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Where will High Country workers live?

Carolyn SackariasonVail, CO Colorado
Aspen Times photoThe 5:15 p.m. Glenwood bus fills fairly quickly Monday afternoon during its first stop.
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ASPEN From Aspen to New Castle, business and government are in crisis. They have no home for their most valuable asset people.As real estate prices continue to escalate and whats left of remaining land is gobbled up, hundreds of workers are being squeezed out of the Roaring Fork Valley.An increasing number of housekeepers, cooks and other workers who support Aspens resort economy are bused up Highway 82 every day from Rifle, Silt and New Castle to work for as little as $12 an hour.Many working professionals found footholds in Aspen and the midvalley when those places were still affordable, and many of these people remain. But their homes will almost certainly be out of financial reach for the next generation.For newcomers, its nearly impossible to get a roof over their heads for a ski season, let alone year-round.Theres only so much supply for this kind of demand, said Tom McCabe, executive director of the city and countys housing program, who added that the average median home price in Aspen is $5.25 million.The average home price jumping $1 million in one year is just astonishing, McCabe said. When you look at that reality its really clear what our challenge is.The housing crunch is as much of an economic issue as it is a social one, say elected leaders who face the daunting task of solving the problem.If I came to Aspen today, I wouldnt get in the door, said Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, who now lives in deed-restricted housing but bounced around for years when he first came to Aspen in the 1980s while working as a dishwasher and doing other menial jobs.Aspens success and desirability have created something of a perfect storm: In the past four years, 600 homes have been razed and just last year alone, 700 new jobs were created in Pitkin County most of them within the city limits, according to Ireland.Whats also contributing to the growing crisis is the crackdown on illegal immigration and as a result, fewer undocumented people are available to work.

Last week the Aspen City Council rejected an 80-room hotel proposal at the base of Aspen Mountain. From the debate it was apparent that elected officials or at least a majority of the City Council feel the town cant accommodate more workers without providing the same number of housing units.There have been a lot of approvals of projects that house some fraction of their employees, Ireland said. In the old days, that was not as critical.The city code requires that developers provide housing for 60 percent of the employees theyll need, but Ireland and some of his colleagues believe the percentage must be higher.Government cant keep up the pace by building more deed-restricted housing. The citys Burlingame Ranch project, which will offer 236 units when its completed, is the last piece of land for a development that size.We have to slow down the excess job generation, Ireland said. If we are creating 700 jobs a year, it would take a Burlingame a year to meet the need.When Ireland explained to developers why he voted against the hotel proposal, he told them the days are over when employees who work in Aspen can live downvalley.You cant say its OK, well put them in Basalt. Its over. Carbondale is over, Ireland said. Were full.The mayors of downvalley cities are facing similar issues, which create new sets of problems for them.Carbondale where the median home price is now $1 million cant house its own workers at this point, said Mayor Michael Hassig, who remembers sitting in meetings 10 years ago discussing the same issue.Its impossible (to house workers), he said. This was an issue apparent to people 15-20 years ago but its only in the last three years that the reality has hit home with people.That reality has certainly hit home in Glenwood Springs, which is built out and getting increasingly more expensive. The average home price there is approaching $500,000.The party is over in Glenwood, Ireland said.Glenwood used to be the stopping point for workers who commute to Aspen but theyve been priced out and are now living along the I-70 corridor. If they do live in Glenwood Springs, its five people and their families in one house, said Glenwood Springs Mayor Bruce Christensen.We are really feeling the stress, he said. Demand will continue to grow and supply will remain. Well start seeing knock-downs like whats happening up there.Rifle is experiencing an unprecedented rate of growth, not only because it serves as home to many of the Roaring Fork Valleys workers but because of the booming oil and gas industry. It used to be that Rifle was the hub for affordable housing but that changed about four years ago when the economy spiked. Within 10 years, there will be 4,200 apartments, condos and homes built, said Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert.And once again, the demand has increased property values to a point that single-family homes are nearly out of reach for the average worker, Lambert said. The median price of a home in Rifle hovers between $280,000 and $350,000, he added, and monthly rents command between $850 and $1,200.We have less than a 1-percent vacancy rate, Lambert said, adding Rifle is the largest town in Garfield County, with 9,000 residents.

Upper valley employers are competing for workers who are finding ample work opportunities along the I-70 corridor in the oil and gas industry. Hundreds of jobs sit unfilled in the Roaring Fork Valley for months, and in some cases, years. Its no longer an Aspen problem, said Christensen, adding that the Glenwood Springs parks and recreation director position has been open for two years.They cant afford to live here, he said. We dont have jobs that can support a $500,000 house … we cant even fill the professional jobs.In Aspen, where customer service and front-line employees are critical to the resort, its a challenge to maintain a high level of service, said Debbie Braun, president of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.Employers often find themselves lowering their standards just to get help.Will you take a warm body or a qualified employee? Braun asked. We need them the most, yet we are not providing them housing or paying enough in wages.

Warren Klug, the general manager at Aspen Square, said hes had a reservations position open for months.Weve had some people living in New Castle, who work at Aspen Square, Klug said, adding its hard to compete with Rifle for employees. The jobs are opening up there.Perhaps the industry most affected is hospitality, where housekeepers are realizing that they can earn a living without having to commute hundreds of miles per week into Aspen. As a result, hotels like the St. Regis must engage in bidding wars with other employers to get workers.Payroll budgets have certainly increased and will continue to. Senih Geray, the general manager at the St. Regis, said the hotel was recently upgraded to a tier-one hotel by its corporate office, based on the cost-of-living index. That allows him to pay his employees more.When Geray goes through a budget review this fall with the St. Regis parent company, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, affordable housing will be the No. 1 topic.In a couple of years, its going to be even harder to recruit people, Geray said. So far weve been able to do business at those levels [of pay] but in a couple of years that might not be possible.The Aspen Skiing Co. has thrown millions of dollars at the housing problem, not only in land purchases for affordable housing, but in recruitment efforts and pay increases, said Skico CEO Mike Kaplan. And its only going to get worse as demographics change, he added.We have over 300 employees who have worked with the company over 20 years and theyll be retiring in another 10 or 15 years, Kaplan said. They are living in free-market homes that the next generation wont be able to afford.The Skico relies heavily on seasonal housing and fewer short-term options remain as old buildings are knocked down and replaced by mutli-million dollar properties.Skico has attempted to tackle the problem by taking matters into its own hands. The company currently as 300 beds in its housing inventory excluding the recently purchased Sopris View apartment complex, which has 62 two-bedroom units in El Jebel. Over the last several years, Skico has spent more than $40 million on employee housing in the Roaring Fork Valley, according to Kaplan. Right now, the company houses about 15 percent of its workforce but Kaplan eventually hopes to have 1,200 beds in the pool.Klug said hes been able to retain employees at Aspen Square, which employs 55 people, because it has seven employee apartments in town.Ireland said the time has come when employers are going to have to buck up and provide housing for their employees instead of relying on the government to do it.The onus is on everybody, he said. The government cant solve it.


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