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Aspen in Colorado is a perfect getaway for skiers but working class people battle for cheap homes.
Nathan Bilow STR
Aspen in Colorado is a perfect getaway for skiers but working class people battle for cheap homes.

Prices drive workers from millionaires' playground

Aspen, a resort town popular with Hollywood stars and Manhattan bankers, has simply gotten too rich and famous for its own good.

ASPEN, Colorado // At a time when many US towns are battling rising unemployment and widespread home foreclosures, this glamorous ski destination suffers from what might seem like an enviable predicament: soaring property prices that show no sign of softening, and a shortage of workers. In fact, this state of affairs means Aspen, a resort town popular with Hollywood stars and Manhattan bankers, has simply gotten too rich and famous for its own good.

Real estate prices here began exploding about a decade ago. This former silver mining town is now a place where mountainside mansions carry price tags of more than US$10 million (Dh36.7m), even though their owners often use them for just two weeks of the year. Despite the fact that the average salary in Aspen is $37,000, and the median household income a little more than $65,000, it is hard to buy a home on the open market here for less than $6m. The cheapest condominiums move for a cool $2m.

That leaves this town - which has just 7,000 year-round residents - with the same problem facing such major cities around the world as New York, London and Abu Dhabi or Dubai. The thousands of workers who keep Aspen running simply cannot afford to live here - or even anywhere close. Hotels, businesses and the Aspen ski company now pay to bus their employees - everyone from lift operators and housekeepers to waiters, bellhops and hotel managers - from towns as far as a 90-minute drive away.

So many people commute daily from distant towns that Aspen has had to pave extra commuter lanes on the main highway to ease rush-hour congestion. And despite paying wages sometimes 50 per cent higher than other parts of Colorado, Aspen struggles to hold on to workers. Diana Sanchez, who cleans slope-side condos, commutes three hours a day from Glenwood Springs, where the condominium complex she works for provides her an apartment. She earns $12 an hour, a healthy wage, but she admits it is not much of a life.

"Many people go home after one year," she said. "A lot are leaving now that business is down." Aspen is not the only small resort town in the United States suffering from the soaring cost of living. Nantucket, Massachusetts, and Key West, Florida, are also struggling to keep workers, and such Rocky Mountain ski areas as Steamboat Springs and Crested Butte are watching real estate values soar. In fact, Aspen may be one of the few places to take concrete steps to try to deal with the problem, implementing a comprehensive affordable housing plan, reducing taxes for year-round residents and offering them subsidies for bus service and groceries.

David Richie, who monitors air quality for the Forest Service, likes to say he and his wife bought a million-dollar view for one third the price. Living in a subsidised three-bedroom house that fronts a striking mountain vista at the edge of town, they make up a small community of Aspen workers who won a lottery system providing residences for rent or purchase at a fraction of their market value.

"In most cities you think of subsidised housing as the projects," Mr Richie said. "But here it's essential, or professionals like me would be an endangered species." The problem is most severe for the type of employees a community needs most: firefighters, doctors, nurses and teachers. "In other cities, a lot of the people living in this development would be considered wealthy," said Sabrina Kertz, a nurse living in the same development. "Here in Aspen, the only thing they can afford is subsidised housing."

Both Ms Kertz and Mr Richie consider themselves lucky - and they are. The Aspen/Pitken County Housing Authority currently subsidises accommodation for 40 per cent of the city's workers, although the eventual goal is to house more than 60 per cent. The terms are good: according to listings on the authority's website, one can purchase an apartment for as little as $150,000; homes start at about $200,000. Julie Kieffer, the housing authority's qualifications specialist, said emergency workers and other critical services get priority.

"If it weren't for this programme, there would be no teachers, no nurses, no police," she said. "We also look out for young couples that would otherwise never get a home loan." gpeters@thenational.ae

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