Aspen candidates comment on work-force housing issues

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – Political sparks weren’t exactly flying at the first political forum of Aspen’s spring election season to feature all six rivals for mayor and four office-seekers vying for two City Council seats.

The 10 candidates – all of whom officially qualified Friday to have their names placed on the May 7 citywide ballot – dutifully answered the questions posed by moderator Chris Bryan, a local attorney, on the topic of community affordable housing. The event was organized by the Aspen Democracy Initiative and held at the Limelight Hotel.

Retired certified public accountant and attorney Maurice Emmer kicked things off by answering a question about the “proper role” of the mayor and council in providing and sustaining the local affordable-housing program.

Emmer said the council needs to ensure that over the long run, the community has an “appropriate inventory of affordable housing.”

“It accounts for a lot of the character of the town,” he said of affordable housing. “When visitors come here, they comment, ‘This is a real community.’ A big reason for that is there are real people from all walks of life, living here in Aspen or just outside of Aspen and making this a vibrant and diverse community.”

However, Emmer pointed out that many affordable-housing units have serious physical problems that aren’t being adequately addressed by city government.

Councilman Torre said he’s looking to buy a home but is a bit leery of the government-subsidized program as it exists today.

“Part of the reason for that is the experience I see through friends of mine who live in affordable housing is one of not enough support,” he said. “My goals right now are to reassure those people who live in affordable housing that the city will be a partner with them.”

Torre spoke of the need for a “cooperative capital-improvement project.”

“What we do now is we develop housing and set up a (homeowners association) in each individual housing complex, and we set them off on their own,” he said. “Really there is no other investment from the city into these housing units, and I disagree with that. I think we need to be taking care of people who are in housing, currently, before we go looking to make more housing.”

Bryan asked Councilman Adam Frisch if the program is working under a sustainable model.

“The question is, how do we make sure that existing housing stock lasts as long as possible?” he said. “I don’t think that the community wants to start, nor can it start, spending money to (repair buildings) directly. I do think we owe it to the community to do a much better job of education of the buyer because I think a more educated buyer is going to put pressure on the sellers to fix up their places.”

Councilman Steve Skadron was asked if the cap on a unit’s value should be removed or increased after a certain amount of time.

“No, I don’t think it should,” he said. “Affordable housing has to serve a certain number of goals, and those goals include ensuring a supply of good-quality housing (and) making existing housing more readily available through an efficient process. I think the program should promote economic diversity.”

Skadron added that “removing the cap changes the objective of the entire affordable-housing program.”

Bryan asked Councilman Derek Johnson if the city should be responsible for refurbishing and repairing common areas and other elements of affordable-housing complexes.

“On the owners’ side, … there are times when we as a community might have to step in and look at how we can help,” he said. “Centennial would be an appropriate example. We have as a community stepped in to figure out, ‘Are there some problems there?’ But I think we should stop short there.”

Johnson, who owns an employee-housing unit, said owners should want to take care of the units themselves.

“We have to acknowledge, and I certainly do, that the reason we are able to be here was because there was a subsidy given,” he said. “I feel a little bit of a debt that I owe to the community, to the housing program. … I want to fix up my place. It’s a pride-of-ownership thing.”

Planning and Zoning Commissioner L.J. Erspamer was asked about the inventory count of employee-housing units.

“This is an inexact science,” he said. “We hear such moving targets all the time. I have heard 2,800 units. When we were reviewing the Aspen Area Community Plan, it was about that. … We still don’t know how many people are going to retire in these units in 10 years. We (heard) 1,200 at first, then 846 people who are going to retire.”

Erspamer said the appropriate next step would be to find good places for retirees to live after they no longer need the large spaces they currently occupy.

“You can’t throw the dice and build (smaller units for retirees) and hope somebody will come,” Erspamer said. “What we need to do is find out where we can get the right sites, negotiate the right price and then pursue that through (a reservations system) and support.”

Ann Mullins, who chairs the Historic Preservation Commission, was asked what changes or improvements are needed in the program.

Mullins, the only woman seeking citywide elected office, said officials ought to step back and look at the program’s goals. When the program was started in the 1970s, the focus was more on quantity than quality, she said, and there wasn’t a lot of foresight into what the units would be like decades later.

“I think we’ve moved past that, … and we need to be providing quality housing for our employees, and we also need to keep it affordable,” she said. “A really beneficial change would be to think of some type of ongoing … refurbishment fund that could be applied to these units. If someone has been living in a unit for four years, are they really responsible for 30 years of wear and tear?”

Former Councilman Dwayne Romero said the program needs three major adjustments: “An increase in flexibility, an increase in the programs that (reinvest and refurbish) and some dedicated program for a graceful retirement path.”

Romero suggested that local governments could approach private property owners for a pilot program in which dilapidated units could be renovated and used for entry-level affordable housing.

Attorney Art Daily said the program has done a good job of adapting to changing needs over the years. He said a thorough study, using reliable data, of how many units will be needed in the next decade is a necessary step.

Local resident Jonny Carlson was asked what grade he would give the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority for its efforts to enforce eligibility compliance.

“I’m really not familiar with that issue, but from what I have heard, probably a C-plus,” he said.


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