Housing officials refute election potshots | AspenTimes.com

Housing officials refute election potshots

Sarah S. Chung

Local housing officials took exception yesterday to charges that they haven’t been building any housing.

Housing Board members held a press conference Thursday to “set the record straight” in response to potshots from local candidates who claim no new housing has been built for three years.

“We think that this statement is dishonest and is meant to mask the real truth – that there has been a substantial advancement of the housing program by public efforts,” said Housing Board Chairman Frank Peters.

Peters, along with Housing Director Dave Tolen and board members Mick Ireland and Bob Helmus, stood out front of the Aspen Country Inn construction site while they defended Housing Authority efforts.

Peters likened the three-year, no-build “charge” to President Clinton’s grand jury testimony.

“While technically correct, it misses the point like the building here,” Peters said, motioning to the framework of the Country Inn. “It implies that the planning, financing, and coordination done don’t count. Just take a good hard look at what doesn’t exist,” he said, pointing to the work site. The Aspen Country Inn is designated as affordable housing for senior citizens.

No one in the housing program ducks or ignores “warranted criticism,” added Tolen, but he suggested candidates for local office stick to the facts when they make statements about the housing issue.

Tolen and Housing Board members emphasized the long-term commitment needed to accomplish the goal of providing more affordable housing in the community.

They fired off a list of projects – including 55 units now under construction, 146 units being designed, 445 units under preliminary development, and 73 units purchased and kept in the affordable housing stock – as a rebuttal to claims that the housing program has been less than effectual in recent years.

In response to a charge that the private sector has had more success in building deed-restricted housing than the public sector in the last three years, Tolen noted that privately built projects could be counted on one hand. And, of the five private affordable housing units built, two sold for more than $500,000, he said.

The private sector isn’t the “end-all, be-all” answer to solve the community’s affordable housing needs, stressed housing officials.

As evidence, they pointed to resorts that have no public housing programs. They’re studying Aspen’s approach, which has produced 1,500 units of affordable housing since its inception, Ireland said.

“The private sector didn’t rescue Vail or Steamboat,” he said. “There, the private sector didn’t swoop down and save the day.”

Some Aspen City Council and mayoral candidates conceded yesterday that charges of Housing Authority complacency may be unwarranted. But recent problems, like the grossly underestimated construction budget that delayed the building of Snyder Park, keep the issue of the program’s effectiveness on the table.

Recent housing lottery errors also put the housing program in an unfavorable spotlight.

Instead of doing too little, the Housing Authority may be trying to do too much, suggested several candidates.

“There need to be changes,” said mayoral candidate Helen Klanderud. “I feel the current administration’s overtaxed and that Snyder and the two lottery mistakes are things that are indicative of a system that’s overloaded.”

A larger role for the private sector could speed up the construction of more affordable housing, some suggest.

“I think turning over the program to the private sector is a mistake. But more so for the private sector, time is money,” said council candidate Tom McCabe. “Maybe having the public sector be the watchdog and making sure standards are met could be an accommodation. Then the entire burden isn’t on their shoulders and they don’t have to do everything.”

But Klanderud and council candidate Tim Semrau contend affordable housing would be better off entirely in the hands of the private sector.

“I think the housing office does a fantastic amount of hard work, but they don’t have the years of experience it takes to oversee $100 million of development,” said Semrau, a developer. “There are thousands of ways to lose money everyday on a project.

“Who’s to say that what happened at Snyder won’t happen at Burlingame, but just in a compounded manner? I think being the biggest developer in the valley is asking too much of the housing office,” he said.

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