New housing leads to debate on who picks the residents
Even as future residents of Alpine Cottages prepare to move into their new homes, the leeway given to the developer in choosing the project’s occupants is causing objections.
Alpine Cottages, a soon-to-be-completed, housing development on Aspen’s east side, includes 10 affordable housing units – four Resident Occupied units and six category units – plus four free-market homes.
But of the 10 affordable units, only two will be entered into the general housing lottery. The future residents of the other eight units were chosen by the project’s developer, Tim Semrau.
“If this happened with a 100 percent affordable housing project, that would fine with me, but there are free market units involved,” said housing board member Bob Helmus. “The whole point of mitigation is that it’s supposed to be to the benefit of the community – the whole community – and this is not.”
Alpine Cottages was one of the last projects approved before new housing guidelines were adopted that limit a private developer to picking only one-third of the occupants. Previously, each project was reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Former Mayor John Bennett said he reluctantly approved limiting a developer’s choice, since choice served as an incentive for the private sector to build affordable housing.
“If a private developer is putting up the money, taking on the risk, I think that enticement should be there,” Bennett said.
But Bennett describes a developer’s potential to choose an occupant that has lived here for less than four years as “a loophole that needs to be closed.”
All future residents of affordable housing, including those picked by a developer, must meet the affordable housing guidelines, but those guidelines still allow the “loophole” that worries Bennett.
In general, only housing lottery participants who have “priority” status – they have lived and worked in Pitkin County for at least four years – are likely to get in on a lottery.
According to housing board member Mick Ireland, he only knows of two or three cases in the last five years’ worth of lotteries in which a unit went to a new arrival. But it is possible.
Under the current lottery system, a first round of applicants almost always comes from a pool of employees who have lived here for at least four years. But if there are no entries in that first round, full-time employees who have been in the area for less time can enter.
“I’m generally not enthusiastic about developer’s choice, because it creates the impression that affordable housing is an insider’s game – that it’s about who you know,” Ireland said. “You know, `some people are more equal than others.’ “
In the particular case of Alpine Cottages, only one individual slated to receive a unit in the project has not worked in Pitkin County for at least the past four years, said Semrau. And the sole exception is a person who lived in Aspen for five years, moved away, then came back about a year ago.
Semrau acknowledges that private developers could choose friends or relatives who have never lived here, “but in practice, that’s not how it works,” he said.
In addition to the varying residency standards created in “developer’s choice” units, however, Helmus also sees a potential for abuse by developers. They could be “lining their pockets” by paying lower wages in exchange for a future unit, he said.
“I’ve never heard of that happening,” Semrau countered. He said he does not engage in that sort of “in-kind” bartering himself. Furthermore, he said he has never considered such a proposition and wonders if the time spent speculating on such abuses couldn’t be better spent.
“Instead of using their time imagining how people might cheat in the program, I think it might be more constructive to imagine how to get more people involved in building for the program,” Semrau said.
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