Here in Aspen, we have taxpayer-subsidized housing for people making as much as $189,000 a year. The subsidy is 60 percent to 90 percent and sometimes more.
To disguise this welfare for the middle to upper class, they euphemistically call it “affordable housing.” I call it freebie housing.
In my neighborhood, there are four units of freebie housing close to the ski slope. Based on nearby comparable places, those units are worth over $3 million each. According to the housing records, the residents got them for less than $300,000.
Aspen’s freebie housing is similarly subsidized with respect to property taxes. Because they are artificially valued at a fraction of their true value, they bear only a fractional portion of the property tax.
The way residents get their freebie housing is by winning a lottery. Insiders are very lucky in this lottery. A few years ago, four of the five city council members were getting freebie housing, including the mayor. They never recused themselves from votes on the subject.
Many of the editors, writers and columnists for the local media also are in. They seldom disclose their personal interest in their news pieces and columns about the program. The guy who ran the program for years was in, and still is now that he’s retired, as are many other government bureaucrats.
Some residents leverage their freebie housing into additional freebies. They get their places for dimes on the dollar, with the taxpayers picking up the difference, and then rerent them on the internet at market value. They can realize a five-figure windfall for Christmas week alone.
That blatantly violates the rules of the program. It also can be criminal tax fraud if residents fail to declare the illegal proceeds on their federal or state income taxes and fail to pay the city lodging tax.
A report earlier this year by a Denver investigative reporter included an on-camera interview in which one resident who was caught boasted that “a lot of other people” do this as well. (I was interviewed for that report as well.)
Corruption in the program is not what worries the locals, however. What worries them is demographics. They’re worried that there won’t be enough freebies to house the next generation.
They’re right, and here’s why. When Aspen’s older workers retire, they refuse to move out of their freebie housing (why would they?) even as their younger replacements in the workforce want to move in (why wouldn’t they?).
The average age of residents is now about 50. About 30 percent are retirees. Many of these retirees are empty-nesters who live in larger family units which command higher rent in the illegal rerental market.
These retirees tend to vote, and they vote their personal interest. City council knows that, and so the demographic collapse accelerates while everyone hand-wrings.
A local task force of Gen Xers recently expressed their chagrin about this (very politely it should be noted). They believe their young families — the new generation of Aspen’s teachers, doctors, nurses and other workers — aren’t getting the freebie housing to which they’re entitled because retirees just won’t make room for them.
The reaction of the retirees-on-freebies was fierce. One called the youngsters “racist” even though racial minorities are rare in this housing. Another retort called them “shady” characters “in sheep’s clothing.” Some told the youngsters to just leave town.
In a published letter to the editor of this newspaper, someone brought up Nazis, followed immediately by a conflicting disclaimer that he wasn’t comparing the youngsters to Nazis. (Then why did he bring up Nazis?) Others picked up the Nazi theme, as if moving down-valley after decades in Aspen’s freebie housing is like being carted off to Auschwitz.
Ironically but predictably, some of these retirees who have enjoyed freebie housing for decades called the youngsters “greedy” for wanting to do the same for a few years while raising their families.
To the extent they got past their name-calling, mixed metaphors and bad analogies, the retirees contended that they “earned” this charity.
So how did they earn it? Did they survive the Great Depression, storm the beaches of Normandy, win the Cold War or get a Purple Heart medal after being blown up by an IED in Afghanistan?
No, no, no and no. In fact, the only medals most of them have received are pins from Aspen Skiing Co. for skiing over 100 days in a season.
President John F. Kennedy — a man who was awarded real medals for real sacrifices — spoke in his inauguration of Americans passing the torch to a new generation. He was of course talking about the torch of freedom, not the torch of freebies.
Two generations later in a rich resort town, we take the former for granted and squabble over the latter.