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Lessons from Aspen

Updated: Oct 12, 2020


“Take from those who can pay and give it to those who can’t, this is the real Aspen way.

Transit is funded by parking, Electricity is funded by Renewable Energy Mitigation Program,

Affordable housing is funded by real estate tax…”

No, that is not Karl Marx talking, it was Dan Blankenship, the CEO of Aspen’s Roaring Fork Transport Agency. And yes, I did nearly fall over.  Aspen’s experience over the past forty years of becoming one of the great tourism towns of the world has given them reasons to work very hard to preserve a community – at huge cost.  I was recently part of a sister city delegation to that fabulous town to figure out what we in Queenstown could learn from their experience.  Heaps, it turned out. I loved being there, I loved the frankness of their people in talking about what’s happened and how they’ve coped and mitigated.  Here’s my  Full Aspen report  for those who are interested.

So where to from here?  We in Queenstown share major issues with our sister city, and I’m sure other NZ towns are following suit as tourism becomes New Zealand’s main economic driver (more about this later, it’s not a good thing).  I’ve listed the issues most important to me and where i think we’re at in addressing them:

Housing for our residents.  How do people who serve our major (only) economic driver – tourism – buy or rent housing when the median income is $35,100 (source: stats NZ) and the average house price is $842.000 (source: QV in this stuff story) .  That’s 24 times the median income. If median household income is 77,000, it’s more than 10 times the median household income. Housing is considered affordable at 3x the median household income. Source for both of these last figures is  This is an issue not only for those who can’t afford to buy a house here, but for everyone.  I’ve outlined in my Aspen report the troublesome spin-offs from this state of affairs. Next issue is, who’s job is it to solve it?   In my mind, it’s not the local council’s job to provide housing for those who are working for local employers – those employers own the problem of not paying their staff enough to live here – not the ratepayer. Here’s an article I wrote about this for our local paper.

A WEEK in Aspen as part of the sister city delegation included the opportunity to study their response to severe housing issues. Aspen’s – 30-year experience of complicated market interventions, including development of a two-tier market, is regarded as highly successful, but the gap between supply and demand continues to widen. An average house price of $US4 million means even high-income earners like doctors and chief executives need affordable housing.There are undesirable consequences.

Residential neighbourhoods now sit empty for much of the year along with what were small, mid-price hotels which now house only billionaire families occasionally. A small army of workers commute hours each day to do the gardens and otherwise care for these energy-expensive, empty houses. Wider consequences reach beyond employee and visitor accommodation — every sector is affected and the vitality of the town is threatened as retail, hospitals, police and schools follow the year-round residents down-valley. This puts a handbrake on economic development and compounds other issues such as traffic congestion and environmental impacts.

Aspen is many years further down the road than we are but the story is uncomfortably familiar. There is much to learn from our friends there. I’d like a direction correction that starts with acknowledgement that decent housing in our region is unavailable to most. Few living in Queenstown or Wanaka can earn enough to rent or buy a decent house without some other source of income. If we want an inclusive, diverse community, without the issues Aspen now faces, we need to work on solutions.

  1. Start nationally. Ask the government to implement a broad, capital gains tax to contain the market

  2. Get serious about urbanisation and good place-making, include standards for rental accommodation

  3. Investigate a ‘vacant’ tax to dis¬incentivise empty houses

  4. Cut red tape around renting rooms or houses

  5. Incentivise land owners to release residential-zoned property

  6. Support the Housing Trust by revisiting up-zoning contributions for community housing with strong retention mechanisms

Aspen has fought hard to house many of its people in town. This expensive work includes a superb transport strategy and system and strong environmental focus. Like our Aspen sisters, we value a healthy community of people who live here year-round. Our future is not as a play area for the wealthy, serviced by employees from a bedroom community an hour away. Let’s face this issue while we still can.

Transport.  We are way behind the 8 ball on this.  This issue is driven partly by the housing issue – when people are driven out of town by price, but still need to get to town to work, they’re in their cars and as we are geographically constrained we now have congestion.  Aspen has not increased its traffic movements since 1993.  They’ve done this by installing a state-of-the-art public transit system and linking an awesome set of bike and walking trails.  The transit system took 10 years and $100m.  Get ready people.  This is a local government issue along with partners NZTA and the Otago Regional Council.  We’re on it, the wheels are grinding painfully slowly,  it’s not that pretty and it won’t be quick.  Here’s our strategy  for the Queenstown Town Centre (Frankton and Wanaka coming soonish) and a summary.

Environmental protection.  We are of course entirely dependent on our environment, sadly many only recognise our environment as something separate and beautiful and so  as an economic driver of our tourism industry.  More importantly our environment at the head of a glacial valley provides fantastic natural systems that clean our water, air and soils and provide us with energy to live from.  Much much more work needs to be done in this space to maintain these systems and to ensure we respect our position as being at the headwaters.  We have a great waste minimisation strategy but as yet, implementation isn’t happening. Council is working on this now and I think we’re committed to delivering it.  And that’s just the start – we need to work with the regional council on clean air and protecting our waterways among other things.  Again, Aspen is ahead of us on this score.  They’re already mitigating for climate change and looking to a future of less snow (and skiing) and how their community might adapt. While in Aspen, I met Auden Schendler – the sustainability director for Aspen Ski Company – who gave me his book ‘Getting Green Done’ which I’ve read and bookmarked dozens of pages.  An excellent, light read for anyone interested in these challenges.

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