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Housing rules need more compassion

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Rules are rules, and they usually exist for a reason.

That aside, we can’t understand why the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority won’t bend its rules a little in the name of common decency to give a local woman more time to find a job so that she can keep her Truscott Place studio apartment.

On Wednesday, Susan C. Johnson, a woman who has been unemployed for 22 months, asked the housing authority’s board for leniency so that she can remain in the apartment she’s rented for three years while she looks for a job. In a 2-1 vote, with two abstentions, the board decided that she must leave her home at the end of this month unless she is able to secure a position that will employ her for at least 1,500 hours per year.

The board majority was following the rules – we get that. The city-county program was designed to assist working families and individuals with the high cost of living in one of the nation’s most expensive communities. If not for certain guidelines, affordable-housing units might be filled with retirees and people of independent means looking to save a buck, and more city and county worker bees would have to commute from midvalley and downvalley locales.

An affordable-housing tenant must “be a full-time employee working in Pitkin County for an employer whose business address is located within Aspen or Pitkin County (and) whose business license is in Aspen or Pitkin County,” the housing authority’s guidelines state. Johnson is drawing unemployment benefits – she was laid off from her job with the Aspen Homeless Shelter in April 2010 – but the rules state that she must meet the 1,500-hour-per-year work requirement.

Still, given the serious nature of the Great Recession and the slow recovery that has followed, it seems that some compassion is in order for those who have lost their jobs and cannot find gainful employment but continue to follow all other renters’ rules and make their lease payments on time. Rules can be rewritten; perhaps a six-month probationary period from the point of discovery and verification of the lack-of-employment violation would be fair.

Johnson’s situation reeks of selective enforcement. How many public-housing homeowners are fudging on their applications, saying that their children live with them so that they can obtain larger units? How many are exceeding the allowable maximum income levels through spouses whose wages are understated? How many tenants at Truscott are keeping pets without permission? If the housing authority wants to start investigating under every rock, there’s plenty to turn up.

We also would like to use this forum to point out an instance in which the housing authority evicted a woman from a Truscott Place apartment in May. The woman, Lianne Beasley, said she was working on a seasonal basis for Aspen Skiing Co., has a son with Down syndrome and planned to stay home last summer in order to care for him while he was not in school and return to work in the fall.

But the rules state that she was violating the terms of her lease, and so an eviction notice ended up on Beasley’s door. She and her son are now living in Basalt and are being cared for. But the action to evict them still seems cruel.

Johnson, who has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for more than 30 years, faces a daunting task. She has to secure employment over the next 27 days to keep her living arrangement, and that’s tough for someone who’s under the gun and faces eviction. She’s been homeless before, and so in essence, the housing authority’s decision would turn a former homeless person who had overcome her plight back over to homelessness. It doesn’t make sense.

Should Johnson fail in her quest for a 29-hour-per-week job, the housing authority staff and the board should revisit the decision to kick her out of her home. And, in light of her situation and similar ones others have faced in the recent past, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the housing authority to reconfigure its rules to make temporary allowances for people facing difficult financial or personal circumstances while still giving those employed in the county first choice for vacant properties.

Some sort of compromise policy seems appropriate.


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