A broader purpose for Aspen housing program?
Ryan Summerlin October 12, 2012
ASPEN – Katie Grange can’t help but wonder if her disabled son, Max, will have a future in the community in which he was born and raised.
Now 25 years old, Max is an Aspen native who holds down some very part-time jobs and needs the full-time help of a caregiver. He lives with his mom and caregiver in a three-bedroom employee unit in Snowmass Village. Though he’d be financially able to stay in the unit if anything were to happen to Grange, the rules that govern housing set aside for the local work force wouldn’t allow it.
“If I get into a car accident tomorrow, he would go into a nursing home,” Grange said. “He wouldn’t last a week without all the people in this community who know him.”
Max’s story was just one told Thursday to illustrate the need for not just worker housing in Aspen and Pitkin County but “community” housing. City and county elected officials, along with members of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board, gathered Thursday for the second part of a summit to discuss elements of the community’s long-established housing program. The first session took place in late September.
The housing program has focused on providing affordable residences for local workers and their families – people who otherwise would be shut out by the area’s high-priced real estate. Though there are more than 2,600 units in the Aspen/Pitkin County program (Snowmass Village has its own, separate program), the rules don’t accommodate people like Max. He can’t work at least 1,500 hours annually, for example – one of the basic requirements of the housing program in Aspen and Pitkin County (Snowmass has its own rules).
Though the Aspen/Pitkin County program offers units specifically built for people with physical disabilities, if there are no disabled applicants, the units go to able-bodied workers.
Low-income elderly residents, the disabled and people who find themselves homeless or jobless are among those who could be served by “community housing,” said Nan Sundeen, county director of health and human services.
Though workers may retire in their units at age 65, there is no “social safety net” in the housing program for people who aren’t financially able to remain in their housing, said Barry Crook, assistant city manager.
Lauren Mbereko, executive director of Response, an Aspen-based nonprofit that assists victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, described the need for transitional housing that can help clients get out of an abusive situation and find a job.
“These are people who are terrified to leave because they know they couldn’t support themselves and their children on a dime. They need some time,” Mbereko said.
Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely told elected officials she deals with local residents in the legal system who suffer from addictions or mental illness and could benefit from a transitional living arrangement that lets them get established as productive members of the community.
There are existing support services for people facing challenges, but housing is a key piece, according to Sundeen.
“Unless you can house a person, you can’t help them make substantive changes in their lives,” she said.
Last winter, the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation took on the housing piece by renting three units in the city’s Marolt Ranch housing complex for six men who had been staying at the local homeless shelter. The men in turn paid rent to the foundation. Two ultimately left the area, two moved into other housing the foundation arranged for the summer, and two ultimately secured jobs and housing on their own, said foundation Executive Director Kris Marsh.
While elected officials embraced the notion of a broader purpose for the local housing program, some opposed pitting workers in need of housing against the disabled or others with housing needs.
“Yes, this is an unmet need, … but so is a person with two kids living in a studio,” said Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland.
Some officials questioned whether the existing local tax dollars devoted to the housing program – essentially dedicated sales tax proceeds and money from the city’s real estate transfer tax – could be spent on housing that isn’t strictly for buyers or renters who qualify under the housing program’s employment rules. And some questioned whether that money ought to be spent on any other purpose.
Rather, there seemed to be consensus that other sources of funding, from state and federal programs that provide housing money for low-income residents and the disabled, for example, should be explored.
“The key to community housing is a new funding stream,” Commissioner Jack Hatfield said. “I really believe a parallel course is very appropriate.”
That doesn’t mean standard worker housing and units set aside for “community housing” purposes can’t exist together in the same complex, he added.
City Councilman Derek Johnson urged the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority to suggest “tweaks” to the existing rules that could help address some of the challenges introduced Thursday – the 1,500-hour-per-year employment rule that could prove a challenge for the disabled, for example.
In the past year, housing officials also have grappled with an unemployed resident of worker housing who couldn’t secure a job and a resident whose battle with cancer hampered her ability to work.
“I would love to see more flexibility built into what we can and can’t allow,” said housing board member Marcia Goshorn. “To have rules so black and white that there’s no movement within them is tough.”