Housing experts: Business as usual won’t do it | AspenTimes.com

Housing experts: Business as usual won’t do it

A panel of experts convened Monday said it will take more than business as usual to meet a goal of 600 new affordable housing units in Aspen and Pitkin County within two years.

City and county officials in August set the goal of having 600 additional housing units built or approved in two years. Consultant Kathy McCormick was then hired to evaluate the housing program’s ability to meet that goal.

Yesterday, McCormick assembled a group of developers, financiers and consultants who specialize in affordable housing to lend a fresh set of eyes to the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority’s structure and ability to meet the goal. Their analysis will be presented to the housing board Wednesday.

Calling the 600-unit goal “highly ambitious,” the panelists emphasized that setting obtainable parameters is pivotal.

“You want to be careful not to set an unrealistic goal that creates a sense of failure before you even begin,” said Chuck Perry of the Affordable Housing Development Corp.

Local housing consultant Jim Curtis agreed that the number should take a back seat to the end product.

“The worst thing to do is to try to be too quick, with results that could be disastrous,” Curtis said.

With an eye toward simply doing as much as possible, as well as possible, regardless of the 600-unit figure, the panelists also stressed that the housing mandate demands breaking away from past practice.

First, panelists recommended more public/private partnerships. Second, members of the panel urged the community to think of density as more than just a number.

In contrast to a perception that working with the private sector will inherently result in higher fees, housing consultant Jane Harrington noted that the profit-crazy private developer is sometimes just a stereotype.

“All the nonprofits I’ve worked with complain about margins not being enough just like private developers,” Harrington said.

Panelists encouraged the housing office to leverage its resources by tapping into private-sector funding.

The Housing Authority could focus more on smaller projects, “infill” projects and other types of construction that are difficult for private developers to build, they said. Panelists also suggested farming out some projects to private developers for a fee or partnering with the private sector and using public funds to subsidize the project.

“I think to have any chance to getting there, we’ve got to get as many players in as possible and not build a fortress around the housing office and try to be all things to all people,” Curtis said.

Panelists also noted that many public projects fall short in density, especially considering local land costs. But, the panelists noted the pressure neighbors generally exert to keep density down in an affordable housing project.

However, Perry insisted that good design, accommodating high density, is the key to getting away from the number battle with neighbors.

“The issue isn’t density. The issue is design – how to convince people that a good product can fit in the context of the neighborhood without backing off on density,” he said.

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