Milias: Willful ignorance and housing’s known unknowns

Elizabeth Milias
Courtesy photo

Following Aspen’s subsidized housing issues for over 15 years has taught me a lot, but what’s unbelievably frustrating is how much I still don’t know. That’s because no one does. And no one who should know wants to know. In a previous life, I’d call these the known unknowns. Today, it’s simply willful ignorance. 

We don’t know how many worker housing units exist. We know the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) portfolio has nearly 3,200 ownership and rental units, but this does not include units owned by the schools, the hospital, the city, SkiCo, and countless other businesses that have built or acquired proprietary staff housing. This is important because there are over 14,000 jobs in the county, so knowing how many employees we currently have the capacity to house is a critical datapoint toward determining our future needs. 

We don’t know where the occupants of our publicly subsidized housing work or the jobs they perform. Are we housing a lot of architects and realtors, restaurant workers, government employees, and store clerks or ski instructors and retirees? We don’t know because we don’t ask. This is important because we need to know which jobs are under-represented, so we can prioritize housing the very workers our economy needs in order to function – not benefit over-represented sectors.  

We don’t know what APCHA does. Even the APCHA board is unsure. Notably APCHA, the organization, is fraught with troubling contradictions. Legally, it’s an intergovernmental agency, independent of the city and county, but it functions as a department of the city, where the executive director and staff are city employees who report to the city manager, not the board. Its purposely vague mission is to “support affordable workforce housing for a sustainable community and prosperous economy.” APCHA staff manages just 358 rental units at Truscott and three other properties but handles the entire program’s qualification and compliance matters as well as lotteries and ownership transactions. The remainder of the portfolio, especially the ownership units, exists mostly unsupervised. The APCHA board has no budget and no staff oversight, so it’s effectively ceremonial, occasionally giving feedback and rubber-stamping staff’s activity. This is important because those who are closest to the issues have little ability to affect them.  

The electeds on both City Council and the BOCC demonstrate willful ignorance, specifically the four members who concurrently serve on the APCHA board. They are keenly aware that the program is catastrophically broken and unsustainable, yet they do nothing. The program has become so complicated and unwieldy with labyrinthine regulations, entangled exceptions and literally hundreds of different deed restrictions. There is preference and privilege granted to those who own, while renters are second class citizens who live in an perpetual state of housing insecurity for fear their incomes might rise.  

Our electeds’ sole focus is on the narrative that we need more housing, but they have no desire to quantify and qualify what is specifically lacking, and even less will to take bold steps to overhaul the program in order to ensure it remains viable for the next generation. 

City Council loves the big stuff like designing and approving half billion dollar housing projects and determining the income mix for those who will eventually live there, but they deliberately ignore learning which jobs are unfilled in our community to inform their decisions. That’s why we’re randomly building units, regardless of whether these will meet any actual need. John Doyle and Ward Hauenstein, City Council’s two members of the APCHA board, continually fail to notify the council of the program’s horrific shortcomings and the dire need for comprehensive reform. The unfortunate reality is, only the City Council can create housing policy and direct its employee, City Manager Sara Ott, to implement it via APCHA. 

Why the resistance? We don’t prioritize essential workers because we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. For decades, Mick and Rachel told us that where people work should not matter, and housing should not be tied to an employer (but outside of APCHA, it is). This is ludicrous. We don’t track where people work and what jobs they hold because of “privacy concerns” – never mind this is publicly subsidized housing, so it is very much the public’s business, especially given the looming specter of massive taxation to further expand the program. 

But we do know a few things. We know that APCHA operates like a self-licking ice cream cone: circular, self-congratulatory fluff with no chance of long-term survival. We know our electeds give lip service to “fixing” APCHA, but they refuse to demand program metrics to establish a factual baseline. (Preferring a political narrative, they simply don’t want to know the realities.) We know the APCHA board has been stripped of all meaningful responsibility. We know the APCHA staff works for the city manager whose agenda is to play developer while keeping APCHA’s inner-workings secretive. (She quashed any hope for program transparency after spending well over $1 million before locking down the HomeTrek database that stood to publicly reveal inconvenient facts.)  

We know that APCHA fails at its mission. 

Willful ignorance will not make our housing issues go away. The known unknowns are where the straightforward solutions lie. 

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