Aspen’s aging affordable housing program creating issues
Elected officials from the city of Aspen and Pitkin County generally agreed Tuesday to change how the local affordable-housing program is governed so that they can move forward on critical issues facing the thousands of people who live in subsidized units.
“To me, this is the most important program in the community,” Councilman Adam Frisch told a room full of people at a quarterly meeting with council and the Board of County Commissioners.
That sentiment was echoed repeatedly during the two-hour discussion about the future of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority.
They agreed the makeup of the board needs to change so that elected officials serve with citizens, vote on policy that advances the program and so that their decisions are final. Whether it’s five members or seven, with one elected official from each government or two, with citizens carrying out the balance on the board, remains to be seen.
Time commitments, schedules of elected officials and legal questions have to be hashed out before a decision is made.
The commissioners will discuss that potential change, along with others, at their board retreat later this month. Then staff will come back with detailed information for both boards to hash out.
“It’s a major change and it shouldn’t be rushed,” Commissioner Rachel Richards said.
Currently, the APCHA board is comprised of seven citizens whose decisions are subject to be called up and can be overturned by City Council and commissioners. Other votes are recommendations only.
As APCHA matures — now in its 36th year — elected officials recognize that managing the program is becoming more of a challenge, and so is agreeing on policy issues.
“We’ve never thought the units would age … we never thought we’d age,” said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock, adding that the 3,000 units APCHA manages and the lack of affordable housing makes the assets that much more valuable.
“There’s more pressure to get these issues right,” he said.
Governance questions arose from a recent impasse commissioners and council members had about how to handle the massive deficits homeowners associations face in their capital reserves, particularly at aging properties.
In 2016, city and county officials could not see eye to eye on a solution, and a year and a half later the status quo prevails.
As a result, a subcommittee of top-level city and county administrators, along with elected officials from both governments, have turned their attention away from the capital-reserves issue to focus on APCHA’s governance.
The two elected boards agree that the capital-reserve shortfall across the deed-restricted HOA community in APCHA has highlighted the structural deficiencies in how the program is governed. The end result is a deadlock with no resolution.
Commissioner George Newman said empowering the APCHA board with decision-making capability would improve the program’s efficiency.
The board also would have more accountability if elected officials are on it, he added.
Some elected officials acknowledged that in recent years, there’s less coordination between the city, county and the APCHA board and staff.
Newman said that’s a product of dysfunction between council and the commissioners.
Commissioner Patti Clapper agreed that there is a lack of communication between city and county.
An equal partnership
The city and county equally pay APCHA’s administrative costs and manage the program through an intergovernmental agreement (IGA).
The city brings in much more revenue than the county to fund APCHA because of the dedicated real estate transfer tax the municipal government collects. The county pays its share of APCHA administrative costs through its general fund.
There was some discussion Tuesday about the potential to ask county voters to pass a sales tax in the future to fund the APCHA program at a higher level.
APCHA’s staff are city employees and have been since the early 2000s. The oversight of program’s 1,654 ownership units and 1,326 rentals currently falls to the city manager’s office through APCHA as a multijurisdictional entity.
Since its inception in 1982, there have been six revisions to the IGA, which has changed the governance structure for APCHA over the years.
Up until 2003, one council member and one county commissioner served on the APCHA board, along with five citizens who kept the majority.
The makeup was changed because it politicized some issues brought forward by elected officials with agendas. The board at that time also voted on land-use issues, which created legal problems when elected officials had to review those projects at the commissioner or council level.
“It was hugely problematic,” APCHA attorney Tom Smith said.
Currently, some of the board’s responsibilities include adopting housing guideline changes, hearing appeals of enforcement actions by APCHA, reviewing development proposals and making recommendations.
Some officials believe the APCHA board is currently burdened with too many administrative functions.
Plans already are underway to alleviate the board from hearing appeals and is moving toward contracting with an outside hearing officer.
APCHA board member Rick Head said he agrees with the direction the elected officials are going and said it’s a timely discussion.
Board member Chris Council said he hopes elected officials can put in the necessary time it takes to govern the housing program effectively.
“APCHA is the most important asset we have,” he said.
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