The facts about affordable housing
The recent concern expressed by local residents and the Regional Homeless Coalition for the needs of the homeless in the Roaring Fork Valley is laudable and deserves to be heard. However, it is a mistake to point the finger at the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority as either the cause or the solution to this problem. Here’s why:
The local affordable housing program began in the 1970s for the expressed purpose of providing housing for local workers in the upper valley in order to keep them close to their jobs and to enhance the diversity of the local community. The housing authority currently administers approximately 1,500 ownership units and approximately 1,300 rental units.
This housing makes it into the inventory in two ways: First, there is housing that is provided in whole or in part by direct governmental subsidies (land or money), and the subsidies have been authorized for the expressed purpose of providing employee housing. For example, Pitkin County donated the land for Centennial on the condition that the developer build employee housing. Burlingame has been built with city funds as authorized by the voters for the expressed purpose of providing employee housing. So we have promised the public to use these tax dollars for employee housing and not for other purposes, such as housing the homeless.
Second, most of the housing in the inventory consists of ownership and rental units that have been provided by developers as mitigation for the impacts of free-market development on affordable employee housing. The need for employee housing has always been the basis for the mitigation requirements. It would violate the development approvals and the agreements with developers, such as the subdivision improvements agreements, to use this housing for other purposes so long as there is a need for employee housing.
Despite the economic downturn, the demand for affordable employee housing remains high. The housing authority has no problem finding buyers for Category 1 through 4 ownership units. Category 5 through 7 and RO units are not moving as well right now because free-market units downvalley compete with them in the current housing market. There continues to be a high demand for all rental units, with the exception of the Marolt Ranch seasonal housing project, and the vacancy rate is usually 0 percent. So the need is there. The effect of moving a homeless person into workforce housing would be to displace a worker into some other option. With vacancy rates near 0 percent, housing becomes a zero-sum game.
The housing administered by the housing authority is subject not only to guidelines approved by the city of Aspen and Pitkin County each year. Every unit in the inventory has attached to it a deed restriction, which requires that the units be owned or leased by local employees. These deed restrictions reflect the obligations that have been the basis for the public subsidies and for the requirements imposed on local developers. The deed restrictions are permanent, and they cannot be changed or ignored based upon the need for housing for other purposes, such as the unemployed and the homeless. The housing authority guidelines implement and fine-tune the requirements of the deed restrictions, but they cannot be used to change their basic requirements.
Turning to the issue of enforcement, only part of the story has been reported in the local press. The rental tenant was unemployed for nearly two years, not one month, before enforcement action was taken, and her prolonged unemployment was not revealed by an anonymous tip but by the normal two-year requalification process. The homeowner was unemployed for four years, and she has been given a further opportunity to comply with the employment requirement. In fact, the issue of compliance with the employment requirement arises regularly, and it is the housing authority’s policy to work with owners and tenants to give them every reasonable opportunity to seek and find employment after a violation comes to the housing authority’s attention. Most of these cases are resolved without enforcement actions, but of course they do not make for good headlines.
In summary, the local affordable-housing program administered by the housing authority is not broken, and it does what it is supposed to do. It is based on the promises made to the voters for almost 40 years as to the use of public assets and the legal obligations embodied in the deed restrictions, which are binding contracts. We also need housing for the homeless in the Roaring Fork Valley. If it is to be provided by local government, then perhaps the taxpayers should be heard. It is no answer to violate the public trust, as well as the law, by using deed-restricted employee housing to solve this problem.
Chairwoman, Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority
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