Why Do Taxpayers Buy Aspen Houses for the Upper Middle Class?

“If taxpayers didn’t pay for my housing, I couldn’t afford to live in Aspen.  I’d have to live 20 minutes away and commute to my Aspen office.”

The person who spoke those words gets a two million dollar house here in Aspen.  Under the city’s “affordable housing” lottery, taxpayers pay 80-90% of the cost for people making up to $186,000 a year.  Some of that subsidy is paid for by people making, oh, about $34,000 a year.

The words quoted above were her defense of that scheme.  In short, she says the scheme is good because it’s good for her.

It is one of the great ironies of our time that socialists no longer promote socialism as beneficial to society.  Instead, they promote it as beneficial to themselves personally.

As in, “Let’s forgive student loans so that I don’t have to repay mine.”  And, “Let’s raise taxes on everyone who makes more than I do.”  And, “Let’s use taxpayer money to buy multimillion dollar houses in resort towns for the upper-middle class because I want one.”

Maybe it’s time to officially change the name from “socialism” to “selfish-ism.”

In the meantime, let’s step back and look at Aspen’s housing scheme from a perspective broader than that of an upper-middle class individual in the worldwide 1% who has received the windfall of a two million dollar house next door to movie stars here in Glitter Gulch.

Here’s the most obvious observation:  The scheme conflicts with the consensus that unrestrained growth threatens to destroy our town. If we’re serious about limiting the growth of Aspen, why are we enticing people to move here by buying them multimillion dollar houses?

After some rumination my acquaintance replied, “Because the presence of people like me enriches you.”

To which I said, “Really?  What are you, an escort service?”

I don’t feel “enriched” by the presence of this conventional, middle-aged, white, upper income acquaintance who is just like the people with whom I’ve spend my life except she’s wealthier than most of the others.  To the extent her presence somehow enriches me, I don’t feel extra-enriched by the fact that she sleeps down the street and walks to work rather than sleeping down the valley and commuting for 20 minutes (a duration shorter than the average commute in America) on a taxpayer-subsidized bus with free WiFi which she could catch at one of the heated quarter million dollar bus stops we recently built.

Out came the name-calling.  She deemed herself “generous” for taking my money to spend it on herself, and deemed me “selfish” for objecting.  We don’t see much of each other anymore; I couldn’t afford her generosity.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the people taking free housing do in fact enrich the rest of us who give it to them.  Fine, but surely the givers are not equally enriched by every taker.  We’re not equally enriched by the presence of a young school teacher who volunteers for Mountain Rescue, an artist with a family who emigrated from Cuba on an inner tube, a government bureaucrat making $175,000 a year, a real estate broker, and a 63 year old semi-retired pot shop owner who will soon inherit millions from his hedge fund manager dad.

So let’s not leave our enrichment to the luck of a lottery.  Why not set up a citizen’s committee to actively choose the winners?

A citizens’ committee could also clean up the cronyism in the current system.  Just recently, city administrators allowed a city employee who was their personal acquaintance to bypass the lottery for medical reasons that are kept secret from the public, while evicting a local political gadfly on questionable grounds.  Maybe those decisions were right — and maybe not — but they smelled bad.

In a citizens’ committee, the members could be required to recuse themselves from cases where they have a conflict of interest because they are personally acquainted with the applicants.  That’s not a perfect solution to the cronyism problem, but it’s an improvement.

Speaking of cronyism and conflicts of interest amongst the “in” crowd, what are the ethical implications of City Council members who are living in taxpayer-subsidized housing making decisions to route additional taxpayer money to those houses?

For their sake, I hope those City Council members have an iron-clad legal opinion on the legality and ethics of their conflict of interest.  And I hope it’s not an opinion that compounds the conflict.  By that, I mean it had better be an opinion from an independent lawyer and not one written at taxpayer expense by their subordinates in the City Attorney’s office.

(Published June 27, 2016 in the Aspen Times at http://www.aspentimes.com/opinion/22665089-113/beaton-why-do-taxpayers-buy-aspen-houses-for)

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