Aspen, Housing, Taxes

Beaton: Aspen’s subsidized housing scheme unsustainable

Aspen real estate is expensive. It got so bad some years ago that many workers had to commute about 25 minutes over a scenic highway from a cool little mountain town downvalley where housing is cheaper. Comfortable buses with free wifi are available at heated bus stops every 15 minutes, but commuters always seem to like their cars better.

Many of those commuters were employees of local, big business such as Aspen Skiing Co. which found that their employees wouldn’t work as cheaply as they’d like them to if they had to suffer that 25-minute commute. Other commuters were power-laden city elites.

So, they asked, what can be done about the fact that the place where they chose to work and would like to live is expensive?

This being the People’s Republic of Aspen, and the persons complaining being the persons who run the show, the first, second and third solutions were all … make the taxpayers pay. And so they did.

Now a person making as much as $181,000 a year can get taxpayer-subsidized housing for dimes on the dollar. Some is prime property adjacent the ski runs with a true value nearing $5 million.

The residents are chosen in lotteries, the legitimacy of which some people question at times

As often happens in utopias run for the benefit of the utopians, not everything has panned out. The city sometimes buys real estate high and sells it low. The project costs often go over budget.

Because residents in the projects don’t like maintenance costs or HOA dues, entire projects are in poor repair. Some individual units are barely habitable.

Some residents who got their units for dimes on the dollar illegally rerent them for dollars on the dollar. A resident can realize a five-figure windfall for Christmas week alone. They naturally don’t pay the city lodging tax on this illicit income, and I seriously doubt they declare it on their income tax returns.

While the program was set up to house young workers, the average age of residents is now well over 50. Many are retired and under the current rules can live in their taxpayer-subsidized housing until they die. Many are empty-nesters or divorced, but continue to reside in two- or three-bedroom units.

In retrospect, we never should have let this unholy alliance of big business, inefficient government, corrupt residents and insider establishmentarians cram this fiscal fiasco down our throats. But we did.

Now this little town owns billions in poorly managed real estate that it provides almost free — and almost free of property taxes as well — to over 3,000 people. That’s nearly half the population of Aspen. Politically, it’s impossible to end it.

But maybe we can fix it, a little. Here are some suggestions for Taxpayer-Subsidized Housing 2.0.

First, conditioned on the qualifier below, allow residents to rerent their places on Airbnb and elsewhere. It rubs me wrong that they would get their places cheap and then get to rerent them. But an economist would say that leaving their place empty while they’re on vacation means wasting an asset.

Also, renting such places would help fill a need for semi-affordable, short-term rentals in Aspen. And maybe Airbnb reviewers will motivate the residents to keep their units in ship-shape.

Expect local hoteliers to object.

Here’s the qualifier. The residents should split the rental proceeds 50/50 with the city. They can do the work of renting them and get half the rental income, but these units are city property and so the taxpayers should get the other half.

To enforce this, require that all rentals go through the housing office. And limit the rentals to, say, 20 days a year.

If residents violate the new rules, they should forfeit the rental income and be immediately evicted. One strike and you’re out.

Do the math. If there are 3,000 units, and half of them participate for 20 rental days a year at about $400 a night, that’s $12 million. If the city gets half, the budget shortfall in the housing office is immediately a huge surplus.

Second, do away with the lottery. If the philosophical justification for this wealth transfer is that certain demographics somehow enrich the rest of us, then let’s choose them. Why should a pot shop owner with a hedge-fund daddy or a city bureaucrat have the same shot at taxpayer-subsidized housing as a teacher, a rabbi, an artist or a Mountain Rescue volunteer?

In place of the lottery, substitute a citizens’ committee with some guidelines. Surely citizens are better than the lottery at choosing people to enrich them.

Third, retired people should move on. The program was set up as worker housing, but it’s become a taxpayer-subsidized retirement home in one of the most expensive resort towns in the world.

Fourth, lower the income limit. We’re giving resort housing to upper-middle class people making $181,000 a year when people in America are without a roof over their heads. That’s obscene.

I don’t have all the answers, but let’s start a discussion. The current system is not sustainable.

Glenn K. Beaton is writer living in Aspen.  Correspond and subscribe at


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