Housing is no longer Dave Tolen’s headache
Five years, 300 additional housing units, and countless hours of hard work later, Dave Tolen stepped down at 2 p.m. yesterday as executive director of the local housing office.
Tolen also paid his dues during a three-year stint as the Housing Authority’s project manager, before donning the director’s hat. Eight years in Aspen’s affordable housing racket was enough – rewarding, frustrating, filled with proud moments, and moments he’d like to forget.
“Looking back, it’s been really satisfying being able to accomplish what we have. I feel proud to have been a part of this,” Tolen said. “But I’ve been working on affordable housing for 15 years in the public and private sectors.
“I’m looking forward to doing something totally different. I’d like to use a different set of skills and let the extrovert side that’s crying to get out have a little bit of air time.”
Tolen’s next challenge will be computer consulting. But on Tuesday, Aspen’s head housing guy looked tanned, relaxed and ready to leave the whole affordable housing headache to someone else.
“I was told that a lot of jobs have a natural lifespan, especially in the public sector. If you exceed that, you can get jaded, cynical. … I could feel myself tiring,” he said. Ups and downs One thing Tolen won’t miss – at all – is the housing lottery that’s been held almost every week since he took office. In this weekly game of chance, stakes and emotions run very high. And the payoff for a few lucky people doesn’t nearly compensate for the sense of desperation that surrounds every drawing, he said.
“I hate doing lotteries. It’s got to be one of the most debilitating things about the housing office, seeing one person happy and 10 or 20 or 100 people walk away empty-handed,” Tolen said.
“One of the hardest things for me was to feel responsible when some people get housing and others don’t. It’s tough to say to someone, `I know you’ve been in 100 lotteries but just hang on, maybe 101 will be the one.’ “
On the other hand, one of the most memorable moments for Tolen during his tenure as director was when a woman started screaming and almost fainted after winning a lottery. Reaching some goals So what would Dave Tolen most like to be remembered for? If he could write his own legacy, it would be that in eight years, he tried his darndest to make the housing office “more open and responsive to the community.
“I think we’ve reached a much better understanding of how to accomplish our goals, while also being more sensitive to neighbors,” Tolen said. “With recent projects, it’s a complete misrepresentation to say we just gave in, and anyone who was in the process would tell you that. At Snyder, the neighbors wanted nine units. We didn’t buy that; we said that’s not appropriate, that’s not right.”
The 15 units at Snyder Park are in the final stages of construction. And City Manager Amy Margerum said that Tolen’s attention to adjacent homeowners has done wonders to increase the comfort level about the prospect of affordable housing moving onto the block.
“Dave really put in the time working with the neighbors and succeeded in meeting everyone’s goals,” Margerum said. “One hundred percent of the neighbors voted for the project and, more importantly, it sent out the message that affordable housing can go in next door and it won’t be a problem.” The Tolen years With something as emotional and stressful as the topic of affordable housing in Aspen, it would be understandable if the executive director screened his calls and put some distance between himself and the masses clamoring for the precious commodity.
That wasn’t the case in the Tolen years.
“He brought an openness to the housing office that wasn’t there before,” said housing board member Bob Helmus. “There was a very closed-off, remote feeling prior to Dave. You couldn’t call up and speak to the executive director. That’s Dave’s legacy, I think.”
At Tolen’s send-off party at The Cantina yesterday, at least eight different city and county departments were represented with people there to show their appreciation.
Some were elected officials who have worked with Tolen, some were government workers or housing project managers who will miss the day-to-day banter, and some were lottery winners who dropped by to raise a glass to Tolen’s efforts.
Recently elected city Councilman Tom McCabe, also a lottery winner, was there.
“My experience with the housing office was nothing but very good. They took care of us, coached us, and if future projects are nearly as fine as the one I moved into, we’re in very good shape,” McCabe said.
But more than anything else, Tolen embodied why the housing program is so important to the community, said Mayor Rachel Richards.
“He always upheld the values of the housing program and was a real advocate for the common guy, fair use, and tenant rights,” Richards noted. “But more importantly, it’s easy to say there are hundreds of families in housing who will remember Dave well.”
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