Pitkin County ready to spend housing funds
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
ASPEN – With slightly more than $10 million in accrued housing funds, Pitkin County commissioners agreed Tuesday to contract with a broker to seek out potential housing purchases in the midvalley and to allocate some of the money to make existing worker housing less expensive.
Commissioners have been debating how best to spend the accumulating housing funds for about three years. There is an urgency to use the money, Commissioner Michael Owsley said, as it was collected as an impact fee on various developments.
Collection of the fees will face a challenge if they’re not spent on their intended purpose, he stressed.
But figuring out the best approach – getting the most out of the money – has stymied the county, Commissioner Rob Ittner acknowledged. He questioned how to measure the success of spending the money on one housing initiative versus another.
“I think one of the measures of success is we purchase some units, period, because we’ve been unable to do that,” Owsley said.
In a three-hour session that included a review of the demand for housing currently and at what income levels, as well as prioritizing the spending of the funds, commissioners agreed county government isn’t going to develop housing. If new housing is to be built, it will be through a partnership with another public or private entity.
Given a previous agreement to spend as much as half of the county’s funds on housing for county government employees (the county lacks units to assist in recruiting new employees) commissioners decided a real estate broker should be retained to analyze opportunities from Basalt to Aspen.
“I think the midvalley, the Basalt area, is still an opportunity,” said Commissioner George Newman, urging the county to act before a market downturn reverses. “We still have some time, but I don’t think we have a lot of time,” he said.
“I think our bang for our buck is in the midvalley,” Commissioner Jack Hatfield agreed.
Among the general work force, Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority data indicates high demand for the lowest-priced category of rental housing, as well as low- to-moderately priced units that qualified workers can purchase. Commissioners did not devote much discussion to the rental housing need, though Ittner pondered whether the county could make the biggest impact by building a complex of rental apartments for low-income workers.
Commissioner Rachel Richards suggested the county allocate some of its funds to “buying down” existing worker housing – reducing the price of units that have been sitting on the market because they are priced in higher categories, where demand dropped with the economic downturn.
The move would make the units accessible to buyers with lower incomes, but wouldn’t add any housing to the inventory, Ittner noted. He questioned whether the strategy could be considered a successful use of the housing money.
“I don’t know that I would consider that successful,” Hatfield said.
Richards said she wants to prevent the worker housing program from entering a “dark phase” in which buyers are no longer certain they can get their money out of a unit when it’s time to sell.
“The stability of the program is very important to me,” she said, calling worker units that aren’t selling “the big elephant in the room.”
The county’s five-year budget plan proposes spending down the housing fund each year through 2016, but Richards urged a more aggressive effort while real estate prices and interest rates are low. She also suggested the county invest in a planned continuing care complex for senior citizens in Basalt. Those units could free up existing worker housing where retired individuals are still residing, she argued.
Some commissioners agreed, but Hatfield objected, predicting the senior housing units wouldn’t turn over frequently enough to make the investment worthwhile.
Hatfield also urged the county to look at options to add to the housing inventory available to the general public, though much of the discussion Tuesday focused on how to provide some units for county workers.
Many of county government’s middle- and upper-management positions are filled with individuals who long ago secured housing in the community. When the positions turn over, recruiting new employees to take those jobs could be challenging without some housing to offer, county officials fear.
The plight of two Aspen women facing eviction from their worker-housing units this spring because they were unemployed illustrates but one of the challenges facing local residents hoping to remain in the community.
Pitkin County commissioners engaged in a discussion Tuesday on the need for “supportive housing” – for people in transition between jobs, developmentally disabled individuals, senior citizens or others who don’t fit within the framework of the worker housing program that has long been a fixture in Aspen and Pitkin County.
With the city of Aspen planning a housing summit this summer, commissioners agreed broader issues, including how to deal with workers in housing who find themselves unemployed for an extended period, should be discussed. They also agreed to seek an outside expert’s help in determining what federal housing dollars could be tapped in collaboration with the local housing program.
It’s a matter of “public housing” or “supportive housing” as opposed to solely “worker housing,” said Nan Sundeen, county director of Health and Human Services, describing local populations that aren’t served by the latter program. They include individuals with developmental disabilities who may never hold down a full-time job but are growing up here.
“Don’t we want to keep these people in our community? They are a vital part of who we are,” she said.
There may be federal dollars available to build housing that integrates workers with other residents, but the county has not pursued them, commissioners were told.
At present, for example, the county is allotted 16 spots in a housing voucher program that provides rental assistance to low-income individuals, funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The county hasn’t made any effort to seek more even though it might qualify, Sundeen said.
“We don’t really have the capacity to keep our eye on that ball,” she said.
Eagle County has 10 people receiving the vouchers, while Garfield County has 416, Sundeen reported.
“There are probably opportunities out there that we don’t know about,” added Tom McCabe, Aspen-Pitkin County housing director, referring to federal housing assistance.
The housing program does have two properties that made use of low-income tax credits through the IRS; they come with a considerable added layer of oversight and paperwork as a result, he said.
“There’s a dance that happens when you partner up with the federal government and it’s a different dance than we do today,” he said. “Whether it’s worth it, I have no idea.”
Commissioners indicated they’d like to find out.
“It’s high time we deal with this subject,” said Commissioner Michael Owsley.
– Janet Urquhart
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