium on (new short term rental permits), but also that there's going to be a moratorium on residential building – period. Periodically in Aspen, you see these very clear fissures emerging between those who will advocate for property rights… And Aspen is very keen to say – and when I say Aspen in this case, I mean City Council – is keen to (emphasize) the public interest because they use the word ‘emergency ordinance,’ they often call an ‘emergency ordinance,’ which you can only call in the interest of public health. But then they do so and make the claim that the public health and the public interest can at times fundamentally be at odds with people's property rights."

Those interests will soon clash in court, with city council facing a lawsuit over the moratorium, on top of a petition drive for a referendum on the matter.


Dominic joined the Edlis Neeson arts and culture desk at Aspen Public Radio in Jan. 2022.