Thursday, February 20, 2020

Affordable housing direction proves the council is ninja

The Crested Butte Town Council is ninja. They can see into the future and anticipate the coming tsunami of Crested Butte growth and development. They have ultimate faith that they can envision what’s certainly coming and plan accordingly. And what they see is a town booming with high-priced development and enough forethought to house anyone who wants to work and live here. It is a bold move and sort of the proverbial “all-in” poker action that either brings back a pile of chips by preserving some good elements of this community or sees our stack shrink as the action helps hinder any return to a vibrant economy. Good luck to them.
Based on their future vision, now would be a good time to buy up property in Crested Butte. They see an inevitable return to the good times of high salaries, higher real estate values and booming business. Buy now and swim in equity soup.
During discussions since last November over mitigation fees for affordable housing, the council members have stated the certainty of a return to prosperity. There is no chance Crested Butte won’t thrive and they want to be ready for the unavoidable boom.
They have seen the current economic numbers for Crested Butte and admit that it doesn’t make any sense for a developer to start a commercial project right now. Strictly on a numbers analysis, commercial development would lose money. And the council admitted at its last meeting that by implementing affordable housing mitigation fees that will settle in at about $60 a square foot on all new commercial development, they are prolonging the current pain for a sweeter future. They are fully aware. Ninja. It is a bold political statement and strategy.
Responding to the mayor’s conclusion that the new ordinance setting the fees is a “slow-growth or even no-growth” policy for town, the rest of the council didn’t flinch. The intention is good; to ensure that people of all economic layers can live and work in Crested Butte. Few would object to that. But whether they like it or not, passing these fees does nothing to make them be perceived as a “pro-business” council, no matter how many food trucks they allow. They are honestly between a rock and hard place.
Council members are purposefully right-sizing the pace of development in town to reflect their values. Those values are topped by the idea of helping people to live in town without having to be millionaires. But that means a slower return to the trades, so carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers will all have to wait a bit longer to see some regular work. As councilperson David Owen has stated, he’d rather see no growth in town as opposed to growth that doesn’t pay its own way. That brings consequences. Some locals might have to leave now to find work while this decision protects some future locals not yet here.
One thought on the unintended consequences of this move is that it could reshape the middle class business community to where there would be little opportunity for real middle class business opportunities. Think about it: if the fees contribute to a construction cost so high that a middle class entrepreneur can’t afford to build, then some small businesses won’t have a place to exist. If a rich developer doesn’t care about cost and willingly pays the housing fees, the town could become populated with hobby business owners who don’t need to sell enough books or burritos to actually pay the rent. It becomes stereotypically Aspen-esque by default. Real middle class business people could be forced to go somewhere where the cost of building or renting a space makes sense from a business and lifestyle perspective. Now granted, even under the hobby business scenario, the barista will have a place to live, but the hopeful middle class business owner would be pushed somewhere else. That is my fear with these fees—that they push us toward being the place the council speaks ill of.
But I don’t have ninja powers to see the future so I could be wrong.
One Crested Butte resident at the meeting Monday asked how the council could justify squeezing developers and current business owners hoping to expand by charging large fees and spending those fees for community housing (“a bit socialist,” he said), while a few minutes later some of the same council members touted the benefits of a capitalistic free market for a new business niche with late-night food.
Actually, both are using the power of government to help shape the future. And based on its decisions, this council appears to be shaping a future of young, small-business people who want to live in subsidized housing in town and contribute to the community. That’s not an unreasonable vision given the economic realities of a resort community. But it is a different vision from independent young hippies ready to take the risk of opening a business in an end-of-the-road mountain town where they planned to work hard and play harder—an attraction of this place 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.

This council can see 10 or 20 years into the future. Ninja. They obviously don’t think the world will be ending December 21 with the end of the Mayan calendar. So they are, with boldness, and awareness, deciding to preserve the future with a cost to the present. That’s not a bad thing. Building an avenue for people of all economic strata to live in town is valuable and part of Crested Butte’s charm. The vision is good but it comes with some immediate sacrifice in slowing down potential growth and jobs in the trades. And if this place starts to grow quickly into a place where cost doesn’t matter, the council will have set up a plan. But will that be a place you want to live?
The council believes they are ninja. Given the short-term consequences, let’s hope they are right.

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