Op-Ed: How to Fix the Mountain-Town Housing Crisis

Aspen Ski Co’s vice president of sustainability on embracing change—and density—in our remote, idealized hamlets

Lack of affordable housing leaves no aspect of resort town communities untouched. (Eberhard Grossgasteiger/Unsplash)
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John Steinbeck said that there’s only one story in the world, and we tell it over and over. If you live in a resort town, that story is about the lack of affordable housing, which leaves no aspect of the community untouched.

Consider, for example, composting.

Many restaurants compost food-waste in and around Aspen, where I work. But not everybody does it. In one location, a guest asked a manager: “Why don’t you compost here?” The manager responded: “You may not be aware of this, but my business had a severe labor shortage this year—region wide, we were down 60 employees. Composting takes labor. If we were fully staffed, we’d be able to do it no problem. But right now we don’t even have enough cashiers.”

Why the labor shortage? It turns out that employers can’t house their workforces. The ski company I work for is short some 600 beds alone, even after spending tens of millions of dollars on housing. Workers apply for jobs, realize there’s no place to sleep, and move on.

Let’s dig deeper. The person who asked about composting is likely part of what I’d call an “old school” environmental community that practices preservationism—of small town character, of land, and of history. She almost certainly also opposed recent efforts to increase density—read: affordable housing—in our town in the name of, you guessed it, protecting the environment.

This worldview is widespread. Mountain communities are often run by environmentalists from 40 years ago whose thinking has not kept abreast of the development in their hometowns. They champion stasis over change, open space over density, and consider development evil. They hate crowds—even though crowds are the foundation of the entire resort economy. “The only thing they hate more than sprawl,” an architect told me, “is density.”

Parts of Aspen look like they did decades ago, with Victorian houses and big, lovely parks. There are, however, no people in those houses (often second, third, or fourth homes), and a long line of traffic every morning and evening as people forced to live downvalley, where real estate is cheaper, end up commuting 20, 30, and even 50 miles to work.

There’s nothing environmental-friendly about any of this. The long commute creates pollution. It blocks guests from the ski hill. It wears out the road. It’s the exact antithesis of all the ideas Aspen was founded on—about renewal and escaping from the world.

I don’t mean to pick on Aspen. All resort towns—from Jackson to Telluride to Crested Butte to Conway—experience the same challenges. Ditto for Aspen’s down valley neighbor, Basalt, where I serve on the town council. “But we don’t want more people in town!” a local radio host told me once. Residents, who mostly make decisions based on what will affect their property values, vote along those lines every time.

So what’s the fix? For one, we need to embrace density. Basic urban planning principles offer some solutions. Build infill housing in the urban core, or at least within the urban growth boundary, along transit routes. Make it dense, which means small units that go up instead of out. Change codes to allow for smaller houses, which are more affordable (Carbondale, Colorado, just eliminated minimum house size requirements) and enable mother-in-law units with occupation requirements.

There are gnarlier answers, too. Proposed legislation in California would get rid of zoning restrictions around transit hubs in bigger cities, making it easier to build thousands of new units near bus stops and train stations. You can see how this would scare residents concerned about community character. But it was their unwillingness to plan ahead and accommodate others that led to the crush of housing in the first place.  

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for totally unrestricted growth. The goal isn’t to “let everyone in,” as people fear, or exceed carrying capacity. It’s for communities to be able to house their workforces. In doing that, we should respect urban growth boundaries and oppose unmitigated sprawl. But we must also welcome changes to our towns and understand that nothing living gets locked in time.

How do we get to the above solutions? The short answer is that we need a civics revolution, whereby younger citizens—the very ones who need housing—or enlightened elders either run for office or amp up pressure on those already in power. We need to bring to the table something missing from American politics: a commitment to the community over self interest. We need a new YIMBYism—Yes In My Back Yard—versus the current NIMBYism. We need to learn again how to live together. 

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