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Aspen workers jump at shot at a starter condo

Janet UrquhartThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Workers looking to gain a foothold in Aspen are helping keep one piece of the local real estate market booming – affordable housing.With less than two months left in 2009, the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority has nearly doubled last year’s sales mark with 81 units sold for a total of $18.3 million. In 2008, the authority recorded 43 sales worth a total of $9.3 million.”It’s mind-boggling to me, how many sales we’ve had this year,” said Cindy Christensen, housing operations manager.While units sized for families – particularly those in the three- or four-bedroom range – aren’t drawing the interest that they used to, studios and one-bedrooms continue to attract dozens of prospective buyers, the authority’s sales data shows.”On everything but one-bedrooms, it has slowed down,” Christensen said. “The need for the studios and one-bedrooms hasn’t waned at all.”All of the units that come up for sale, regardless of size, attract bidders, but the pool of buyers looking at the larger units is smaller. Put another way – someone bidding on a larger unit has a better chance of winning a housing lottery than a single person entering a lottery for a one-bedroom condo. That has long been the case, but the gap may be even greater these days.The most recent lottery, held Nov. 9 for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo at Centennial, for example, attracted just six bids. The condo was priced at $234,194.A one-bedroom, one-bath unit at Stillwater Ranch, located just east of town, attracted 22 bidders even though the unit was priced at $355,254.So far this year, a one-bedroom, one-bath condo at Lacet Court, priced at $200,061, claimed the greatest interest – 63 individuals entered that lottery. Another Lacet Court one-bedroom, one-bath unit attracted 47 bidders.Two one-bedroom, one-bath units at the Annie Mitchell complex, near the Aspen Airport Business Center, each attracted 44 bids, and a Seventh & Main one-bedroom, one-bath condo priced at $165,210 drew 48 bids.Among larger units, only a three-bedroom, two-bath Juan Street unit, priced at $256,804, drew comparable interest – 39 bidders.Prospective buyers include individuals who own free-market housing downvalley, but are employed in Pitkin County and looking to move to Aspen, according to Christensen. The hurdle for them is selling their free-market home in a depressed market – they have six months after they close on their worker unit to do so.”There are people out there who want our housing so bad, they price their free-market [place] to sell it,” Christensen said.On the other hand, there are also owners of worker housing who are taking advantage of dropping prices in the free market to buy a home downvalley, she said. Others are simply leaving the valley.Housing units in the authority’s inventory are priced in various categories that correspond to various income and asset levels. Buyers must be qualified local workers. They may “bid” on a unit – the authority’s term for entering the lottery-style drawing used to select a buyer.While couples can and do bid on studios and one-bedrooms, single buyers are essentially limited to the small units under the authority’s one-bedroom-per-person standard. A couple could also bid on a two-bedroom unit, but a group of three – two adults and one dependent, for example – would get priority for a three-bedroom unit.Price and location continue to be considerations that determine which units see the most interest, according to Christensen.The only listings that are not immediately snapped up in a lottery are priced at more than $500,000 – single-family homes and townhomes in the top tier of worker housing. On the other hand, 10 units have sold for more than $500,000 so far this year, including two priced at more than $1 million in the North 40 subdivision, where the original lot buyers built their own homes, spending as much as they wished and setting the baseline price in the process. North 40 owners must live and work full-time in Pitkin County – a requirement for virtually all deed-restricted worker housing.Appreciation on worker housing is capped – typically at 3 percent or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less – but the units continue to fetch a slightly higher price each time they change hands.If worker housing has been hit at all by the current economy, it’s by the credit crunch that has made loans more difficult to secure, according to Christensen.Even though the housing authority essentially guarantees the loan on a worker unit – the agency has the right of first refusal to buy a unit in foreclosure and must do so to keep the deed restriction on the unit in place – lenders are skittish, she said.”The biggest problem is all the banks have to work with underwriters outside of Colorado, and they don’t get it,” Christensen said.janet@aspentimes.com


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