Numerous homeowners balk at Housing Authority audits | AspenTimes.com

Numerous homeowners balk at Housing Authority audits

Janet Urquhart

Some owners of deed-restricted housing, apparently including one entire subdivision, have refused to produce financial information to prove they aren’t violating the rules that govern affordable housing.

The Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority has asked for homeowners’ tax returns as part of a new requalification process to ferret out abuses in the housing program.

Housing board members refused Wednesday to back down from the request for the information, despite the objections of a few homeowners.

“The point is, they need to comply with the damn regulations in the guidelines, period,” said board member Keith Webster.

The housing office isn’t interested in a household’s income and assets, but looks at the tax returns for signs of rental income that might indicate they own residential property elsewhere in the Roaring Fork Valley. That is a violation of the deed restrictions placed on most of the affordable housing under the authority’s control.

Even though homeowners are allowed to bring a copy of their tax return into the housing office, so the authority’s enforcement officer can check it over and hand it right back, some are refusing to share the information, according to Cindy Christensen, interim housing director.

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“That has been the biggest contention – people providing us with tax returns,” she said. “You cannot believe how concerned people are about their finances.”

Apparently all the homeowners in Williams Ranch, a 35-unit complex at the base of Smuggler Mountain, have decided they will not comply, Christensen told the board.

Mike Hoffman, a Williams Ranch homeowner, appeared before the board to voice his objections to the request.

“We didn’t, as a family, feel comfortable turning over our tax returns,” he said. “We view our personal finances as being our private information.”

Although buyers of deed-restricted units provided a copy of their tax returns at the time they purchased their units, it was not with the understanding that the information would ever be required again, Hoffman said.

Hoffman spoke at the beginning of the meeting and was no longer in attendance when the board discussed the issue.

If homeowners aren’t going to provide the tax return, they should have to turn over a “pretty black and white equivalent,” argued board member David Guthrie.

“If that’s what it takes, tough luck, Mike,” he said.

“There’s a thousand people who want that unit. I don’t think it’s fair to say they don’t have to play by the rules when there’s a thousand other people who are willing to play by the rules,” Guthrie said.

“My biggest red flag is when somebody refuses. That tells me they’ve got something to hide,” said member Marcia Goshorn.

Members suggested anyone who has a problem with the requirement appear before the board at its June 19 meeting.

In the meantime, the housing office will proceed to randomly pick the names of another 100 homeowners for the requalification audit.

The housing office has been auditing 100 homeowners each month since February, according to Christensen. Some residents have to get a second letter before they respond (33 in the month of May), but only a handful each month fail to respond at all, she said. Those cases have been turned over to the city attorney.

Homeowners are asked to supply the housing office with their most recent tax return and W-2 form, as well as an employee verification from their employer.

The vast majority of individuals have turned over the requested documents without question and have easily requalified, according to Christensen.

The process appears to be helping tighten up compliance, she said. A jump in the number of units that are suddenly coming up for sale can be attributed, in part, to the audits. A few individuals who were no longer living in their unit, in violation of their deed restriction, put the unit on the market in response to the program, Christensen said.

“Some people think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done,” she said.

“I hear that from a lot of people,” Goshorn said.

There are about 1,200 units in the Housing Authority’s inventory of sale units. The agency hopes to requalify all owners within two years.

The Housing board decided last year to initiate the stepped-up enforcement effort to help address ongoing community speculation that the housing program is riddled with abuses. In the past, the housing office has checked for compliance in response to specific complaints. Now, all homeowners will have to prove periodically that they aren’t violating the rules contained in the deed restriction on their homes.

For most, compliance boils down to a couple of key requirements: The homeowner must reside in the unit for at least nine months a year and work full-time in Pitkin County, which the housing office defines as 1,500 hours in a calendar year – about 29 hours per week.

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