Housing agenda realistic? | AspenTimes.com

Housing agenda realistic?

Private-sector developers are skeptical that a recently stated goal of building 700 affordable housing units in two years can be attained.

Aspen City Council members, county commissioners, housing board members and advisory board members gave themselves a mandate last month to put seven different housing projects on a fast track. Since they set that goal, 100 units at the Burlingame ranch received final approval. That leaves 600 units to either be built or approved by the end of 2001.

Is it possible? City and county officials say yes. Housing board member Bob Helmus says there’s “no doubt in my mind” – with the proper staffing.

But those on the private side of development call the task “Herculean” at best.

Tom Stevens, who built Williams Ranch, plans to have 300 units built or approved in the next three years going “at breakneck speed.”

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In the last five years Stevens has built about 500 units of housing on the Western Slope. He contends that finding enough “warm bodies” to properly plan, design and build 600 units in a booming real estate market is virtually impossible within the appointed deadline.

Bill Kane, vice president of planning and development at the Aspen Skiing Co., agreed. “Seven sites approved in two years is unprecedented and will be very difficult to achieve. Not to disparage the housing office, but I just think it’ll be a Herculean task.”

When the expedited housing goal was set, policy-makers all agreed that the current two-person development staff at the housing office is woefully inadequate to handle the new mandate. Discussions are being held now assessing how many additional staffers the housing authority will need.

For the Skico, six staff members will be striving to get 216 units of affordable housing built or approved in the next several years. By the end of a five-year approval process, Hines Resorts had 10 planners/managers dedicated to overseeing its Highlands Village project.

Private developers suggest that the housing authority needs to add at least two to four additional staff members solely dedicated to new projects.

But even with that extra help, Kane contended that it will probably take government longer than a private applicant to successfully approve its own project.

“They have more obligation to hear out the neighbors. If people don’t feel their concerns are being heard they could waylay the whole process in court. I think [government is] inviting that type of action if it’s perceived that they’re trying to go too fast,” Kane said.

Logistics aside, will public confidence be undermined if the city and county don’t reach the 600-unit goal by 2001? The private-sector jury was split, even though public officials are confident the public will applaud their efforts.

“I think the people will give them credit for trying,” Kane remarked.

Stevens, however, disagreed.

“I think people who know the construction business will laugh and people who don’t will lose confidence in the housing authority’s credibility.”

Mayor Rachel Richards expects the public to be understanding.

“With an issue where the need is as great as affordable housing, it’s better to set your goals high. I think people understand that it’s a race and we may hit some snags along the way. But I’d rather promise big and hit 75 percent than promise small and hit it all,” she said.

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