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Building A Community

Mountain Life

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Aspenite Rebecca Harwood and her fiancé, Joe Driscoll, were tired of paying rent. So last June, before they were even married, they thought hard about having a child. In the surreal world of ski resort living in Colorado’s pricey Roaring Fork Valley, being pregnant would put Harwood and Driscoll into the priority category in a lottery for buying a government subsidized three-bedroom condo.

The couple decided not to get pregnant, and instead bid on the resale of a $180,000 two-bedroom, deed-restricted condominium near Snowmass Village. It was the fifth time Harwood, a computer technician, and Driscoll, a charter pilot, had tried their luck in the lottery for affordable housing, which is made available to workers who’ve been employed in the area for at least four years and who fall within income and asset guidelines. Thirty-five other couples also bid, and someone else won-again.

Dropping 180 grand on a two-bedroom condominium may not seem like a lucky draw to most people, but in Aspen-and in a growing number of other North American ski resorts-such a deal is the ticket to stability and long-term residency. The average free-market Aspen condo sold for $398,000 in 1997; by comparison, a condo selling for less than half of that looks like a steal, even if it is deed restricted.

Competition for subsidized housing will only grow, and the resorts that provide it will hold a competitive advantage against those who don’t. “The people who work and live in a community, prima facie, care more about the community than the people who work but don’t live in the community,” says Myles Rademan, public affairs director for Park City, Utah, and a frequent speaker on resort town growth.

Affordable housing efforts were first undertaken in North American ski resorts almost 20 years ago. Aspen today has the most coherent and aggressive program, but Telluride, Colo.; Summit County, Colo.; Whistler, B.C.; Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Park City have well-developed efforts in place. Others, including Steamboat, Colo.; Sun Valley, Idaho; and Banff, Alb.; are looking hard at emulating them. Affordable housing in the East is less of an issue, but resorts such as Okemo, Vt., have been aggressive in building projects for employees.

The need for affordable housing is driven by worldwide wealth chasing a scarce commodity: resort property. About 70 percent of Aspen’s free market properties are vacation homes that are rarely occupied; without the 1,589 deed-restricted and rent-controlled units for workers, Aspen would resemble a ghost town in the off-season months of May and October. And while Aspen wages are relatively high compared to the rest of the ski world-lift ops started last winter at $9.50 an hour, bus drivers at $11.58-for most workers the money is not enough to allow them to rent or buy places when real estate is rising 1 to 2 percent each month in value. According to a 1998 study, Aspen housing cost almost four times that of the average United States town without factoring in the government subsidized units (see graph).

Telluride faced a similar problem in 1994, when the Town Council voted to legalize sleeping in cars. Some 116 seasonal workers lacked homes, leaving many stuck in their vehicles. Since then both San Miguel County and nearby Mountain Village have undertaken affordable housing efforts. At the Village Court apartments in Mountain Village, employees pay about $500 less per month to rent a two-bedroom apartment than they would on the free market.

Inevitably, affordable housing programs draw criticism on three fronts. First, some people say the government’s role isn’t to provide housing. “It’s their own definition of themselves,” says Jim Curtis, a 15-year volunteer on the Aspen/Pitkin Housing Authority Board. “Do they view themselves as a living, breathing, functioning community, or are they saying they are a tourist resort, and will bring in a labor pool?” If the answer is the former, rather than the latter, adds Dave TTolen, executive director of the Aspen-Pitkin Housing Authority, then the government at least has an obligation to identify the problem and develop solutions.

Snowmass Village, Vail and Whistler have morphed into year-round communities and have developed affordable housing programs. Similar to other resorts, they’ve struggled with the second big objection: Not In My Back Yard. “We’re creating these little mini affordable housing communities,” says Gary Raymond, president of the Resort Development Group at Intrawest, which owns Whistler/Blackcomb. “Mixing these employees with the free market is working extremely well, contrary to what everybody might think. What the part-time residents are learning is it’s kind of neat to live in a community, rather than a subdivision where the lights are out most of the time.” Today, Intrawest houses 1,400 workers at the base of Whistler/Blackcomb, an accomplishment that “without question” gives it a competitive advantage, Raymond says.

The third major objection comes over providing subsidy which, ultimately, is what affordable housing is to middle- class resort residents. “We often have people who stand up at public meetings and say, ‘Damn it, if you can’t afford to live here, you shouldn’t,'” says Park City’s Rademan. In Aspen, a family of four can earn up to $125,160, and hold assets of $225,000, yet still qualify for affordable housing, which is subsidized to the tune of $70,000 per bedroom.

Political support for affordable housing programs is critical, particularly since they’re expensive. In late June, the Vail Town Council passed a 10-year master plan for housing, open space and community facilities that will dedicate $12.1 million in new funds to build affordable housing for up to 1,680 people.

Now, Vail controls 399 affordable housing units, and locals are glad to have them. While nobody at the booming resorts expects to solve the affordable housing problem, some towns are at least making headway. “People go downvalley to find affordable housing, and they find jobs down there, too,” says Andy Knudsen, Vail’s senior housing policy planner. “If we can’t create housing, we can’t find people to fill the jobs here.”

Co-Op Redefines Affordable Living
Steamboat, Colo., architect Katie Keifer designs houses all the time, but usually not the kind she can afford to buy. Since many homes in Steamboat are built for wealthy out-of-towners, she and other locals find themselves priced out of the real estate market. Now Keifer and some of her friends and colleagues are pooling their resources to form a community of their own.

Members of The Butcherknife Creek Co-Housing Project-including a ski coach, a developer, a hairstylist and a few architects, among others-purchased a 3-acre parcel of land in downtown Steamboat, where they are building 10 small, simply designed houses ranging in size from 960 to 1,500 square feet. Connected by a pedestrian walkway, the two- to four-bedroom homes will cost anywhere from $115,000 to $155,000-a significantly lower cost than Steamboat’s average home price of nearly $350,000. The residents are cutting costs by doing some of the non-technical work themselves: They’ve already cleared the area and have taken down a fence and chicken coop. They will also plant a communal garden for growing food in bulk, build a shared parking structure for 10 cars and contribute to landscaping and snow removal.

The project has upset some neighbors who are worried that it will increase traffic and decrease the value of nearby properties. But, despite the criticisms, the co-op continues to move toward a completion date of early 1999. “Librarians, engineers and ski coaches are all people who make Steamboat such a great place,” says Keifer. “We’re hoping it’s a good example of how people can live in a ski town and be a part of the community.”