It is time for a careful review of the housing office’s role
This newspaper has been highly critical of the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority at times, regarding policies and actions that have both diminished public confidence in the authority and jeopardized its mission to provide affordable housing for the working population.
This criticism, however, has not been aimed at taking away from the authority’s vital role in this community. The housing office is a critical piece of a larger puzzle – the goal of retaining a level of livability and a sense of community that is needed if Aspen and Pitkin County are to avoid becoming a shell of their historically diverse selves.
Over the past two decades, the housing office has done an admirable job of creating and maintaining a stock of affordable housing that now numbers around 1,700 units. This achievement is remarkable, and is the envy of other towns around the United States facing similar challenges. The housing office staff can take great pride in its successes.
Recently, though, the housing office’s record in building new apartments, condos and townhomes has been a troubled one. And that has prompted criticism not only from this newspaper, but from other quarters as well.
Most recently, the housing office has twice fumbled its handling of financial projections regarding the Snyder Park project, resulting in major delays. Housing office staffers came to a meeting of the Aspen City Council this week so ill prepared with a presentation of the latest Snyder Park development package that the City Council reprimanded the staffers and put the project on hold yet again.
In explaining the mishandling of the project, Housing Director Dave Tolen noted that the authority is under a lot of pressure. He then said he would institute a new internal procedure regarding development proposals: staffers will now get together before a presentation to be sure all the information is organized and everybody is “on the same page.”
Shouldn’t we already expect this basic level of preparation from a group of people charged with something as critical as our affordable housing program?
This is not a good sign for the future of the housing office’s construction program. Snyder Park is a relatively small project, only 15 units. If the housing office is unable to keep itself focused and on track with a project of this magnitude, what can be expected over the next few years when the agency is expected to build larger projects numbering in the hundreds of units?
It may be that this community needs to pause and re-evaluate the purpose and mission of the housing authority. It may simply be that the authority, as constituted, is overwhelmed by the vast scope of its mission.
Some have suggested that the development aspect of the affordable housing program is better suited to the skills and experience of the private sector. This may be true. Private contractors would not use 2-year-old figures in bidding the project, as the housing office has once done. Private contractors would not come to a meeting with elected officials woefully underprepared to explain their plans.
It will be painful if local officials decide to strip the housing office of its development role. And that may not be the proper remedy; the private sector, left to its own devices, cannot meet the need for affordable housing. A certain level of government oversight, not to mention financial involvement, is undeniably needed if the housing that is built is to be kept affordable.
At the very least, our elected officials need to entertain the thought that perhaps they have been asking too much of their staff, that this bureaucracy was not properly set up to deal with this volume of development work.
Clearly, something is wrong and changes are in order.
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