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Regional housing forum looks at data behind local housing crisis, discusses solutions

The city of Aspen glows at the base of Aspen Mountain, as seen from the top of the Little Nell ski run on January 9, 2022. Officials often view the resort town as the epicenter of the valley-wide housing crisis.
Kaya Williams
Aspen Public Radio
The city of Aspen glows at the base of Aspen Mountain, as seen from the top of the Little Nell ski run on January 9, 2022. Officials often view the resort town as the epicenter of the valley-wide housing crisis.

The West Mountain Regional Housing Coalition hosted a forum at the Arts Campus at Willits, or TACAW, last week. Officials intended for the forum to be a “point-in-time” look at housing in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys, as well as an overview of some of the programs the coalition has created to address the housing crisis.

WMRHC was formed as a nonprofit in 2022, and its members include all of the municipalities in the Roaring Fork Valley (Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs), along with Pitkin and Eagle counties. The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and Colorado Mountain College are also members. Attendees at the Jan. 18 forum included elected officials and employees from all of these groups.

Presenters emphasized that based on home prices and the area’s income, nearly no one who works in Roaring Fork Valley businesses can afford to buy a home on the free-market without assistance.

It also put some figures on the unaffordability of housing in the valley. A survey of valley residents done by Capelli Consulting, the results of which were presented during the forum, showed that 23% of people in free-market housing spent between 36-45% of their monthly income on housing, categorizing them as “housing cost burdened.” An additional 20% spend more than 45% of their income, which would make them “severely housing cost burdened.”

Ashley Perl is Pitkin County’s resilience manager, and represents the county in the coalition.

She spoke about some of the WMRHC’s initiatives, all of which are development-neutral, meaning the coalition is not in the market of building new housing, but is focusing on creating housing solutions.

One of its programs is a buydown program: the coalition pays 30% of a free-market home’s purchase price, in exchange for a deed restriction. It’s a tool to preserve affordable housing in the long-term, by attaching resale restrictions to a property’s deed. That way the property will remain affordable for future buyers.

To qualify, buyers must work for an employer in Garfield, Eagle, or Pitkin counties. The residence must be the buyer’s primary home, and they can’t own another residential property. While the home is deed-restricted, it will appreciate 3% annually.

The home can cost up to $1.5 million in Pitkin County from Basalt to Aspen; it can cost up to $1.2 in Garfield County upvalley of and including Glenwood Springs; in the rest of Garfield County the cap is $800,000. Eagle County has its own buydown program that it’s working with WMRHC on, and has said its caps will be similar to the coalition’s.

“The number one priority of this coalition for this program is to increase the overall inventory of deed-restricted housing,” Perl said. “So even if our highest-income earner comes in and gets the first deed-restriction, that’s great, because that’s one more home that’s locked in, in perpetuity, as affordable.”

This has a positive effect on lower-income earners, Perl said, by taking the middle and high income workers out of the rental market and into home ownership. That would hopefully free up more rental units, creating choice for renters and driving rental prices down.

She said it’s great that businesses are building and buying housing for their employees, but it’s important to have attainable housing that is not tied to specific jobs.

“They can’t get a pet, they can’t upsize if they have a child, they can’t downsize if they need to, they can’t get a new job,” she said of people who live in housing owned by their employer. “And that’s not a resilient workforce. That’s a stuck workforce.”

Renting in the Roaring Fork Valley

A big portion of the day’s topics also focused on the Roaring Fork Valley’s rental market. A study done for WMRHC by Capelli Consulting shows that less than 2% of the Roaring Fork Valley’s rental units are vacant.

Mary Coddington with Capelli Consulting said the study found that over 50% of renters in the valley pay over $3000 a month in rent. That 2% number is concerning, because in a healthy rental market, the vacancy rate is 5-10%.

Coddington added that having more available units creates choice for renters, and the valley is seeing the impacts of the lack of choice.

“From the long commutes,” she said, referencing a survey question that said 1 in 3 renters have to commute more than 20 miles to their job… “potentially paying more than you can afford in your rent, living in substandard conditions because you can’t afford to go anywhere else, or (being able to) complain to your landlord if there are issues in your rental unit, or finally, moving out of the Roaring Fork Valley.”

WMRHC has a pilot program going in Eagle County to provide renters with first and last month’s rent, and a security deposit in the form of a grant or loan. It’s hoping to expand that to the rest of the three-county area in the next year.

In our region, that cost can quickly add up to around $10,000 — an amount many families don’t have on hand when they’re trying to get into new housing quickly.

Coddington is also concerned about the data showing that Hispanic and Latine residents are underrepresented in deed-restricted housing. Responses to Capelli’s survey show that 40% of Latine Roaring Fork valley residents live in free-market housing, while making up roughly 20% of the population.

Coddington said it would be a worthwhile investment to target the Hispanic and Latine population in the valley with Spanish-language marketing and information about deed-restricted housing.

You can watch the forum in its entirety online.

Caroline Llanes is a general assignment reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering everything from local governments to public lands. Her work has been featured on NPR. Previously, she was an associate producer for WBUR’s Morning Edition in Boston.