‘Right sizing’ affordable housing units a tough nut to crack | AspenTimes.com

‘Right sizing’ affordable housing units a tough nut to crack

Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority looks at ways incentivize people to trade or buy down deed-restricted units

Centennial apartment complex in Aspen.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times archive

Ensuring that every bedroom is occupied in all 3,000 deed-restricted units within the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority inventory has been a nut that officials have been trying to crack for two decades, and the board overseeing the program is dusting off the nutcracker again to find ways to incentivize homeowners to move if they aren’t fully using their residences.

They could be empty nesters whose children have moved out of the home, divorcees, widows, widowers, or retirees. Whatever the situation, they likely have bedrooms that sit empty.

The intent of the taxpayer-subsidized housing program that was established more than 40 years ago is to provide affordable places to live for people who work in Pitkin County and contribute to the local economy and the community.

The concept of “trade downs” or “buy downs” was introduced in 2004 when housing officials began contemplating how to incentivize an owner to move to a smaller unit.

Some of the suggestions included no requalification requirements and monetary considerations based on the number of bedrooms a homeowner would be trading down, according to APCHA Deputy Director Cindy Christensen.

The APCHA board adopted a trade-down policy in 2005 but nothing ever came of it due to the complexity of the concept.

A few years later, a citizen board called the Housing Frontiers Group was formed to review various aspects of the program and resurrected the trade-down concept.

About 900 homeowners in the APCHA inventory were surveyed to gauge their interest in participating in a trade-down program. With 200 people responding, 20% of them were interested in receiving incentives for moving to smaller units.

Those incentives included no prequalification requirements, money, and amenities like extra storage, garage or carport parking, specific locations and allowing pets in units.

The Frontiers Group recommended a test program using the resale of units.

“When we did take an example to City Council, there was a lot of ‘if this, then this, if this, then that,’ that it was too much for somebody to really grasp,” Christensen told the APCHA board last week. “So, we didn’t get a lot of buy-in at that point in time and it ended up going by the wayside and not going any further.”

She asked for guidance on next steps since board members in recent months have discussed their desire to readdress “right sizing” in the program as the housing shortage crisis has become more acute in the last several years.

Christensen said the concept is not only complicated but also confusing for the public.

“I cannot state this more than anything else, it’s a voluntary program,” she said. “We are not going to force anybody to move out of their units; it would be a voluntary incentivizing program, to either incentivize somebody to move into a smaller unit or incentivize them to move out of the program and it’s their choice.”

APCHA board member and county commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said it would be helpful for staff to identify if conditions have changed since the last survey and to do some outreach to different groups to gauge their level of interest.

“I think it’s very powerful for our board to reinforce that this is a voluntary program,” she said. “I think there is a lot of fear and scarcity in our community right now and there’s conversations that people think we should be very aggressive about getting workers only in every single bedroom, moving people out when they are no longer part of the workforce … I don’t take that approach and I don’t think that’s the intention of the housing program. I don’t think it ever has been.”

APCHA board member and Aspen City Councilman Skippy Mesirow said during Wednesday’s meeting that he was pleasantly surprised that the previous survey indicated people were interested in participating in a right-sizing program.

He suggested simplicity in APCHA’s approach this time around.

“We can complicate this for days, we can go down the rabbit hole of every potentiality,” Mesirow said. “Let’s do things that are easy and simple and just see if they work.”

Tapping data in APCHA’s new online tracking system, HomeTrek, can show trends of who is close to retirement, in retirement and who are empty nesters.

“Why not do small focus groups in person where we can add context, demonstrate what we are really after and take temperature on these same things and probe deeper,” he said.

APCHA board member John Ward suggested an online swap board for people to communicate with one another and see what opportunities are out there.

“I think a lot of people don’t have any idea how to downsize, where to go,” he said. “Why not create an opportunity for some kind of swap that’s easy to create and easy to put out there, ‘hey, I’ve got a unit and I would like to upsize, and I’ve got a unit and I would like to downsize’ and pair these people together.”

APCHA board chair Carson Schmitz said there’s plenty of opportunities to explore from a financial and legal standpoint but starting with small steps like Ward’s swap idea may yield immediate results.

“If we do this and we open up one unit, two units, that’s still a win,” he said. “Those are resources that we paid nothing for and bedrooms that opened up and that’s kind of where I envisioned starting to tackle this monster.”