No conflict in Aspen housing lottery waiver, officials say
Authorities with the municipal government and the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority insist there was no conflict of interest or special treatment given to a city employee who can buy a deed-restricted residence without entering the housing lottery.
A three-member Special Review Committee voted 2-1 in March to allow an Aspen family to skip the lottery and purchase a Williams Ranch Drive four-bedroom duplex home they have inhabited since its owner, Michael Hoffman, took a leave of absence in October 2014. The committee’s decision was precedent-setting because it had not given a lottery exemption for a medical-hardship case in the past. The committee was formed in 1996 and is composed of three members — one each from the city, the county and the board of directors for the housing authority.
The applicants, Aspen native Jim Pomeroy and his wife, Jill, who have two sons and a dog, had written the Special Review Committee on at least two occasions detailing a hardship they argued justified the waiver, based on documents obtained from the city by The Aspen Times through a Colorado Open Records Act request. They already had been rejected by the housing authority administration and appealed their case to the Special Review Committee on March 8.
Aspen City Manager Barry Crook was one of the committee members who voted in favor of the Pomeroys’ request. Crook previously told The Aspen Times he did not believe there was a conflict because although both he and Jim Pomeroy are city employees, they work in different offices and “he doesn’t work for me in any chain-of-command center.”
Pomeroy is a code enforcement officer for the Community Development Department; his direct supervisor is Jessica Garrow. Crook’s direct supervisor is City Manager Steve Barwick, whom Jim Pomeroy referred to in a Feb. 16-dated letter to the Special Review Committee.
“The committee is specifically formed to look at unusual situations, ones that can’t be duplicated and are unique,” the letter said. “As Steve Barwick told me recently in regards to this case — sometimes one needs to look beyond the strict rules to focus on the intent of the program. The intent of the housing program is to place locally employed, qualified and handicapped Pitkin County citizens in affordable housing. We meet every particular of that intent entirely.”
Barwick did not reply to messages Thursday and Friday seeking comment about Pomeroy’s letter. Pomeroy was out of town but previously said he and his wife, whose chronic migraine headaches were the impetus for the lottery exemption, would not be commenting publicly about their situation.
City Attorney Jim True said, “I believe it is an (Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority) issue and it was handled appropriately and consistently with their rules.”
Julie Kieffer, the qualifications and compliance specialist for the housing authority, said Pomeroy’s letter referencing his discussion with Barwick didn’t present a conflict for Crook.
“If (Barwick and Pomeroy) worked in the same department, maybe there would be a conflict,” she said.
Kieffer said the housing authority regularly hears people drop names of influential community members to advance their ambitions to attain an affordable residence.
“I can’t count the number of times people throw names out there,” she said. “And we just kind of roll our eyes.”
Kieffer advised the Special Review Committee to deny the Pomeroys’ request. And, in an email she sent to housing authority Executive Director Mike Kosdrosky and Deputy Director Cindy Christensen on July 2, when the Pomeroys were exploring the possibility of buying the home, Kieffer wrote: “If this unit was sold without going through the official process, many people would be very upset and blame (the housing authority) for not following our own rules.”
Just how difficult is it to win the housing lottery? The most recent one was held May 9 and attracted 29 applicants for a two-bedroom Category 4 home in the Smuggler Park subdivision, with a sale price of $261,354.
With the Special Review Committee’s approval, the Pomeroys have a Category 4 unit under contract to buy for a maximum purchase price of $286,199. In their case, the Category 4 unit is available to families with two dependents who can’t have a maximum gross income higher than $160,000 and more than $175,000 in net assets. The housing authority has determined the Pomeroy family fits that bill.
A “life-threatening situation”
The Pomeroys’ case was precedent-setting because housing authority rules state that in order to acquire an affordable-housing unit in Pitkin County, qualifying residents must enter the housing lottery. Or, if a resident already owns an affordable-housing unit in the same complex where another unit becomes available, they can submit what’s called an in-complex bid.
Losing their rental home to the lottery, the Pomeroys argued, would have had severe consequences on them, which is why they sought a waiver.
“Since renting the Hoffmans’ home, Jill’s health has taken an awful and unforeseen turn for the worse,” the Pomeroys wrote to the Special Review Committee. “She has always suffered from migraines, but over the last few years they had been getting worse, and by the fall of 2014 they had progressed to the point where she was having them every single day. Her migraines became so severe that she could no longer work.”
Jill Pomeroy underwent “lengthy and painful” surgeries in 2014 and 2015, while the Social Security Administration declared her disabled, the letter said.
Hoffman offered to sell the home to them outright if they could get a waiver, and the Pomeroys’ letter noted that moving would take a tremendous toll on them.
“When the Hoffmans sell their unit under (housing authority) rules, we would need to move out,” the letter said. “With Jill’s medical condition, moving out of our current home would be a severe hardship. Jill literally spends most of her days in bed with the lights off. She cannot help with moving, with finding a rental or with any other part of our life right now. Our entire focus currently is finding help for Jill, and adding the stress of moving and trying to find a new affordable rental that fits our family and allows dogs is truly adding to her pain.”
The letter went on to say that living close to town has allowed Jill to walk to her doctor’s appointments. Moving elsewhere, such as downvalley, would put her “miles away from support and medical assistance if emergencies arose. This could indeed become a life-threatening situation.”
The letter concluded: “We hope that the committee will understand our unique situation and use its discretionary powers to grant us a variance of the strict rules and give us the right to purchase our current home.”
The Special Review Committee’s decision has gotten a mixed reception from Aspen residents. Some say the Pomeroys were simply looking out for their well-being and did what they had to do.
Others, like Aspen resident Billy Lawrence, who had to move his family to Hotchkiss because his wife fell ill and needed to live at a lower elevation, argue the case shows the system is broken. When the Lawrence family returned to Aspen, they lost priority status for their combined 20 years here and had to start all over.
“I feel for them,” Lawrence said in an interview earlier this month. He also wrote a letter to the editor that was printed in the Friday edition of The Aspen Times. “But I think everybody should be on a level playing ground. Everybody has hardships.”
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