Is `sorry’ enough for housing goof? |

Is `sorry’ enough for housing goof?

Sarah S. Chung

When the stakes are as high as affordable housing in Aspen, it’s tough to tell a person he has won a housing lottery and then say, “oops, wrong guy.”

Anyone can empathize with the emotional roller coaster one rides when long-awaited housing is won, then lost, but does the resulting distress warrant more than a sincere apology? In one case last August, a housing lottery mistake led to the automatic jackpot the next time around.

Given this quasi-precedent, three similarly invalidated winners from a Jan. 28 lottery wait to see if they will now be shoe-ins for housing. But even before their case is argued, another individual has appealed to the Housing Board with his own sad tale.

On Monday, Dec. 28 Charles Kirsten was notified, through phone messages left at his home and work numbers, that his name had been drawn for a one-bedroom apartment at 313 Teal Court.

Upon arrival at the housing office, Kirsten was told a clerical mistake was made and that he was the wrong “Charles.” Drawing a parallel to the decision made following the muffed August lottery, Kirsten appealed to the Housing Board to grant him the same consideration.

Last August, James Shaw’s name was drawn in a housing lottery that mistakenly left out some qualified bidders. The first drawing was declared invalid but Shaw was given first dibs on the next comparable unit up for sale.

Kirsten acknowledged that it might be “a can of worms” if he is given preference in the next lottery, “but I want to be in that can of worms,” he said.

“We [Kirsten and Shaw] were both told that we had won. I was even told by someone in the housing office, whereas a friend had told him he had won,” Kirsten said.

This week, the Housing Board was split on whether or not Kirsten should have priority in a future lottery. Two board members drew a distinct line between having been mistakenly drawn as a winner and having been mistakenly notified. But two others called for further discussion.

How the Housing Authority handles Kirsten’s case and the winners of last month’s invalidated lottery could result in a firm policy for lottery snafus and a change in the notification process.

Housing Board members insist that the decision in Shaw’s situation was not meant to set a precedent.

“When we reluctantly gave Jim Shaw his first choice, we certainly didn’t think it would come up again,” said Housing Board member Terry Schaefer. “Each case should be judged on its own merits.”

“The nature of a lottery is that it’s the highest of highs and lowest of lows. It’s such an emotional, heart-racking thing,” said board member Bob Helmus, who opposes automatically granting the winning trio in January’s invalidated lottery a priority in the next lottery. “This is a totally different situation … it was a computer glitch, something that was out of our control,” he said.

A computer program couldn’t handle the number of chances entered in the lottery for three one-bedroom condos in the Red House.

Some bidders who didn’t win in either the invalidated drawing or in the rerun lottery grudgingly agree the winners of the invalidated drawing should be given the same consideration Shaw received.

“I don’t think it’s right, but I think that’s what they have to do,” said Devery Powers. “Basically you’re taking away three units that no one else can get. My name wasn’t even in the first lottery so I never had a shot the first time around. It isn’t right, but I think they made a mistake with Jim Shaw and they have to treat the other three the same.”

On Monday, the three winners in the invalidated Red House lottery will meet with the Housing Board. Board members hope the session will be the last of its kind.

Several board members have called for a slower notification process, giving the housing staff time to verify the winners before their names hit the streets.

“I’d like to see the process revised and cleaned up,” said board member Rachel Richards, a city councilwoman. “There’s no more important activity the housing office can do. It has to be a seamless, flawless operation.”

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