Can Cities Be Saved From ‘Supergentrification’? Aspen May Offer a Roadmap

For other cities struggling with sky-high real estate prices, Colorado’s resort town offers some instructive lessons on what’s working — and what isn’t.

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

The first time Jenny Stuber ever visited Aspen, it was on rock legend John Denver’s private jet, called the “Windstar.” She had been living with her mother, on welfare and eligible for free-and-reduced lunch at school. But when her father moved to Aspen in 1976, she began to visit him in the summers. Aspen introduced her to a new world — one of extreme contradictions. Whereas many locals, like her father, were able to get by on middle-class salaries and lived in affordable homes, others spent $2 million on second, third, or even fourth homes. This experience, in part, inspired her to become a sociologist, and to turn her lens on questions of social class and how it’s formed.

In her new book, “Aspen and the American Dream: How One Town Manages Inequality in the Era of Supergentrification,” Stuber, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Florida, explores how the Aspen of her childhood has shifted in an era of “supergentrification.” While the city has managed to maintain a working middle class, thanks in large part to an affordable housing program established in the 1970s, progressive political leadership and creative urban planning, moneyed interests threaten to tip the scales in favor of high-end development. In 2016, the City Council announced a complete moratorium on development. Over 10 months, it rewrote the land-use code to favor residents over developers.

Stuber spoke with Next City about her book, what supergentrification looks like on the ground, and what other cities and communities can learn from places like Aspen. This interview has been lightly edited.

In your book, you talk about what you call the impossible math of Aspen, which is the fact that the median household income is around $70,000 a year, but the median home price is around $4 million, which is clearly a huge paradox. What explains how this can happen?

Aspen shouldn’t exist, because you shouldn’t have a place where there’s such profound discontinuity between how much people earn and how much housing costs. But going back to the 1970s, that math equation was resolved by the introduction of an affordable housing program. Aspen has two very distinct housing markets and maybe more. It has a free market for housing where people buy and sell listings on the open market. And then it has a dual housing market that’s composed of the employee affordable housing program, which was entirely separate up until the 1990s. Until the 1990s, working people in Aspen could access free market housing — they could afford units in the free market housing — but the housing costs have escalated dramatically [since then].

It was really prescient at the time: saying there needs to be a way for this community to accommodate working locals. And that really captures the roots of Aspen as a culture. That housing program is probably the largest affordable housing program in the nation [in terms of the ratio of full-time residents in affordable housing versus total number of housing units citywide]. It’s exceptionally good housing; it’s exceptionally successful, but also with a lot of limitations and problems built into it. But the math equation of Aspen is solved by a massive affordable housing program that was set in motion by people who thought that Aspen is a place where locals matter — where working locals matter. That vision has then been institutionalized in its land use code and in its urban planning documents.

You write about how in the early 2000s a number of developers began buying out three-story properties in downtown Aspen, but only selling third floor penthouses because they were able to charge such a high price for them. I think it’s a really apt metaphor for supergentrification and how luxury real estate markets can kill local businesses in cities. What is supergentrification? How do you define it and what does it look like in Aspen?

Supergentrification is a term that I pulled from Loretta Lees and other cultural geographers in the UK. Supergentrification is the further upscaling that occurs within areas that have already gentrified. It can have a number of elements to it. So supergentrification can take place within housing markets, and it can take place within retail and commercial markets. It can dovetail with a concept called tourist gentrification. It’s up for debate whether a place has already needed to gentrify once before for supergentrification to occur. Another way of describing it is the continued upscaling of retail and residential commercial spaces that displace locals who can’t afford to compete in those areas and enter those areas.

What does that look like on a walk through Aspen?

The Aspen of my youth has been eradicated in a sense. I mean, the physical architecture and the buildings are still there; the Victorian funk or the mid-century modern that was part of Aspen is still there. Aspen looks a lot now like it did in 1979. But the place where you see supergentrification is that, for example, the iconic building called Aspen Drug has been totally replaced. Aspen Drug is a place where I would go as a kid to get postcards and a soda. Locals would get prescriptions filled and buy deodorant and things like that. It was a corner drugstore in a beautiful Victorian space with high ceilings and ornate moldings on the outside. And now when you go there, you can’t buy a 25-cent postcard or a soda for 75 cents, but you can buy a Moncler down jacket for $1,400. Think about what that means for somebody who may have previously picked up postcards there as a visitor or somebody who had prescriptions filled there regularly. And now that space, for a local, is utterly irrelevant. And that space, even for a middle-class tourist, is largely irrelevant.

You describe how supergentrification, the rising real estate market, limitations to affordable housing, etc. — these factors start to come into play all at once in the mid-2010s. And that’s when the City Council calls for a moratorium on development.

So you’re walking through Aspen wondering ‘Why are there all these empty storefronts? This is a beautiful building and I can see that there’s a condo up top; I can see that there’s patio furniture up top; and maybe there’s even a really cool hot tub up top. But there’s nothing on the ground floor, and the spaces are kind of [gutted] out.’ You would imagine that a nice boutique is going to fill this space, but three summers in a row, there’s nothing filling that space. The mayor at the time, Mick Ireland, called these “penthouses on stilts.” Basically the street level is deactivated. There’s nothing happening on the street level. And Aspen is a small town where it’s exciting when things happen on the street. Maybe there’s a corner where there’s an ice cream place or a coffee shop, and people are out there using that space — it’s activated. So the City Council saw what was happening here — that in town, nobody’s meeting up, it doesn’t have that spontaneity, it doesn’t have that activity. And that was one of the antecedents for them to say, “We need to take our town back.”

What happened after the moratorium on new development? Did it work?

We don’t know if it worked. But the results of this moratorium, which lasted about 10 months, were multiple. One of the key things they did was keep building heights at 28 feet, which is two stories. That’s an interesting move that further constrains the availability of land to develop and real estate to develop. It preserves the view of the mountain; it preserves the small town character. But that, in tandem with the fact that real estate becomes more scarce, further drives up prices. So this move to capture local culture, on the one hand, is at the same time a move that displaces locals and local businesses on the other hand.

To attempt to compensate for that, they also tried to regulate what’s happening inside of buildings. They’re capping the envelope, but they’re also regulating what happens inside the envelope. And they say that x percent of this building must now be devoted to ‘second tier’ spaces. And that means that, yes, you can have your Gucci on the ground floor or you can have a Tesla showroom on the ground floor that may or may not even be large enough to have a car in it, but somewhere within that building, you need to make space for an accountant’s office, you need to make space in that building for watch repair, you need to make space in that building for somebody who’s doing graphic design, you need to make space in that building for something that’s going to serve the locals.

Another thing that they did was they said was, yes, you can build your building, and you can have your Gucci on the ground floor, but you also need to capture space outside of the building for locals and visitors to hang out and to sit in to congregate, and that’s called ‘public amenity space.’ So they also had to use some aspect of the exterior of the building to reactivate the streetscape and create opportunities for spontaneous interactions. This is no small deal. I mean, imagine telling a developer in New York City where space is scarce that you have to devote 25 percent of your square footage to a non-revenue generating use. That’s profound, right. That goes against the whole notion of highest and best use, which is central to urban planning.

Overall, the idea was to do two things: To center the needs of locals and to create opportunities for locals and visitors to come together. Because that’s such a key part of Aspen’s lore: our locals matter. This goes back to the “origin myth” of Aspen’s renaissance, emerging from the early 1960s. This is the idea that Aspen is for locals, by locals. It’s not so much that the locals want to come into contact with ultra-affluent visitors, but that affluent visitors should want to come into contact with locals. And this is a way to do it.

Let’s talk about potential lessons from Aspen, both positive and negative. You write in your book that “what happens in Aspen might, necessarily, stay in Aspen.” Why do you say that? And what can Aspen tell us, if anything, about supergentrification and about the fight against that?

It’s hard to extract any one of the features that makes Aspen work to the extent that it works, because they have all grown intertwined, like a really complicated set of roots. The lessons that Aspen provides to other places are tentative, and really difficult to implement. But I’m going to be also very clear, I think cities and communities need to toughen up and be less scared of capitalism and moneyed interests. And that’s easy for me to say as an academic. It’s less easy for a mayor or city councilmember. We in the United States have become so beholden to capitalist interests that we let capital run roughshod on every aspect of our lives. And again, that’s really easy for me to say, when I’m not a mayor of a city who is terrified that Google is going to pull out or that the Amazon new second headquarters is not going to come to our city because our tax structure is too burdensome from them and they can go somewhere else.

A place where this has been playing out very visibly is in San Francisco. They’ve proposed a number of taxes that would extract from developers and companies that clearly have the deep pockets to bear these taxations and these extractions. I am not a city council member in those areas. I do not know and cannot speak to exactly what it would or potentially mean to extract these fees, but I think we in this country, in the United States, are entirely terrified of capitalist interests. We have not stepped up to say we are worth more; our people are worth more; our geography is worth more. And I think that’s something that Aspen has been able to pull off. They have been able to tell developers ‘you owe us,’ not ‘we owe you.’

I do think this is where my book will get the most pushback from locals. [Ed. note: As described in Stuber’s book, Aspen may be affordable to the middle class but lacks affordable housing for working-class residents: most of the Latino service workers in Aspen still can’t afford to live in Aspen.] From the outside, the local politicians and the land use code seem really tough; from inside, their actions are never enough. There are many who think that recent councils have not really embraced the more radical egalitarian policies of the mid-1970s; many would see recent councils as especially timid and reactionary. Some won’t be happy until every desiring person has a home within the affordable housing program; others won’t be happy if a single inch of the mountain is concealed.

My first instinct was to think of potential lessons for New York, or London. But there are also other cities that maybe have something more to do with Aspen, like Seattle. Seattle is very close to a bunch of natural beauty; it’s a bit flatter than cities like New York, but yet there’s still this issue of supergentrification. Do you think a city like that could take something from the Aspen case?

Small cities and large cities are different. And I can’t purport to really say how would this map on to a real city that has serious infrastructure needs like transportation and logistics and airports. There are just so many things that happen in a large city that Aspen doesn’t really have to deal with. I’m also not sure if Aspen is a small town or if it’s a resort community. And that’s another conversation for another day.

But let me go back to what I think where I really feel comfortable answering this question. There are other communities that are similar to Aspen that haven’t taken the same type of approach as rigorously or as full-force. And I think sociologists and urban scholars in general have a lot to contribute in terms of why seemingly similar places end up taking different paths. The lessons for Aspen could be really applicable, for example, in Jackson, Wyoming.

The people who pursue Jackson, Wyoming, in many ways, they’re the same kinds of people who pursue Aspen. But the context of Wyoming, a low-tax state that has an energy-based economy, kind of means that you get the wild west mentality of people from Houston and Oklahoma who are rich from the energy sector and hate taxes. And so that influences what happens when they go to Jackson, Wyoming. And so Aspen, in some ways, is relatively affordable compared to those from a tax standpoint. Think about how that shapes a local culture. Jackson is a bit more conservative, a little bit more ‘wild-westy,’ a little bit more connected to Texas and Oklahoma, and that shapes the local cultures and the ability to extract [revenue] from the people who may be making second or third or fourth homes there and visiting there.

For cities that rely heavily on tourism, the pandemic has been devastating. I wonder how Aspen has been hit by the pandemic, what the past year has looked like and then whether that’s reflected on the research that you’ve been doing?

I think that the pandemic has been a mixed set of blessings for Aspen. The long-term impacts of the pandemic are of course yet to be seen, but they could have long-term devastating impacts on places like Aspen. What you’ve seen is that wealthy people have been moving to smaller communities and housing markets have gone gangbusters. In a sense, more [housing] sales in Aspen is great for locals. The more sales of 10 million dollar homes, the more money goes into the affordable housing fund. When outside people move to Aspen and buy their second, third or fourth home, they are contributing substantial revenues to the affordable housing fund. At the same time, they’re not really taking up housing that would otherwise be taken by locals. This isn’t really a question of displacement anymore. In the 90s it was a question of displacement, but they’re not competing for the same units [anymore]. When uber-wealthy people buy homes in Aspen, they’re not taking spaces from locals.

Where I think this is devastating, potentially, is that if Aspen doesn’t resolve some of its own contradictions and build affordable housing with the money that it has, it means that locals will be further displaced down-valley. Where I also think this is potentially devastating is that if those people stay, they change the culture and they potentially change the culture in ways that are irreparable. People go to Aspen because it’s Aspen. There’s an affinity there with the Aspen culture, but as uber-wealthy people move to the places that attract them, whether that’s London, Kensington, etc., they bring their culture and they bring their expectations with them. They’re drawn to what makes Aspen unique and yet by going there they change the place. I think what we’ll see three, four, five, six, 10 years down the road is if these folks stay and bring LA with them, or bring Chicago with them, they further change the notion that Aspen is a place for locals.

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

Like what you’re reading? Get a browser notification whenever we post a new story. You’re signed-up for browser notifications of new stories. No longer want to be notified? Unsubscribe.

Tags: gentrificationsupergentrificationaspen

Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 1111 other sustainers such as:

  • Anonymous at $5/Year
  • Brian at $60/Year
  • Paul at $120/Year

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $20 or $5/Month

    20th Anniversary Solutions of the Year magazine

has donated ! Thank you 🎉