Pitkin County officials agree to look at new funding sources for affordable housing

Aspen City Council and the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners meet on Tuesday in council chambers.
Carolyn Sackariason/The Aspen Times

A joint meeting on Tuesday with Aspen and Pitkin County elected officials aimed at getting both boards they represent to agree on a future affordable housing program was not as kumbaya of a moment as some had hoped for.

Aspen City Councilman Ward Hauenstein said he was disappointed, disheartened and hurt by comments made by some commissioners at a meeting earlier this month in response to the city’s request that the county put a funding question on the ballot this November to specifically pay for new affordable housing.

He referred to Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman’s comments about the city’s 300-plus unit Lumberyard affordable housing development that’s planned across from the airport being “stuffed … down people’s throats.”

“I want to put that right on the table and a topic to smooth that over and try to have us agree upon what our issues are,” Hauenstein said. “We as City Council have defined housing as a top priority, … it’s not just a city issue, it’s all of us … but I am really looking at a kumbaya moment here where we’ve agreed to working together in the same direction.”

Poschman said he apologized if he offended or hurt Hauenstein’s feelings but it doesn’t change his position, based partially on constituents he has heard from, that the Lumberyard project will add growth, will take up environmental resources and could reduce quality of life for residents, among other concerns.

He also said he was taken aback by the city’s letter asking him to put a question to voters.

“It looked like an ask to raise money from taxpayers without any real specific ask,” Poschman said. “I think I need to understand who it’s for, where is it going, who’s going to get it, what’s it going to cost, at what cost to the community will it be and what other growth will it generate.”

He added that he has issues with the premise of the problem laid out by Councilwoman Rachel Richards, who penned the letter to commissioners.

“I know Rachel has various series of concerns, which have created guardrails for the way she wants to move forward,” he said. “I think I have issues with many of those and I know it’s a sticky, difficult problem.”

Poschman, who was attending the meeting virtually on Zoom, said he will participate in future conversations about the county funding affordable housing, and he will be looking at the community for alternative solutions and answers because, as he suggested, there is a lot of distrust, concern and fear within the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority program, which manages 3,200 deed-restricted units.

“I wonder sometimes if APCHA has gotten so big that we are becoming a company town, and I don’t like the smell of that,” he said.

Poschman’s comments drew looks of bewilderment from council members in the room who asked him to elaborate on his thought process.

There were times during the meeting that the tension between the two boards was palpable.

Richards asked a series of questions to him all pointing to whom he believes that future deed-restricted housing should be built.

“Thanks, Rachel, I think that is a loaded question as I always expect from you,” he said. “These are tough choices. If the snowplow driver can’t figure out a way to get housing here and … we can choose and we can offer housing to people we deem essential to keep the services for our community going.”

County Commissioner Patti Clapper said she appreciated Poschman’s comments but prioritizing and defining workers as essential is not a concept that the board has discussed.

But she said she is supportive of working with the city in the future.

“I have always been a supporter of affordable housing and I continue to be ready, willing and able to find a way to fund it,” Clapper said.

The county spends between $1 million and $2 million a year on housing, and that money is generated by impact fees placed on free-market development.

The city generates tens of millions of dollars annually through real estate transfer and sales taxes and is a major provider of affordable housing in the valley.

The position of some city officials is that the municipal government can’t carry the load in addressing the housing shortage and other jurisdictions need to step up.

Commissioners agreed that they would continue to talk about future funding sources to pay for specific affordable housing programs and projects.

“I feel like there has been tension about everyone taking their ball and going in separate directions and I hope that doesn’t happen for us going forward,” said Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury, suggesting that council and commissioners have a retreat on the topic at the beginning of the year while her board wrestles with how much funding is necessary and for what specific solutions. “What I would really love to work with the city on in a concerted way is coming together on the development of a broader community strategic plan on housing.”

While elected officials agreed the housing crisis is a priority for both of their jurisdictions, they spent one hour discussing the topic Tuesday, with another hour interviewing candidates for the APCHA board of directors.

Due to the flow of the conversation among elected officials and the short duration of the meeting, Pitkin County Community Resiliency Manager Ashley Perl refrained from showing a planned presentation on the county’s affordable housing programs and projects.