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Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Kay-Clapper walks with her dog near her home at the Smuggler Trailer Court outside Aspen, Colo., on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. Clapper says that in the early 1980s, the county allowed Smuggler residents to own their homes and their lots in an effort to keep the community affordable. She now is trying to preserve the county's remaining mobile home parks as affordable housing. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

While the existence of five mobile-home parks in Colorado’s wealthiest county might come as a surprise to some, they are actually an integral part of Pitkin County’s affordable housing system.

In fact, the city of Aspen first took steps in the early 1980s to preserve a mobile-home park in the middle of town that still exists today as a cherished affordable housing neighborhood. Pitkin County has since followed suit, buying or helping preserve four more mobile-home parks in the upper Roaring Fork Valley for affordable housing during the past two decades.

“I think Pitkin County — because of the limited land available for affordable housing projects — had to capture what land was available and preserve it,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper, who not only has helped preserve four of the mobile-home parks during her five terms on the board, she’s lived in the fifth one for more than 30 years.

“We started this process so long ago and we recognized the issue early on so, therefore, we were able to step in before these parks were sold off.”

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Aspen’s history both as one of the oldest ski resorts in the United States and as a bastion of progressive thinking has elevated the issue of worker housing to the forefront of elected officials’ civic concerns for decades. Those concerns led to an affordable housing program in Aspen and Pitkin County that began in the late 1970s and today includes more than 3,000 deed-restricted units.

Of those 3,000-plus housing units, 395 are located in four mobile-home parks under the oversight of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority. Pitkin County paid $6.5 million in 2017 for the fifth mobile-home park that currently features 40 units, though commissioners have indicated they might add as many as 20 more to the mix.

That means 435 mobile-homes in Pitkin County now provide affordable housing for about 1,000 people employed in the county and their families, Clapper said.

“Our basic fundamental philosophy is to preserve existing affordable employee housing,” Clapper said. “Perhaps even more important is to preserve the communities those mobile-home parks create.”

The first to be preserved was the Smuggler Mobile Home Park at the foot of Smuggler Mountain on Aspen’s northeast side. It began as a rental mobile-home park in the 1970s, though the city of Aspen approved a subdivision process in 1982 that allowed tenants to buy the land under their mobile-homes for about $25,000 each, according to APCHA’s website.

Clapper and her husband, Tommy, bought their 860-square-foot, 1967 single-wide trailer and the land beneath it in 1987, and have lived at Smuggler ever since. The location is within walking distance of town and provides both stellar views of the city and a salt-of-the-earth-type neighborhood of 87 residences where people care about and help each other, she said.

“We raised two kids, multiple dogs, one cat, way too many hamsters and a gecko in that trailer,” Clapper said. “It is one of the greatest places to live in the community.”

The next mobile-home park to convert to land ownership for tenants was Aspen Village, a 150-lot mobile-home park located near Woody Creek, about a 10-minute drive down Highway 82 from Aspen. Residents there began working toward purchasing the park in 1996 and were able to buy subdivided lots in 2000 for an average price of about $33,000, according to APCHA’s website and a December 2003 Aspen Times story.

The 100-lot Lazy Glen Mobile Home Park – located next to Highway 82 near Old Snowmass – followed in 2002, when mobile-home owners there were first able to begin buying lots. Tenants at the 58-unit Woody Creek Mobile Home Park were able to purchase their lots in 2006 after a long ownership process spearheaded by APHCA, which bought the park in 1998, APCHA’s website states.

All four mobile-home subdivisions now feature a mix of stick-built homes, modular homes and trailers. And while all four are governed by different rules because they were approved at different times, in nearly every case, residents must qualify to buy property in those subdivisions under APCHA’s affordable housing income guidelines and have full-time jobs in Pitkin County.

“It’s for locals,” said Lanny Curtis, a 43-year resident of the Woody Creek Mobile Home Park. “It keeps people with money from coming in here and buying it and flipping it.”

“I think it’s a good thing.”

The Woody Creek Mobile Home Park features manicured grounds, new roads and quality infrastructure, he said.

“It came at a price but it was worth it,” Curtis said.

The Phillips Mobile Home Park – located on a prime slice of the Roaring Fork River between Woody Creek and Old Snowmass – became the fifth mobile-home park in the county’s affordable housing inventory in 2017. Pitkin County used $6.5 million from an employee housing impact fee fund to purchase the 40-lot property, and is currently going through a planning and design process for it.

Phillips property owner Harriett Noyes received far larger offers for the 76-acre property – which her parents bought in 1933 – but told The Times last year that she wanted to ensure that her tenants, who she said were like her family, would continue to have an affordable place to live.

“If I had sold on the open market, a lot of people would be homeless,” she said.

Harriett Noyes sits in her living room at the Phillips Mobile Home Park near Aspen. Noyes, who owned the 76-acre park, had a chance to sell it to a developer for $30 million but decided she didn’t want her family and friends to be evicted. She instead sold it to Pitkin County for $6.5 million with the promise of upgrades and to keep the community affordable. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Pitkin County Assessor Deb Bamesberger has lived at Phillips for 20 years on a month-to-month lease.

“At any time, they could have told me to pull (my mobile home) out,” she said. “And you can’t (move it). So I lived in fear at that park that someone could come kick us out tomorrow.”

And while Bamesberger is happy the county purchased the park to keep it as affordable housing, she’s nervous about the planning process, both for herself and her neighbors.

“I’ve been waiting to buy it and I hope I get to buy it,” she said. “But there’s a lot of people on fixed incomes who are afraid they might have to move.”

Decisions on the number of units that will eventually be available at Phillips and whether tenants will be able to purchase lots have not yet been made. Pitkin County commissioners will make those decisions in the near future.

Curtis, who owns both his 1969 mobile home and the chunk of Woody Creek beneath it, is all-too familiar with the fear Bamesberger lived with for two decades. He was the president of the park’s homeowners association when it went through the long, arduous process that led to ownership and still harbors some animosity toward the powers that be that directed the process.

However ownership was, as he said, worth all the hassles.

“It’s a big difference,” he said. “It’s security.”

The Aspen Times Email: Twitter: @JasonAuslander