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Housing board tells Aspen tenant to find a job or leave apartment

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – Susan C. Johnson has a problem.

According to action taken by the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority board Wednesday night, she has to find a local job by the end of this month. Should she fail in her quest for employment, she loses her studio apartment at Truscott Place and is ineligible for worker housing through the housing authority.

“Their decision was ludicrous,” 54-year-old Johnson said after the board’s 2-1 vote. “I’ve been in the same unit for three years. I’ve never been late on rent. I’m just having trouble finding a job.”

Aside from what she calls “spot jobs,” Johnson has been unemployed for 22 months. She formerly worked as a manager for the Aspen Homeless Shelter’s overnight facility, a position she discovered by being homeless and using the shelter’s services. She was laid off in April 2010 and has been drawing unemployment benefits since.

Housing authority board members held a hearing on her case Jan. 18 and continued the discussion Wednesday before voting. Board Chairwoman Kristin Sabel and member Ron Erickson were in the majority, voting to uphold the letter of housing authority rules that require tenants to hold a job within the county and work 1,500 hours or more per year, which works out to about 29 hours a week.

Board member Marcia Goshorn cast the lone vote in support of Johnson and pointed out the difficulty of finding employment during the recession and slow recovery. Two other board members, Rick Head and Bobbie Burkley, abstained from voting.

Goshorn tried to defend Johnson, saying she also found herself unemployed during the recent recession and the only way out of the situation was to restart her own business. She noted that Johnson submitted a lot of documentation that showed she was actively seeking a job in the area.

Sabel stressed that the documentation only showed that Johnson had applied for many jobs but didn’t prove that employers were responding to her inquiries. She also pointed out that Johnson landed only a few interviews. Goshorn replied that in a tough economy, employers don’t always respond to job applicants and that interviews are often difficult to obtain.

“I was in a situation when I got laid off from Aspen Meadows,” Goshorn said. “Employers will get 60 applications in this town, and they don’t send emails back. Some of them don’t acknowledge that you applied. It’s frustrating. I know what it’s like applying for a job in this town.”

Sabel suggested that Johnson, who pays $756 per month for the Truscott studio, should move downvalley to find less expensive free-market housing. She also delved into the subject of Johnson’s job skills and housing options but was warned by the board’s legal counsel that she might be exceeding the allowed scope of the discussion.

Goshorn also suggested that people older than 50 face an uphill climb when it comes to finding a job in Aspen or Pitkin County.

“Especially if you’re over 50, they don’t give you the time of day,” she said. “(Johnson has) shown us that she’s trying to find work. I don’t believe that she’s not.”

Goshorn said it’s unfair that during the recent economic downturn, the housing authority has been “bending over backwards for people who own units” and yet the board is taking steps to force unemployed renters into homelessness.

She also questioned why the housing authority couldn’t give Johnson more time to find work while allowing her to pay rent for the Truscott studio without fear of impending eviction.

“We have someone who’s on parole for a violent crime that we’re giving a month-to-month lease to, yet somebody who’s looking for work and is unemployed, we’re not willing to go to that extent? I have an issue with that,” Goshorn said.

Johnson said she’s not sure about her next step. She hopes to hear from someone with whom she recently interviewed so that she won’t have to move or become homeless. She’s lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for about 30 years and raised her children here, she said.

She said she was homeless from 2004 to 2009.

“You can’t get a place to live if you don’t have a job, and you can’t get a job if you don’t have a place to live,” Johnson said. “It’s a Catch-22.”

asalvail@aspentimes.com


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