City of Aspen targeted by neighborhood group against affordable housing project
A local law firm representing neighbors of an approved affordable-housing project up Castle Creek has filed a wide-sweeping open records request regarding the development’s finances.
Michelle Schindler, an attorney with the Matthew C. Ferguson Law Firm, addressed City Council last week, urging the city to expedite its request for public records under the Colorado Open Records Request Act (CORA).
City Attorney Jim True said during the Jan. 22 meeting that the city would comply with the law. Later in the week he said the city had seven business days from the Jan. 21 request to provide the information.
“It asks for just about everything,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of paper.”
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In his letter to True, Ferguson asks for all communication between city staff, the private developer who has partnered with the city and Mayor Steve Skadron and the council, as well as documents related to tax credits the project might receive, along with 17 other specific requests.
Ferguson and Schindler said the firm is representing not just nearby residents of the 488 Castle Creek affordable-housing project but also concerned citizens who question the city’s financial role in it.
Sources have said the CORA request is a lead-up to a lawsuit against the city challenging the validity of the project.
True said this isn’t the first time a group has filed a massive CORA request and then followed up with a lawsuit against the city.
“You typically see these as a prelude to that kind of thing,” he said.
The group represented by Ferguson’s firm are concerned with what they say is the city’s increasing financial role in the project, which is attached to two other affordable-housing developments on Park Circle and West Main Street.
Dick Butera, who lives near the Castle Creek site, addressed council last week, criticizing the city’s deal with the private development group Aspen Housing Partners. His criticism is based on the city’s announcement earlier this month that it’s not able to capture the anticipated 9 percent in federal tax credits toward the three projects. Butera contends that the city’s financial obligation is larger as a result, and council should have taken that into consideration before it approved the 24-unit complex on Castle Creek Road in December.
Ferguson’s letter to the city suggests the same. It reads, “The concern is that City Council passed Ordinance 31 (and others) with inadequate (or no) information and bad assumptions about the tax credit funding for these affordable housing projects. … This loss of tax credit funding calls into question the legitimacy of the relevant ordinances.”
Now, the city is applying for 4 percent in federal and state tax credits. The application to the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority is due Thursday, said Chris Everson, the city’s affordable housing project manager.
If the city is awarded the lower percentage, it will receive around $5 million in federal and state subsidies. Council already has budgeted $17 million for the Castle Creek, Main Street and Park Circle developments. All told, the projects will deliver 45 one- and two-bedroom apartments.
Everson said council has been aware of various financial risks with the three projects, as well as different tax credit scenarios, including the most expensive option. And they’ve been discussed in public at least five times, starting as early as the summer of 2016.
He also noted that Aspen Housing Partners and its representative, Jason Bradshaw, have invested nearly $750,000 into the projects thus far and the city has paid them zero dollars at this point.
Everson said it was determined this past fall that the city would have difficulty receiving a 9 percent tax credit award because of the competitive climate; most recipients are projects that house very low-income populations who are often homeless, disabled, seniors or veterans.
He added that the 4 percent federal and state tax credit program is not a guarantee. If it’s not granted this spring, the city will pursue 4 percent in straight federal tax credits.
“Our understanding has evolved and the numbers have evolved over time … and they usually don’t go down,” Everson said. “We’ve tried to explain to the council that the tax credit (process) is competitive.”
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The Aspen City Council directed staff to work with restaurants and retail shops to find out how much interest there is in expanding into the public right-of-way. Use of interior space will be limited for an unknown time so businesses will be given the opportunity to use public right-of-way.