Latinos face housing bias, says official
A Basalt councilman charged this week that Aspen and Pitkin County are discriminating against Latinos through their affordable housing program.
Councilman Steve Solomon said the upper-valley governments aren’t doing enough to incorporate Latinos into worker housing in their jurisdictions. The governments’ failures, he said, force Latinos to live downvalley and commute long distances to work although they are the backbone of Aspen’s construction and service industries.
To support his claim, Solomon noted the low numbers of Latinos living in the 1,700 affordable housing units and attending Aspen’s public schools. They are disproportionately low when compared to the demographics of Aspen’s work force, he said.
Solomon stopped short of accusing the upper-valley governments of racism.
“I don’t think it’s racist. I think to be racist you have to be conscious of it,” he said.
But he is highly critical of the governments’ alleged ongoing bias in housing policies.
Specifically, he accused Pitkin County government of doing too little to preserve housing for Latinos. He accused the Housing Authority of doing nothing to purge its process of cultural biases that prevent Latinos from applying to buy or rent affordable housing units. And he accused housing policy makers of setting income guidelines that discriminate against Latinos, who often hold lower-paying jobs.
Solomon aired his grievances Wednesday in a meeting with Pitkin County commissioners. While discussing the county’s efforts to preserve affordable housing near Holland Hills, Solomon said “the philosophy is good but it’s being applied selectively.”
He suggested the county should do more to preserve the Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park. That neighborhood, an enclave within Basalt which includes several Latino families, faces the potential threat of redevelopment.
Solomon’s comments brought an instant and angry response from Commissioner Mick Ireland. He said Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park residents would already be out in the cold without past county actions that limited the developers’ options. Ireland also noted that the county has helped Lazy Glen trailer park residents without regard to the color of their skin.
When it comes to preserving existing affordable housing, Ireland said he doesn’t care if residents “are from El Salvador or from the moon.”
Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt intervened in the discussion before it became more heated.
Afterward, Solomon acknowledged the issue he tried to raise might have been lost. “My point wasn’t to say, `You racist bastards, straighten up,’ ” Solomon said.
He said his point was to say it’s not enough to avoid discrimination. Local governments’ housing policies must actually go beyond casting a blind eye and do more to invite Latinos into the system, he said.
While Anglos might be “culturally bred” to accept a bureaucratic process “that sticks a stethoscope deep” into a family’s financial affairs to see if they quality for housing, Latinos might be overwhelmed by that process, he said. Solomon questions what the Housing Authority has done to be more welcoming.
Solomon said he’s willing to bet that less than 1 percent of the upper valley’s inventory of 1,700 deed-restricted housing units is occupied by first-generation Latinos.
His research showed that while Latinos comprise a large but unknown percentage of Aspen’s work force, Latinos don’t live where their children could attend Aspen’s public schools.
In 1998, Aspen High School had 22 Latino students, the middle school had 28 and the elementary school included 36.
In the Basalt school district, there were 76 Latinos in high school, 87 in middle school and 206 in elementary school.
Housing policies should be adopted throughout the valley that are more in line with worker demographics, Solomon said.
Basalt government also was a target of Solomon’s criticism. After serving several years on the planning commission and three years on the Town Council, Solomon said he knows from experience Basalt has “zero programs designed for that part of our constituency.”
However, Basalt’s fledgling affordable housing program can be more easily altered, he said. Solomon said he just recently became aware of the prejudices built into the system against Latinos. Now it’s his intent to work on solutions.
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