Aspen electeds OK with fines for affordable housing rule breakers |

Aspen electeds OK with fines for affordable housing rule breakers

Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority sign in downtown Aspen.
Aspen Times File

Aspen’s elected officials on Tuesday gave their blessing for the local affordable housing board to institute a schedule of fines levied at residents in the system who break the rules.

They also agreed in their work session about affordable housing matters that the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board should hire a hearing officer to enforce the fines and decide compliance cases.

“There really is no option between an eviction when someone has violated the terms of their deed restriction or anything else along those lines, and without having a fine schedule in place a hearing officer wouldn’t have any other determination,” said Councilwoman Rachel Richards, who also is an alternate APCHA board member. “People are just very anxious to be able to have an alternative to, ‘OK, let’s pursue an eviction’ versus, ‘OK, here’s a fine and now thank you for correcting that problem.’”

The APCHA board is poised to pass the fines and a hearing officer position in a public hearing Wednesday evening.

Both have been discussed for over a year by the APCHA board, which had recommended approval by council and Pitkin County commissioners.

That was when the board was made up entirely of volunteer citizens and their recommendations had to be approved by elected officials.

The proposed changes were planned to be instituted this year, but politics slowed them down as city and county elected officials changed the makeup of the board.

In August, the APCHA board changed to three volunteer citizens and two elected officials each from the city and county.

The change was made to expedite decisions and not have to go to other governing bodies for final review.

The schedule of fines, which range from $150 to $6,000, as well as the hearing officer, are being considered in order to force compliance and get the board away from being in the unenviable position of deciding residents’ fate when it comes to enforcing the rules.

The APCHA board has one of those compliance cases in front of it Wednesday, when it’s expected to decide on whether a woman who owns a deed-restricted unit on Williams Way at the base of Smuggler Mountain is in violation of the rules because she and her husband own a free-market home in Aspen.

APCHA staff is asking that Julie Vernier be forced to sell the deed-restricted home because she is in violation of the restriction of owning other developed residential property in what’s known as the “Ownership Exclusion Zone.”

If the fines were in place today, Vernier would be facing a hearing officer and a “stage 4” fine of up to $3,000.

There are five stages of fines proposed, each of which range by 20% increases based on the severity and frequency of the violation.

The hearing officer would have discretion on what amount should be levied.

For instance, stage 1 fines range from $150 to $180 and include violations such as not paying property taxes or HOA assessments, or not provide census information.

Stage 2 fines range from $400 to $480 and include not addressing stage 1 violations.

The same goes for stages 3 through 5, and cover more serious violations like not working the required number of hours in Pitkin County or owning other property in the ownership exclusion zone.

When the board first discussed the fines in March 2018, the fines were much lower, ranging from $25 to $500.

Then a few months later they were proposed to be more punitive, from $250 to $5,000.

APCHA Executive Director Mike Kosdrosky said at the time that getting people to prove they are in compliance was a challenge, and steeper fines are meant to deter individuals from breaking the affordable housing rules.

And with enough education, it should be clear to people how they can comply with the rules, he added.

Richards said when the new board was put in place, a majority agreed that the fines were too steep.

“We thought it was a little unnecessary,” she said, noting that a $250 fine, the lowest amount, would be a big blow to a person in low-income housing.

Mayor Torre said he didn’t like the range on the fines, and it should be one dollar amount across the board based on the stages of violations.

“It’s another bone of contention and I wouldn’t put the hearing officer in a position to have” to decide on additional matters, he said.

Councilwoman Ann Mullins agreed with Torre, and said there should be predictability in the fine amounts.

But as Richards and others pointed out, the range is based on levels of intention and frequency of violations.

Judges in all levels of courts decide fines that have ranges, she added.

If the APCHA board approves the hearing officer, the position would be on a contract basis and would come out of the housing agency’s operational budget, which the county and city equally share.

The schedule of fines and the hearing officer would be put in place early next year.