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Semrau: I’m looking for solutions

Eben Harrell
Private developer Tim Semrau, now an Aspen city councilman, built the troubled Pitkin Iron affordable housing complex. Aspen Times file photo.
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Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series looking at the conflict between Aspen City Councilman Tim Semrau, a developer, and residents of the Pitkin Iron affordable housing project.Tim Semrau has a theory about affordable housing. It goes back to expectations. To the working-class families that move in, affordable housing units are a dream come true. Families work, enter lotteries and hold their breath. When home ownership becomes a reality, it’s taken as an answer to all life’s problems.But being a homeowner is no piece of cake. And when things aren’t perfect, expectations are dashed, and people become disgruntled.

Take Semrau’s most ambitious affordable housing project, Pitkin Iron. In 1998, after eight years of aborted efforts by the county to construct deed-restricted houses on the property, Semrau paid $1.4 million for Pitkin Iron, promising to privately build 15 units of affordable housing quickly and cheaply. When the units went into the housing lottery only two years later, Semrau was the toast of the county. The units – spacious, sunlit and rustic – were declared the best affordable housing around. Terms such as “the miracle in the mountains” were thrown around. Families soon moved in, eager and excited.Since then, Semrau has dealt with one complaint after another, centering on the development’s water system. First, the on-site well Semrau installed was found to draw hard water. So Semrau put $15,000 toward installing a water softening system. Now that water softening system is straining the development’s septic systems. So the homeowners have hired a lawyer and are demanding that Semrau fix the problem. “It’s a larger issue about affordable housing,” Semrau said. “Two weeks after they moved in, one of the residents called me and asked why I wasn’t picking up the garbage. It’s this feeling that once you get affordable housing, you’ll be taken care of forever and everything will be perfect. These people don’t understand what it’s like to be a homeowner.”Central to Semrau’s position is that as a developer he had no obligation to provide the residents with soft water. Hard water, although it can corrode pipes and clog appliances, is safe and legal, Semrau said.”They move in and immediately they complain about hard water. So I graciously decided to split the cost of installing a softening system of their choice. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not my fault that the water softener has in turn caused its own problems,” Semrau said.As to whether the water at Pitkin Iron corrodes pipes, that’s simply a false accusation, Semrau said.

“I’ve redone all the fixtures, using copper. The pipes are completely sturdy,” he said.The residents claim Semrau did not receive proper state oversight when he constructed the water system. But Semrau claims his engineer told him such oversight was not necessary during construction. And in the last year, Semrau says he has spent $50,000 going through the process of receiving state certification retroactively, although he has yet to receive the green light from the state.Semrau admits that he has encountered two hiccups on the way to certification. The first is that the state says individual leach fields are not permissible because the 15 units in the subdivision are technically owned by one entity – the homeowners association. Semrau says that can easily be remedied by changing the condominium declaration.The larger problem at the complex, according to Semrau, is the water softening system installed by the homeowners. Semrau call this a perfect example of how he’s been impeded at Pitkin Iron by uninformed, first-time homeowners.”I’m sick to death with this,” he said. “If this was free-market housing, this problem would have been solved years ago. I’m tired of having to debate engineering with a bunch of yokels.”The homeowners insist that the only solution to the water problem is the construction of a new well and entirely new water system. But Semrau says the homeowners have not done any reliable analysis of such a project. They say it will cost upward of $400,000. But Semrau is not convinced.So this week Semrau is having his own engineers drill a test well to find out if a new system could be safely installed for less. If a new well gets a thumbs-up, Semrau said, a “real world” solution would be for the homeowners to pay for its construction, swallowing the cost as a capital improvement. But that’s not something Semrau said he can count on.

“I’m going to see how much it costs and then we’ll go from there,” he said.If the two sides continue to clash, Semrau has offered to buy back all the units from the residents, fix the water problems himself, and resubmit the units into the affordable housing lottery. “I’m that confident,” he said. “I’d be more than happy to risk reselling them all. This shouldn’t be so complicated.”But for the residents of Pitkin Iron who still cling to the dream of being happy homeowners, such a solution seems unlikeliest of all. In the interim, Semrau said he has retained legal counsel and is prepared to meet with the homeowners and their attorney in the coming weeks.”I’m looking for solutions. I just hope the residents will be reasonable when we sit down to talk,” he said.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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