By Jenny Stuber, author of Aspen and the American Dream: How One Town Manages Inequality in the Era of Supergentrification

In communities across the American West, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed new social class dynamics, if not fractures. The pandemic accelerated existing processes of amenity migration, as wealthy Americans sought respite from their constrained urban lives, converging in what have been dubbed “Zoomtowns.” Like Jennifer Sherman’s book Dividing Paradise: Rural Gentrification and the Diminishing American Dream, my new book Aspen and the American Dream: How One Community Manages Inequality in the Era of Supergentrification, explores how these processes can result in considerable class tensions. Our analyses diverge, however, in terms of what they reveal about a community’s ability to push back against—though not entirely thwart—rural gentrification. 

My ethnography of one Colorado resort town begins with what I call the “impossible math” of Aspen: it is a place where median household incomes hover around $74,000 annually while median home prices exceed $4 million. These two numbers do not line up, creating an apparent disjuncture between earnings and housing cost. What resolves this equation, making Aspen a place that can accommodate middle- and upper-middle class households, is the community’s extensive affordable housing program. This program—composed of 3,000 units for a county with about 12,000 residents—is absolutely essential given that fact that most working locals have been entirely squeezed out of the free-market for housing.  

So how has Aspen been able to provide affordable housing to so many residents and erect a backstop against complete displacement? I argue that Aspen’s unique place-based class culture has been a formidable resource that has allowed the town to address the needs of working locals for more than 40 years. I coined the term place-based class culture to describe how communities do social class. It helps explain why conflicts over social class emerge and how they are resolved.

In Aspen, conflicts over social class have been moderated due to the ways that social class relations have been institutionalized. Since the early 1970s, progressive leaders in Aspen have worked to institutionalize two truisms: that locals’ needs come before the needs of tourists and vacation home owners, and that development pays its own way. Because of these deep-seated beliefs, elected officials and urban planners have enacted policies that extract mitigations (fees, essentially) from developers and extensive taxes from those who purchase homes. For example, when a home sold in Aspen in the summer of 2021 for $70 million, the city collected an additional $1,050,000 and placed it in a separate fund for community uses. $700,000 of that real estate transfer tax will eventually fund affordable housing.

Not every community asks as much from developers and wealthy visitors. How have they been able to extract money from developers and visitors and keep them coming back for more? This gets to another component of Aspen’s place-based class culture: Aspen Exceptionalism. People in Aspen are quite fond of their community. They see it as an authentic, culturally-rich town, conveniently situated in an exceptionally beautiful mountain valley. They embrace their roots as a rugged silver mining town (and forget about the dispossession of the Ute Indians), the intellectualism of those who founded the Aspen Institute and other cultural centers, and the renegade ethos of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and other progressive thinkers who migrated to Aspen in the late-`60s. These place narratives have led to policies and a land use code that limits growth and maintains community character—all of which benefits those who see Aspen as a viable place to plant their riches.

Yet alongside the place-narrative of Aspen Exceptionalism are narratives specific to social class, which I call Aspen Egalitarianism. While this narrative has been increasingly challenged by the influx of uber-elites, Aspen has built itself on the belief that it is a place of unpretentious wealth where jeans and cowboy hats, or bike shorts and yoga pants, are the requisite uniforms. It is a place where community members mingle across class lines: where everyone can gather at the music tent and enjoy the same classical symphony, and where visitors and locals can enjoy a majestic mountain hike and then talk about it later in the day at the Jerome Bar. Aspen Egalitarianism asserts that working locals are special. They should get to do the same things as affluent visitors, and affluent visitors can benefit by getting to know them. These fundamental beliefs have been institutionalized in policies that facilitate the ability of middle- and upper-middle class people to live in town, attend local schools, and participate in civic life.                

Despite the historic embrace of working-locals and the implementation of policies that benefit them, Aspen has become increasingly exclusive, with heightened commercial and residential displacement. It has started to seem that Aspen’s elected officials and urban planners—quoting former council member Adam Frisch—are bringing “a knife to a bazooka fight.” Despite the fact that Aspen place-makers have fashioned a sharp knife, one that is has been used judiciously to craft local land use policies, it is no match for the bazooka wielded by global capital. The global deregulation of capital markets means that the amount of money flowing into communities like Aspen is unprecedented—potentially resulting in more displacement and deeper class conflicts.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought good news and bad news to Aspen. Local sales tax revenues increased more than 25% through the summer of 2021, filling the coffers of a city government that already collects substantial revenues from dining, retail sales and lodging—taxes largely paid by visitors. With home sales up by 145%, the money flowing from the real estate transfer tax into the affordable housing fund has also ballooned. Because these monies are used largely for programs that benefits locals, there is some upside to the influx of amenity migrants. The bad news, though, is that affordable housing within the free market has fallen further out of reach, as most homes sell for more than $10 million and older condos convert to short-term vacation rentals.

Despite the relative success of Aspen officials in reconciling the disparate interests of its working locals and uber wealthy visitors, the COVID-19 pandemic shows the power of global capital—wielded in Aspen by families seeking a safe place and international art dealers seeking their business—to disrupt communities through supergentrification. My work helps explain variations in how communities respond to these forces, and the degree to which they are equipped to respond to the forces of global capital.