Future unclear for housing board | AspenTimes.com

Future unclear for housing board

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

An outside consultant’s suggestion that Aspen and Pitkin County disband their joint housing board may have some merit, according to the chairman of the board.

At least two other board members just wish the city and county would make up their minds about the function and future of the housing board.

The fate of the housing board, and the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority it oversees, have been the focus of several debates in recent months. The issue came up anew this week with the release of a draft Aspen Affordable Housing Strategic Plan, which recommends disbanding the housing board and making the Housing Authority an internal department of city government.

Such a move would place the policy and fiduciary responsibilities for the affordable-housing program with the city, where it belongs, since the city controls most of the funds that are dedicated to housing, the consultants concluded in their report.

“Since the county has no funding for affordable housing and is prohibiting it in its new land-use code, it might make sense,” said City Councilman Tim Semrau, who chairs the housing board.

A new land-use code under consideration in the county would push future housing projects inside urban growth boundaries – into Aspen, for example. And, since the county has no dedicated source of revenue to develop housing, most public projects are built by the city.

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Given those factors, abolishing the joint board makes sense, agreed Councilman Tony Hershey.

“The county doesn’t want us to build any housing in the county, and the county doesn’t have any money to build housing, so they should get out of the housing business,” he said.

The Housing Authority has operated as a joint city/county agency since its inception in late 1982. The housing board is comprised of citizens appointed by either the City Council or Board of County Commissioners, including one elected official from each government.

Since mid-2001 the housing board has seen a change in its makeup, gaining new members who are anxious to take a more active role in the development of additional housing. At the same time, the city is moving toward putting development of its projects in the hands of the private sector.

While the housing board seeks a clearer definition of its function, the housing office staff and its director have been wondering whether they answer to the housing board, the city or the county. Amid the tension, Housing Director Mary Roberts tendered her resignation last week. It is effective March 1.

The housing board intends to appoint an interim director and take its time selecting Roberts’ successor, Semrau told the City Council this week. The board wants to make sure the director’s job description meshes with the recommendations of the master plan, he said.

The plan’s suggestion to abolish the board altogether comes as no surprise, said board member Marcia Goshorn. The idea has come up in recent discussions between the board, City Council and county commissioners, she noted.

Commissioner Jack Hatfield suggested two months ago that the housing board be phased out of existence and the two governments take over their housing efforts individually.

At the close of their last joint discussion, though, elected officials appeared to want a stronger housing board that would take oversight of the housing director out of city government.

“At this point, I can’t figure out what those guys are thinking anymore,” Goshorn said. “You know what, guys, just make a decision. I don’t care what it is.”

“I do wish they’d make up their minds and be willing to stand by their convictions,” agreed housing board member Keith Webster.

If the city wants to disband the board and internalize the housing office, “then they should do it and quit dinking around,” Webster said.

“If that’s really what they want to do, then they should have the balls to stand up and say, `this is what we’re going to do,’ and just do it,” he said.

If the joint board is disbanded, Semrau sees a need for a city housing board to oversee the daily operations of a housing office and the management of some 1,900 units in the housing program inventory. The City Council would likely look to a housing board for input on development, as well, he said.

“I anticipate the city would set up some version of a housing board,” Semrau said.

But Goshorn wonders if the checks and balances the existing board provides to the program would be lost.

“The function of the housing board is supposed to be well-balanced input into the development of affordable housing,” Webster agreed. “If they want housing to become a city department, then there really isn’t a role for the housing board.”

When talk of abolishing the board surfaced last month, Commissioner Shellie Roy argued against it. The board serves a valuable role in overseeing the program because it is separate from both governments, she said.

“I think the citizens see the citizen piece of the housing board as sort of a watchdog over the city and the county and our craziness,” Roy said.

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