Aspen housing authority boosts enforcement
ASPEN – The Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority’s decision Wednesday to order an Aspen doctor to sell his house for allegedly being out of compliance with regulations was far from setting a precedent, director Tom McCabe said Thursday.
The housing authority has investigated 192 complaints in the last three years that owners or renters of employee housing units were somehow out of compliance with regulations, the agency’s records show.
Last year, 39 complaints resulted in 12 individuals or families being asked to vacate their residences. Eight sales units and four rental units were opened through the actions, the housing authority’s records show.
The agency investigated 88 complaints in 2008. Owners were asked to sell their units in 11 cases, and renters were evicted or voluntarily left in seven cases.
In 2007, the housing authority investigated 65 alleged infractions that resulted in six ownership units and three rentals being opened.
In other cases, the complaints were either unfounded or addressed by the occupants by coming into compliance, McCabe said.
Data was only available for the last three years, which coincides with the housing authority’s tougher stance on enforcement.
There’s a perception that the program “is rife with abuse,” McCabe said. He said he doesn’t believe that’s the case. Different housing complexes have different rules, so people mistakenly believe that rules that apply in one situation apply in all situations, he said.
Nevertheless, the housing authority boosted its enforcement budget 2 1/2 years ago to ensure compliance – and battle misperceptions about abuses. The city of Aspen and Pitkin County increased the housing authority’s enforcement budget from $25,000 to $145,000 annually.
While many cases are resolved at the staff level, occasionally an issue must go to the board of directors for action. The board voted 3-1 Wednesday night to order Dr. Kenton Bruice and his wife Donna to sell the North 40 house they built in 2004.
“It’s not an easy thing for the board to do when it comes to somebody’s home,” McCabe said.
The Bruices’ former neighbor, Jennifer Hall, filed a complaint last winter alleging the couple didn’t meet minimum occupancy requirements. Hall, a former housing authority board member, regularly observed when the Bruices were home or away, it was disclosed at a March 3 housing authority board meeting. She felt they were gone too often to own the deed-restricted home under housing guidelines. Kenton Bruice was ordered to provide documentation that he occupied the home for 275 days of the year.
Bruice is an obstetrician and gynecologist who practices in Aspen and Denver. He contended he should get credit for partial days when he travels between Aspen and Denver. In that scenario, he contended, he would qualify. The housing authority disagreed.
“[Wednesday] night it was clear he was out of compliance for 2009,” McCabe said.
Housing board members Kristin Sabel, Ron Erickson and Erin Smiddy voted to direct Bruice to try to sell his house. Marcia Goshorn opposed the order.
Bruice said his home is worth $1.4 million. It is a resident-occupied house, on the highest end of deed-restricted units.
McCabe said the housing authority requires owners to list their homes at appraised levels when they are ordered to sell the residences as part of an enforcement action.
“He has to be pretty reasonable about his price and he has to list it,” McCabe said.
How aggressively Bruice has to try to sell his house is somewhat of a gray area, particularly with the “soft” market, McCabe acknowledged.
“I don’t think it would sell quickly in this market,” he said. “If it doesn’t move, it doesn’t move. I don’t know that we can do anything about that.”
That might create time to resolve the issue amicably. McCabe said it appeared to him that housing board members felt Bruice might be able to come into compliance, then return to the board for a ruling that he can remain in his house.
Bruice could meet the minimum residency requirement by tweaking the balance of time he practices in Aspen and Denver. There is also the option of getting his wife listed on the property deed. She spends more time in Aspen than her husband, so she could meet the residency requirement as long as she met guidelines for hours worked in the county, McCabe said.
Bruice said after the board’s decision Wednesday night that his family had to sort out which direction to go.
McCabe acknowledged that the housing authority is sometimes criticized for being too tough for its enforcement actions – even though there is also a perception that too many abuses exist. It’s the classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario, he said.
In many cases when owners or renters are out of compliance, it’s difficult to determine if they were “scamming us” or making a mistake, McCabe said. “It’s hard for us to know what’s in a person’s head.”
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