Pitkin County commissioners adrift on affordable housing policy
On eve of big discussion with Aspen, county officials raise lots and lots of questions
The majority of Pitkin County commissioners recoiled by varying degrees Tuesday from pressure by Aspen officials to pony up more funds for affordable housing.
The Aspen City Council, flush with revenues from a real estate transfer tax and a sales tax dedicated to affordable housing, wants a bigger contribution from the county in tackling the acute shortage of affordable housing in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
But the commissioners are still grappling internally over housing philosophy and don’t seem inclined to seek a revenue source this year.
That could lead to a tough discussion when the boards meet in a joint session July 19 to talk housing.
“I think part of the tension that is being felt is the inequity in our ability to contribute,” Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said.
Some of the commissioners made it clear they also have questions and concerns about the city’s approach to housing solutions.
“I have trust issues when the city wants us to go and raise a lot of money without a specific place to spend it,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman. “And I want to get through it.”
Poschman outlined questions that his colleagues said should be presented formally to the Aspen City Council when the two boards meet.
The questions included:
— Who should be targeted with new housing?
— Where will it be built — exclusively inside the urban growth boundary or could it go outside?
— What is the “optimum size” of the community in general?
— Should the community’s approach to affordable housing be altered after 40 years?
“I have a lot of questions like that and I realize a lot of it comes down to not really knowing or trusting what the city’s going to do with all the money they have and the money they’re asking us to raise,” Poschman said.
He said the city of Aspen’s acquisition of the Lumberyard west of town and its plan to fill the site with affordable housing have sparked questions about the affordable housing direction.
“I feel the Lumberyard did get stuffed down a lot of people’s throats and a lot of people in the community aren’t really happy with it,” Poschman said. “My biggest fear is we empower that to happen again and more often elsewhere, so I’m nervous about that.”
He immediately added, “I think it’s really easy to become the growth engine for the community. In fact, sometimes I think our affordable housing program might be the growth engine for the community even along with what we’re seeing with all the monster home development.”
The Aspen City Council sent a letter June 22 “imploring” the county commissioners to reserve a spot on the November ballot for a question to establish permanent funding for affordable housing.
“We believe that time is of the essence. Asking a ballot question in 2022 will allow your board to engage in the problem in earnest, to make housing a top priority again,” the city letter said.
Unless there is a seismic shift between now and July 29, the deadline for reserving a space on the ballot, the county commissioners aren’t inclined to pop a funding question to voters.
Patti Clapper, BOCC chairwoman, said it is important to have a plan in place before approaching voters. She wants the county to determine when and where it wants to provide housing and for whom, then determine the funding mechanism. There is too much work to do to rush a question to the ballot, she said.
Clapper said there wouldn’t be a good outcome if the county said, “Give us money but we don’t know where we want to use it or how.”
Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury is the only commissioner who supports seeking a revenue source this year. She said she agrees with the city’s sentiment that the county commissioners aren’t acting as fast as they could.
“You guys know I would like to do more,” she told her colleagues in a work session Tuesday. “For me, housing is the most pressing community issue right now.”
Peacock said the county government dedicates between $2 million and $3 million annually to housing issues. The funds come from a housing impact fee on free market homes and out of the general fund.
In contrast, the city has a real estate transfer tax that generated an estimated $38 million in 2021, according to Clapper.
The inequity didn’t bother Commissioner Francie Jacober.
“Pitkin County wouldn’t have a housing problem if it weren’t for Aspen,” Jacober said. “Aspen drives this demand for housing so it’s not crazy that Aspen should be paying for it.”
Commissioner Steve Child said he has heard people say that no new hotels should be allowed in Aspen without housing for employees within the structure. He questioned if it is productive to allow developers to pay a fee-in-lieu of housing.
Peacock stated the obvious when he said the county staff couldn’t work on funding mechanisms when the commissioners don’t have a consensus on housing philosophy.
“I think one of the challenges we have going into these conversations is this board is still struggling with policy questions, right?” he asked. “There’s still some basic policy and value questions that this board needs to come to agreement on, I think, so we know how to move forward.”
The commissioners agreed that the meeting with the City Council needs to begin with an update on housing needs and what both governments are doing to meet the needs. Then they will grapple with the philosophical issues.
“I appreciate the assumption that Kelly (McNicholas Kury) is making that we’re all gung-ho to look for more funding sources, and I guess I’m partially on board there,” Poschman said. “My biggest hesitations have been it sounds like there’s an awful lot of money out there already.”
A pitch led by Theatre Aspen’s executive director to expand the organization’s facilities and create a permanent underground venue got mixed reviews from officeholders and board members Monday.
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