Politicians should not lead the housing board astray
The governments of the Aspen area continue to lose momentum in the effort to provide critically needed affordable housing, and this week’s decision by the citizen advisers on the housing board did not help matters.
The board this week voted to hold off on its expected recommendation that the property known as Bass Park be entirely given over to affordable housing.
And the reason for the delay, we are told, is that the housing board was persuaded that the City Council should not be “backed into a political corner,” according to council and housing board member Tom McCabe.
Although his reasoning was not quite clear, McCabe apparently believes the City Council needs more time to consider its options regarding the 18,000-square-foot Bass Park, which the city recently purchased at a cost of $3.4 million.
Those options include making the land a permanent park (it has been used as a park for years, but until recently belonged to a wealthy Texas family), or building affordable housing on all or some of the property.
When the council bought the property, it was with the apparent goal of using it as a site for badly needed housing in the commercial core.
But voters in November rejected four different possible uses for the park, including the above-mentioned options, leaving the city holding onto a very expensive piece of ground and wondering what to do next.
Certainly, the city’s dilemma is a difficult one – the voters have rejected all possible options for the property. And the fact that the city has only itself to blame for the poorly designed election questions that led to this dilemma does not make things any easier.
However, it also does not make things any easier – indeed, it makes them even more difficult – for elected officials such as Mr. McCabe (or, for that matter County Commissioner Mick Ireland, who also joined in the discussion) to persuade the housing board to turn away from its natural inclination in favor of affordable housing.
The housing board is in the business of providing affordable housing for the working people of Aspen and Pitkin County. That is its clear mission. It is an advocacy group, similar to the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Historic Preservation Commission and the Roaring Fork Transit Agency board. These groups are expected to examine issues from the point of the view of their specific focus and argue in favor of actions that help achieve their goals.
It is true that this requires a relatively narrow interpretation of circumstances and possibilities, but that’s perfectly proper. It is the elected bodies, the City Council and Board of County Commissioners, that are supposed to take the broad overview into account. The elected officials are the ones who are called upon to juggle competing needs and interests and come up with solutions to problems that make the most sense for everybody concerned.
To be specific, it is the City Council that should wrestle with the political realities involved in the Bass Park debates, not the housing board. The housing board should consider whether Bass Park is a good site for housing and whether – in light of the need for housing – a project should be built there. The board should not consider the city’s political problems and it is not appropriate for a City Council member – even if he is a member of the housing board – to persuade the board otherwise.
It appears that most, if not all of those serving on the housing board favor the idea of using Bass Park for housing. That’s fine. If that is the case, the best thing the housing board could do for the City Council is to make a recommendation, rather than get mired in political gamesmanship in which no one is saying what they mean.
Our housing program has suffered enough confusion and crossed purposes. A little clear thinking and straight talk is needed, and it is needed now.
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