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Mountain News: Aspen ‘building a retirement community’

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ASPEN, Colo. — Most Aspenites are a few pickets short of living the American dream in a white-picket fence on the edge of town. Their housing is cramped, their expenses high. Still, they say, Aspen is worth the aggravations, they tell The Aspen Times.

“I pay $1,000 to live in a box,” said a bartender named Kevin Gadow. But I live here because it’s a small community, and it’s eclectic, and everyone is from somewhere else. I love living here.”

“I’m 48 and I have a roommate,” said Mikey Wechsler, a 28-year Aspen resident. “But hey, look around: Aspen Mountain is right in our face. For me it’s all about the outdoors.”

“You are constantly weighing whether it’s worth it,” says flight attendant Lisa Gonzales-Gile, who lives with her husband, a certified public accountant and their 8-year-old child in a house so cramped that “I have to squish myself to the end of my bed to get out of it because my room is so small.” Looking out the window, “It does make it all worth it,” she added.

Heading the list of aggravations is the constant stream of newcomers, especially affluent retirees or part-timers. The polarity is described by one bartender as that of the “grunts” and the “gazillionaires.”

Still, there is the underground economy, the barter system, that makes the cost of living more bearable.

And, in the face of housing prices that have increased 15-fold since the early 1980s, there is the community’s housing program. The deed-restricted affordable housing program provides homes, if mostly cramped ones, to 1,400 people, or 23 per cent of the local force. The community goal is 62 per cent.

Some 592 people own homes through the program, and 909 people rent.

But therein lies a problem. People are permitted to retire into their affordable housing, and many have indicated that’s just what they intend to do. As such, the number of retirees living in affordable housing is projected to jump from 207 today to 1,142 in little more than 20 years.

“We’re building a retirement community without knowing it,” said Michael O’Sullivan, a resident since 1976.

The city government in Aspen recently released two reports, the “State of the Aspen Area,” which attempts to document the area’s living environment in a less anecdotal way, and a “White Paper” that reviews the economy since the 1970s. Both documents, says Times reporter Carolyn Sackariason, deal essentially with the failures and successes over the last decade in keeping the community sustainable, and the government’s role in maintaining Aspen’s quality of life.

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