Pitco defends housing role | AspenTimes.com

Pitco defends housing role

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen has not yet decided to withdraw from its longtime partnership with Pitkin County when it comes to affordable housing, but the proposed split put the county on the defensive Tuesday.

County commissioners told the city they feel the county has a future role in affordable-housing efforts, though it doesn’t have much money to put toward development. And it is contemplating new zoning that would push housing projects into the city.

Disbanding the joint city/county housing board and making the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority an internal department of city government is but one of many recommendations in a draft housing plan reviewed by the City Council and commissioners yesterday.

But it’s one that some council members have said makes sense, and the idea has ruffled a few feathers since the report was released last week.

“The notion that because you don’t have money, you don’t have a seat at the table is insidious,” said Commissioner Mick Ireland.

Commissioner Shellie Roy read off a lengthy list of worker-housing projects that the county has approved, built or otherwise accommodated in unincorporated Pitkin County. Many of them were later annexed into the city.

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“Rather than publicly rejecting the county’s role in housing, the city would be better modeling how the county has accomplished so much with so little,” she said.

“First of all, the city has not made a decision,” Mayor Helen Klanderud assured county commissioners. “We wanted an objective analysis of our housing program. Sometimes you hear things you don’t want to hear.”

The recommendation to revamp the Housing Authority came in part from interviews with local community and government leaders by the team of consultants who prepared the report, explained Walter Kieser, managing principal with Denver-based Economic and Planning Systems, Inc.

“We talked to 35 people. We asked this question of 35 people,” he said. “We didn’t just dream this up. We were listening to people.”

And, the consultants concluded that the confusion and lack of clear decision making with the existing housing program is a problem, Kieser said.

“The program will work better if there are fewer fingers in the pot. That’s the way we feel,” he said.

Not everyone disagreed with the report’s conclusion. Commissioner Jack Hatfield said he would “fully support” disbanding the joint housing agency.

“I’m also concerned that there are too many cooks in the kitchen,” said Councilman Tony Hershey. “And get the Housing Authority out of development, which frankly, they haven’t been very good at.”

The fate of the Housing Authority, however, is but one topic addressed in the Aspen Affordable Housing Strategic Plan that is likely to receive a great deal more debate.

Also among the plan’s recommendations is a prioritized outline for the construction of six public projects and three prototypical private developments that would get the community toward its goal of housing 60 percent of its work force. An additional 995 housing units are needed today to reach that target, according to the report.

The City Council wants further discussion, however, about what projects it should move forward on first, and about whether 60 percent is, in fact, an appropriate goal.

“It’s too high, as far as I’m concerned,” Klanderud said. “It’s very arbitrary to me. Why not 70 or 75 percent, or 40 percent, or whatever?”

All of the public projects outlined in the report would cost some $190.8 million in current dollars, consultants estimated. Revenues from the sale or rental of the units would bring in $134.3 million, leaving a public subsidy in the range of $56.5 million.

With the city’s existing sources of housing money, coupled with other funding mechanisms suggested by the consultants, Aspen could tackle all six public projects in the next 10 years and wind up with a surplus in 2011, the report says. The projects would produce 624 units.

A third of the overall goal would be up to the private sector.

“The good news about this whole strategy is, you can build, or meet the target, and have money left over at the end,” Kieser said.

The council needs to hold a work session as soon as it can to decide what it should tackle first, said Councilman Tim Semrau.

“We’re going to spend $190 million in 10 years. If we don’t do it efficiently, that is a disgrace,” he said.

The report concludes the 330 proposed units at Burlingame Ranch and a mixed-use project on a city-owned parking lot at Mill Street and Rio Grande Place should come first. The latter project would include commercial space, 17 affordable units and six free-market condos.