The governing board for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) will become an official dues-paying member of the West Mountain Regional Housing Coalition.
The intergovernmental board that represents RFTA member governments from Aspen to New Castle agreed unanimously at its Nov. 9 meeting in Carbondale to join the housing coalition for $20,000 a year.
Most of RFTA’s member governments are already coalition members, including Aspen, Snowmass Village, Pitkin County, Eagle County, Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.
However, with a RFTA employee housing needs survey in process and a report on those findings expected next month, members agreed to wait before committing to help fund a mortgage buy down program that is being pursued by the coalition.
The housing coalition itself was established in recent years following the completion of the Greater Roaring Fork Regional Housing Study in 2019. That study projected a shortfall of more than 6,800 housing units by 2027 to meet the area’s housing needs across the pay spectrum — from less than 60% to 160% of the area median income.
The coalition is now organized as its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and just recently hired its first part time programs director, April Long, founding coalition board member and former Carbondale trustee Heather Henry said during last week’s RFTA meeting.
“We are a member organization, so it’s different from a community nonprofit in that each of our members have a seat on the board,” Henry explained.
RFTA, which operates the valleywide bus transit system that serves the area from Aspen to Rifle, is no stranger to the housing crisis that impacts just about every public and private sector employer in the region.
Driver shortages have forced the agency to eliminate some of its circulator bus routes and to reduce service schedules.
Like many other large employers, RFTA has also been on the forefront of providing employee housing units, including its purchase several years ago of the 15-unit Parker House Apartments located at Weant Boulevard and Sopris Avenue in Carbondale.
RFTA also partners with the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority to offer several employee units up valley, and more recently the agency acquired the former Rodeway Inn motel in West Glenwood, which is being converted to 42 employee units. It will become known as Iron Mountain Place and is expected to come on line by fall 2024, said Dan Blankenship, RFTA’s long-time CEO.
“During COVID, we saw a lot of people who had been with RFTA for a while lose their housing due to some of the changes in the housing market,” Blankenship said after last week’s meeting. “The available housing inventory shrunk, and at the same time we were having to recruit more people from outside of the area.”
In addition to the Iron Mountain Place project, RFTA leases some units at the newly remodeled Residences on Grand Avenue (formerly the Caravan Inn) in Glenwood Springs.
With all that RFTA has going on on its own to address employee housing, board members were hesitant to get involved in funding the housing coalition’s fledgling buy-down program until more details are known.
The coalition is looking for at least $100,000 from RFTA to help kick-start the program, which is being modeled after a successful buy-down program in Eagle County, Henry said.
“We’re not breaking new ground here, but ours would be very unique in how we do this as a coalition,” she said, adding the coalition hopes to achieve 100% member participation in the program.
It will take a multi-faceted approach to address the housing need, she said, and the buy-down program is just one of many solutions.
“With buy-downs, we will be adding units to the stock of deed-restricted homes in the valley without building any new units,” Henry added.
RFTA board member and Basalt Mayor Bill Kane said he believes buy-downs are ultimately a way to ensure a good mix of affordable rental units and home ownership opportunities. It will take a cooperative regional approach to accomplish that, he said.
Aspen Mayor Torre noted that Aspen has a budget placeholder of $450,000 to support the coalition’s buy-down program, but as a RFTA representative he wants more details before agreeing to have RFTA fund the effort.
“I don’t know that it’s the best use of RFTA funds right now. We would need to make sure it’s a good fit and return on our dollars,” Torre said.
Other board members expressed similar concerns, but agreed RFTA should at least be a member of the housing coalition. Board representative and Glenwood Springs city council member Shelley Kaup was appointed to be RFTA’s representative on the coalition board.