Nearly 3,000 employee-housing units later, the program has proved as integral as snow and mountains to making Aspen the place it is today.

This story was produced in partnership between Aspen Sojourner and Aspen Journalism. Aspen Journalism is an independent nonprofit news organization. For an expanded version of this story, visit aspenjournalism.org. 

It was Labor Day weekend of 1978, the end of Aspen’s summer tourist season. Smoke from dozens of barbecues curled toward an impossibly blue sky, and a calm in the air offered the first hint of the long, quiet off-season that would last until Thanksgiving. Midland Park Place, in Aspen’s East End, however, was abuzz with activity. While on other streets locals grilled burgers and guzzled beers, here they were moving furniture, unpacking boxes, smiling at children as they squealed about their new rooms, and greeting recent acquaintances and old friends as next-door neighbors for the first time. 

Thirty-seven individuals and families were moving into the brand-new Midland Park Place Condominiums, Pitkin County’s inaugural government-built employee-housing project. Surrounding a cul-de-sac at the base of Smuggler Mountain, the eight low-profile units fit neatly into their peaceful residential neighborhood with stunning views of Aspen Mountain.

One of the new residents was Jim Hancock, a twentysomething ski instructor and co-owner of a rafting company. Some weeks earlier, a friend of Hancock’s had seen a newspaper ad announcing a new housing development whose units would be sold to local workers. Hancock was skeptical—“I never thought I’d be able to afford a place to live in Aspen,” he says—but he and his friend investigated and found that they could split the cost of a $60,000 two-bedroom condo. The selection process would be a lottery among all qualified applicants. Hancock and his buddy threw their names in the hat—and they won.

“It worked out great for me. Probably, more than anything, it solidified that I would stay here,” says Hancock, who lived at Midland Park for seventeen years before moving on with his growing family to bigger units in the employee-housing system. “I didn’t want to commute. I was always involved in the ski world, and [in-town housing] enabled me to do that. But, mainly, having a place gave me a much more secure feeling of being here.” 

0514 build let live family qcaamo

Image: Karl Wolfgang

By the mid-1970s, Pitkin County was riding the tail end of an unprecedented period of growth. The county’s population had leapt from 2,300 residents in 1960 to 6,000 in 1970, a 160 percent increase, and would taper off only after it reached 8,700 residents in 1975. (The county’s population is about 17,200 today.) Skiing, as a sport, had taken off; as an industry, it brought to Aspen a wave of development more targeted to wealthy tourists and second-home owners than to local ski bums, many of whom moved around seasonally as rents were raised for ski season and homes were remodeled, bought, and sold.

It was in this climate that Aspen’s housing program was born. Four years before Midland Park was completed, in October 1974, the Pitkin County commissioners had authorized a $25,000 budget to fund a housing authority. The idea of this new office (which was officially created by a separate vote in February 1975) was to study the housing needs of the community, to come up with a set of requirements and incentives to build affordable housing, and to apply for any pertinent state and federal housing program funds.

“It was pretty revolutionary,” says Bill Kane, who was the Aspen/Pitkin County planning director at the time and helped set up the housing authority. “We totally invented the concept of a dual market: a second, more affordable pool of housing that would be traded among local residents and that would be insulated from market forces.”

Today, as the average Aspen home price climbs north of $3.2 million, the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority oversees some 2,800 sales and rental units. There are studio apartments worth $40,000 and million-dollar single-family homes whose sole purchase requirement is that the owner be a year-round resident employed in Pitkin County—and every price in between. That housing stock serves employees whose household incomes range from $35,000 to $206,000 and whose net assets can range up to $900,000. It’s the main reason that nearly half of Pitkin County’s workforce lives here. There are lifelong ski bums living in employee housing; there are also rabbis, CPAs, and successful restaurateurs. The projects, scattered all over town, vary in scale from single affordable units that are required by the City of Aspen to be included in free-market developments to Burlingame Ranch, an affordable-housing village three miles from downtown Aspen that, once built out, could include more than 250 homes for local employees. 

0514 build let live couple e38pfu

Image: Karl Wolfgang

Despite that size and success—indeed, perhaps, in part, because of them—the housing program has its issues. Chief among them are concerns about aging complexes with inadequate capital reserves and a wave of baby boomer retirement that could take hundreds of units out of the potential pool for local workers. (Because who wouldn’t want to retire in Aspen?) Meanwhile, slow job growth, limited land availability, and competition with the downvalley free market are all factors in the debate about how much more affordable housing Aspen really needs, what kind is most appropriate, and where it should go.

Still, there’s no doubt that on the fortieth anniversary of its unassuming beginnings, the housing program has deeply affected many lives, shaping the Aspen community in the process. The impact on Aspen, according to Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority Director Tom McCabe, can be measured “in a thousand different ways,” from a school system chock full of local children to an all-volunteer fire department to a very politically engaged community.

Kathryn Koch, who recently retired after forty years as Aspen city clerk, is another original resident of Midland Park. In 1978, she and her husband, John, a ski patroller at Snowmass, were newlyweds living in a rented apartment. Because they were determined to stay in Aspen and raise a family, home ownership was the next logical step for the young couple, but the free market was financially out of reach.

The Kochs won a three-bedroom condo at Midland Park, for which they paid $81,500. At the time, owning their own home allowed them to stay in town—where most of their friends still lived—and maybe afford to buy new skis, laughs Koch.

Even more importantly, in the long run, “it has allowed us to stay engaged in the community,” says Koch, who values being able to walk to work, interact with friends and neighbors in her daily routine, and frequently and easily attend Aspen’s cultural events. And as the city clerk, she says, “being able to vote [in the city I serve] has been important for how I see my life and my job.”

The Kochs still live in their condo thirty-six years later. It’s cozy and unassuming, a minuscule kitchen sharply contrasting with the large picture window in the living room that perfectly frames Aspen Mountain. Over the years, especially when their daughter was a teenager, Koch and her husband talked about but rejected the idea of looking for something bigger and newer. Having more room and a yard to work in was not worth the trade-off of less weekend hiking time. Plus, reasons Koch, more space would have just meant more stuff.And then she gestures toward the window: “Would you leave this view?” 

Pumping Up the Volume

Housing has long been a big issue in Aspen. As early as 1969, an article headlined “Aspen Worker Housing Hard to Come By” in the Grand Junction Sentinel detailed the woes of young workers crammed four to a room paying exorbitant rents, the Aspen Ski Corp’s plans to address the problem by building low-rent housing, and a proposal to use government park land to subsidize new housing.

When Midland Park was planned and built, housing costs in Aspen were 35 percent higher than the national average (The average single-family home price was about $197,000.) Midland Park kick-started an employee-housing program that was originally quite humble, says Kane: “We were thinking maybe a couple of hundred units.” The idea was to provide Aspen’s workers with a stepping-stone, through equity and a small amount of appreciation, to the free market.

Yet by the mid-1980s, some believed Aspen’s affordable-housing problem had been solved—but not by a “humble” program. While the rest of the nation had been gripped in a recession in the early part of the decade, housing officials in Aspen, buoyed by broad public support, had gone on a spree.

They negotiated with the owner of the Hunter Creek (then called Silver King) apartments to buy four of the eight buildings in the complex and sell the seventy-seven newly deed-restricted condos to employees. Part of the deal included acquiring the undeveloped property next door and contracting with a private developer to build Aspen’s then-largest employee-housing complex: Centennial. After the 240 units at Centennial came online in 1985—ninety-two were deed-restricted for-sale units, and 148 became affordable rentals—Aspen for the first time experienced an affordable housing glut that, according to the Aspen Times in 2001, continued into the early 1990s.

All told, about 800 units were brought under the affordable housing umbrella in the early 1980s, estimates Gail Schwartz, who at that time was the development director and later the interim director of the housing authority. (She is now a Colorado state senator, with Aspenites among her constituents.)

Land to build on was becoming scarce, and the housing authority’s mandate was to “insulate”—or preserve—housing in order to keep employees in town by either building it or converting it to affordable, says Schwartz. But more importantly, officials were trying to find the right mix of for-sale and rental units in various price ranges, so that local workers could move through the system as their career and family situations changed. No longer was affordable housing a stepping-stone to the free market, as had been the original intention. It was now acknowledged as a full market in itself.

Large-scale projects like Hunter Creek and Centennial met the goals of housing a lot of people but also, due to the young, transient nature of many Aspen newbies, earned their reputations as employee ghettos. Centennial’s 148 rent-controlled units housed much of Aspen’s service industry: waiters and bartenders who would come home from work at two or three in the morning and continue their nightlife.

The thin walls, close quarters, and people coming and going at all hours sometimes gave Centennial the feel of a frat house, says Ryan Margo, a former Centennial resident who worked on the complex’s maintenance crew. It wasn’t unusual to hear your neighbors closing kitchen cabinets, “heel-walking” across the floor, or having sex.

Common maintenance calls Margo fielded included pleas from drunken residents to unlock their apartments when they couldn’t find their keys and requests to deal with people in the wrong apartments altogether. “I can’t tell you how many calls I had at 3 a.m. of, ‘There’s a dude passed out in my living room,’” Margo recalls.

The busiest time of year was after Thanksgiving, Margo remembers, half-jokingly, when many Aspen freshmen would host their first Thanksgiving dinner. Possessing only novice domestic skills, they’d stuff the turkey carcass down the garbage disposal—and Margo would be called in to unclog it.

But for all of the abused appliances and damaged carpets, plenty of residents took good care of their apartments, says Margo, including many who chose to remodel rental units at their own expense just to live more comfortably. And it was in a lot of ways a close-knit community: you knew your bartender at Jimmy’s because he lived two doors from you.

For Margo—and many of Aspen’s outdoor-loving, lifestyle-prioritizing types—the urban-style condo developments (albeit urban-style with amazing mountain views) suited them just fine. “It’s dorm-style living, but the beautiful thing is your backyard is Smuggler Mountain and your front yard is Aspen,” he says. “People learn to live with it.”

Many people liked it enough to make Hunter Creek or Centennial their permanent home. Rachel Richards, a Pitkin County commissioner, bought her deed-restricted Hunter Creek condo in 1988 and still lives there. She was the only bidder for the $64,000 two-bedroom, one-bath unit at a time when many affordable housing units were languishing on the inventory, she recalls.

Yet free-market prices were already well beyond the reach of Richards, a recently divorced single mother working in advertising distribution. She remembers two-bedroom free-market condos in Hunter Creek selling for about $150,000 at the time—more than twice what she paid for the same employee unit.

For Richards, buying a home in Aspen wasn’t about the living space itself. “As a single mother, it was enough to just pay the mortgage off,” says Richards, who for the first several years had a roommate to help pay the bills and built a closet in the living room so it could double as a bedroom when her son was living with her. “Could I enjoy a larger kitchen and a larger bedroom? Yes. But overall, it was a bargain I made, and I’m still happy with it.”

She credits living in town and not having to commute for her participation in local politics. “When I moved into city limits, I had another two hours a day, it seemed. I had time to get involved more,” says Richards, who began her public service on Aspen’s clean air board, then rose through the political ranks to become a city councilwoman, then mayor.

But even during the affordable-housing glut, things were rapidly changing. Aspen’s ski bums were growing up, for one thing, and were looking beyond the next ski season for the first time in their lives. “People were starting to move into that second phase of their lives, to put some roots down, and they were thinking, ‘I’d better get in now because this town is changing,’” says Richards.

Thanks to a rapidly improving economy and tax code changes that benefited investment real estate, Aspen average home prices skyrocketed in the late ’80s, more than doubling from 1986 ($509,000) to 1989 ($1.1 million). They reached $2 million by 1994 and nearly $3 million by the end of the decade. As home-owning locals sold out to reap substantial profits on residences they’d purchased years ago and non-homeowners were priced out as previously affordable free-market rentals became second homes, the percentage of Aspen workers living in town dropped from 62 to 33 percent over the course of a decade, according to a 1994 Aspen Times article.

Not long after moving into Hunter Creek, Richards noticed that all of the for-sale signs that had once dominated the Aspen Village and Woody Creek trailer parks—considered very far from Aspen at the time—had disappeared.

By the early 1990s, price-controlled housing had become attractive again.

Demand for employee housing can be measured by participation in housing lotteries, the mechanism the housing authority uses to select the “winners” for available units among qualified would-be buyers. In 1993, the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority (the city and county had joined forces a decade earlier) held its final sale of an affordable housing unit without a lottery for at least a decade, according to the Aspen Times. The twenty-seven-unit Benedict Commons project, completed in 1995, drew 400 people for its lottery. And demand hit a high mark in 1997, when seventy-five applicants vied for a single affordable housing unit on West Hopkins Avenue.

But Aspen wasn’t building much. Fewer than 200 employee units came online in four years in the mid-’90s, the Aspen Times reported—compared to 800 in the early ’80s—and a whole subculture of workers was living in tents and tepees in the mountains around Aspen.

Aspen Highlands: A Ski Bum’s Dream  

It wasn’t as if the housing program didn’t have enough money to build more. To the envy of other resort communities, the City of Aspen alone generates some $9 million annually for affordable housing. A tax on real estate sales accounts for the majority of the funds—an average of $6 million per year as of late—and a dedicated portion of the city sales tax brings in about $1 million more.

Another piece of the funding pie is mitigation—requiring developers to build employee housing or pay into a fund for it—based on the argument that new development generates or displaces employees, or both. Mitigation was, in a way, the genesis of Pitkin County’s housing program: the county commissioners had, in their attempt to control growth in the early ’70s, stipulated that a portion of all new residential development be affordable.

The housing mitigation requirements are determined by complex formulas, and they’re among the most debated sections of Aspen’s codes. But over the years, mitigation has put roofs over a lot of people’s heads.

Perhaps the best example of that is Aspen Highlands Village. When in the mid-1990s a Houston-based developer proposed a luxury village at the bare-bones base of Aspen Highlands, it prompted a lengthy and controversial review process. In the end, locals lost their beloved A-frame bar and convenient surface parking, but they gained 112 housing units, just steps away from the lifts at Aspen’s “locals’ mountain.” (Free-market units in the development totaled 105 condos and townhomes, plus 31 luxury lots.)

Just before Emily and Dominic Lanese won their employee townhome at Aspen Highlands—on aptly named Cloud Nine Lane—Emily told her husband it was probably time to leave the valley. The Laneses, who had an infant and a toddler, were squeezed into a two-bedroom, second-floor condo in Aspen, struggling with carrying the stroller up and down stairs and having no outdoor space where the kids could play. They had both held classic Aspen jobs: ski instructor, house painter, ski tech, and restaurant worker among them, and were discouraged after failing to win numerous other deed-restricted units.

Moving into their new, four-bedroom home in the summer of 2001 changed everything. Cloud Nine Lane is a semicircle of six duplexes and three single-family homes, surrounding a playground that the residents built. There’s a well-utilized walking path to the schools and athletic fields and frequent bus service to town. “We have one car, and it sits in the garage,” says Emily, who works at an Aspen law firm. Dominic works for the City of Aspen.

In the winter, the Laneses can ski right to their front door (when the kids were young they’d load them into a little red wagon to get to the base, Emily says), and on summer evenings many residents, adults and kids alike, hang out outside together.

Not everything is perfect on Cloud Nine Lane. Cheap construction and poor design meant that “we did a lot of work” to make the house more livable, says Emily. That included spreading out a cramped kitchen, rehanging doors that were on backwards, and replacing most of the finishes.

 They also had to hang heavy curtains over poorly insulated windows to protect against the cold that would flow in. But with the curtains pulled back, the Laneses enjoy a million-dollar view of Highlands’ slopes. They paid $236,300 for it. The free-market townhomes on nearby Thunderbowl Lane are worth roughly $3 million to $4 million.

0514 build let live burlingame baez3w

Image: Karl Wolfgang

Burlingame: The Present

By the late 1990s, building more housing meant looking outside of Aspen proper—and thinking outside the box. In 1998, the City of Aspen purchased the 250-acre Burlingame Ranch for $2.6 million, where 250 units could conceivably be constructed. Two hundred seasonal rental units were built nearby, and there was even talk of building housing on the city-owned Aspen golf course.

At the North Forty next to the Aspen Airport Business Center, fifty-nine lots were sold to longtime local employees who would build their own single-family homes, with no price restrictions on cost of construction. The North Forty and other housing aimed at Aspen’s professional class—homes that are regularly listed for more than $1 million—draw national media attention as a travesty of what can be considered “affordable.” These units have over the years often languished on the sales inventory, as very few qualified employees can afford them, and the ones who can have the tempting option of getting a better bang for their buck by buying a free-market home downvalley that will appreciate at more than the four percent rate set for North Forty.   

Burlingame, sited on a historic ranch three miles from Aspen, became the poster child for the affordable housing versus urban sprawl debate that played out over the course of the decade. As real estate prices climbed and a worker shortage intensified, some wanted as much housing built as possible; others argued that creating what was essentially a whole new workers’ village outside of Aspen’s traditional boundaries would exacerbate traffic and congestion and contradict the community’s environmental values. Everyone, it seemed, had a strong opinion. Aspen voters twice, in 2000 and 2005, approved the project in principle, and due to both the scale of and interest in the project, a sixteen-member task force was appointed to come up with recommendations on unit types, price ranges, and design. In 2003, a divided Aspen City Council narrowly approved moving forward with the first phase of ninety-one units. Three years later, in the midst of perhaps the biggest real estate boom Aspen had ever seen, the first Burlingame lottery drew 260 applicants for thirty-one units.

But then the city was accused of downplaying the costs of Burlingame, which exceeded $50 million for phase one and had an average taxpayer-funded subsidy of more than $330,000 per unit. Planning for phase two was paused as audits were conducted and the political drama played out. The city was also criticized for spending $35 million at the height of the real estate bubble to land-bank four pieces of property to be developed as affordable housing.

Other issues include an ongoing lawsuit filed by the Burlingame homeowners’ association over faulty siding, lingering questions about how much more density is appropriate at that specific location, and the never-ending debate over whether or not to allow dogs (which were precluded by the original development agreement).

Yet despite all the hand-wringing, Burlingame has become home for many locals, particularly families—the latest in a nearly forty-year-long list of employee housing projects. An extensive playground (which is actually a public park) dominates the entrance to Burlingame, which is tucked a half-mile behind the Maroon Creek Club on a loop road with several small spurs. Children’s bikes and toys add plenty of color to the scene, and the views—spanning from Snowmass to Highlands and toward Independence Pass—are unparalleled, even by Aspen standards.

For Barbara Lish and Jesse Morris, who recently moved into a new two-bedroom townhome in phase two, which will total eighty-two units when finished, Burlingame is the perfect starter home. The couple, says Lish, were lucky: Having lived in three Aspen rentals over four years, they got engaged last November and entered a single employee-housing lottery before winning their Burlingame unit.

The new, green construction (phase two meets high environmental standards) and energy efficiency were key for Morris, who works at Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit whose mission is focused on moving the global economy away from fossil-fuel dependency. Plus, their home has great natural light and “million-dollar views,” says Lish, who works in development at the Aspen Community Foundation. And like many other affordable-housing residents, she gets more excited about the outdoor space than the interiors. She looks forward to this summer, when she’ll work in the community garden, lounge in a grassy common area reading a book, and watch kids zoom around the sidewalks and neighborhood streets on bikes and scooters.

Lish, who moved to Aspen after much of the controversy over Burlingame had played out, is optimistic about the possibilities. After attending her first HOA meeting, she says, “Because it’s so new and separated from the city geographically, I’m hoping that through the HOA we can make [Burlingame] into the kind of community we want to live in and thrive. It feels nice to own something; it feels like we should be more committed to making the town the kind of town we want to live in.” 

The Future

Demand for affordable housing wavered during the economic downturn of the late 2000s, as jobs disappeared and people moved away (actually causing more sales than usual as owners’ life situations changed), but it was nowhere near as affected as the free market. In fact, demand for the lower-priced, smaller homes in the affordable-housing pool remained high, according to a study by Melanie Rees, a workforce-housing consultant based in Crested Butte.

Some, like Kimbo Brown-Schirato and her husband, bought free-market homes downvalley when prices there became more attainable. But for Brown-Schirato, who works at Obermeyer Asset Management in Aspen, the desire to live in employee housing remains strong.

“Now it’s been almost six years, and I’ve been increasingly involved in the Aspen community,” she says. “I’m struggling with being in a bedroom community in Carbondale and the fact that I spend one-and-a-half hours in the car every day.”

Brown-Schirato echoes the sentiments of many young professionals when she discusses the perceived barriers to entry to Aspen’s housing system: Not enough suitable options, especially for dog owners; perception of widespread fraud (people not living in their units, as they are required to, or renting them out, which is permitted only in rare circumstances); and not wanting to have to continuously move as one’s family grows (the system prioritizes one person per bedroom, so a couple typically can’t buy a three-bedroom until they have their first child). More pertinently in her case, Brown-Schirato and her husband would have to sell their Carbondale home at a loss, because they bought it at the very beginning of the downturn in 2008.

The downturn also came at a time when the nearly forty-year-old program was reaching a midlife crisis, shifting attention away from planning the next project and toward some of the system’s flaws.

Like many a carefree Aspen ski bum, the earlier affordable-housing complexes are aging but have the illusion—at least in the minds of many of their owners—of remaining forever young. Few have adequate capital reserves to replace roofs, siding, or other big-ticket items, an issue which many observers consider to be the housing system’s most pressing. And with a maximum of a three percent annual appreciation cap on their homes, employee-housing owners have little financial incentive to make costly free-market improvements to their units. The prevailing tendency has been to pass the onus of capital maintenance and improvements on to the next owner and then to the next and the next. The ninety-two owners at Centennial, for example, are now facing some $2 million in projected repairs due to deferred maintenance that hasn’t been dealt with in thirty years.

Some are calling for radical changes in the housing program to address its issues. Tim Semrau, a developer of both employee and free-market housing and a former Aspen city council member, is proposing a plan by which affordable-housing owners who choose to remodel could realize double the deed-restricted value of their units. They could then sell it up to that price—if they could find a buyer—or the housing authority could buy down the unit to keep it affordable for the next owner.

The plan—essentially a parallel market within the housing program—would allow retirees to upgrade and sell their units at a profit to facilitate being able to retire elsewhere, and also incentivize young people to fix up their units to make them more livable in the long term, argues Semrau. It would encourage movement in the affordable housing market—especially from retirees to people still in the workforce, and the government could invest millions in buy-downs and still have money left over in its housing fund to pursue more housing.

The quasi-official Housing Frontiers Group, a volunteer board that grew out of the Burlingame debate, is considering less drastic measures to address capital reserves, such as raising the maximum 3 percent appreciation cap allowed on employee-housing units, and dividing the proceeds, upon sale of the unit, between the homeowner and a new capital reserve fund.

But has Aspen housed enough of its workforce to move away from more building and focus on refining? A number of people seem to think so, including Semrau and Adam Frisch, an Aspen city councilman who also leads the Housing Frontiers Group. Citing a study that found that 47 percent of Pitkin County workers were housed in Pitkin County in 2012, Frisch believes that Aspen has struck the right balance of affordable-housing dwellers and commuters and must now “look to other community needs.”

But others warn that even though the need doesn’t seem great now, that might change in the future.

Rachel Richards, the Pitkin County commissioner, cited a recent retreat of her board at which members of the business community said that housing demand was as strong as ever and was critical to their operations. The Aspen Music Festival and School, for example, was struggling with bringing summer faculty here because it is unable to find affordable seasonal rentals, she says.

“Any decent project can take years of planning, so you tend to always be behind the curve,” she says. “So in a way, we need more of everything.”

Tom McCabe, the housing authority director, is cautious in his assessment of the future of affordable housing. “The housing program doesn’t want to waste money; it wants to house people,” he says, adding that investing in older units might be a good idea if indeed demand is dropping. “We need to monitor demand carefully. I still see a demand, but it could go the other way.”

Nearly forty years later, Kathryn Koch, the original Midland Park owner, still believes that she and her husband, John, are living the Aspen dream, thanks to affordable housing. Because while debates and plans about the program unfold, one thing remains constant: The Kochs and thousands more of Pitkin County’s workers—from retail employees to magazine editors, master sommeliers to mechanics—will wake up tomorrow morning in their affordable studios, one-bedroom condos, and single-family homes, take in the view, and begin another day in paradise.

As Koch puts it, “I come home and just think how lucky we are. It’s a real community, and a great place to live.”