Work session on housing to outline possible changes |

Work session on housing to outline possible changes

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Elected and nonelected officials will hold the first of two daylong work sessions on the local affordable-housing program on Thursday.

Issues surrounding supply and demand are set for the morning discussion. The afternoon session relates to capital reserves for repair work and how the current housing inventory ought to be maintained. Aspen city councilmen, Pitkin County commissioners and members of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board are expected to participate.

The event runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Aspen City Hall, 130 S. Galena St. It’s an open meeting, meaning members of the public may attend. Whether time will be allotted for public comments will be up to the meeting chairman, Mayor Mick Ireland, and the hired facilitator, Colin Laird, director of Carbondale-based Healthy Mountain Communities.

Adam Frisch, a city councilman and member of Housing Frontiers, a group that has studied how local homeowners’ associations lack the necessary amount of revenue to handle common maintenance and repairs, said he’s looking forward to the policy discussions. The second work session is set for Oct. 11.

“One of the things that separates us the most from other communities is the employee-housing program,” Frisch said. “We’ve got 2,800 units for a 6,000-person town, and the responsibility of the two elected boards is to talk about it for 15 minutes every three months.

“I just don’t think you can run a program that’s such a big community asset with the policymakers giving it an hour a year. There are thousands of people affected by the program. There’s hundreds of millions of dollars worth of real estate that it affects. It’s a worthwhile use of the community’s time to spend a couple of all-day sessions talking about it.”

Originally, the meetings were designed to be “housing summits.” They’ve since been relabeled as work sessions because the word “summit” conjures up the idea of large groups of people from many diverse backgrounds, gathering to set specific policies.

City staffers hope to get direction from local leaders during the meetings so that policy changes can be formed and presented to the council members and county commissioners for a future public vote, said R. Barry Crook, an assistant city manager. No formal decisions will be made at the two work sessions.

“The idea that we’ll come out of this with specific policy choices I think would be too ambitious,” Crook said. “I’m really hoping that we can at least narrow the focus and come away with two or three different approaches for staff to come back with.”

He stressed that the meetings would revolve around general policy, not specific problems, such as the issue at the housing authority’s Centennial complex near Smuggler Mountain. Potentially expensive repair issues related to water intrusion have been identified in some of Centennial’s buildings where people own their units but not the buildings where people are renting.

One question at the session might involve whether government should have a role in requiring homeowners’ associations to maintain a certain amount of money in their capital-reserve funds so that if emergencies arise, the homeowners’ associations aren’t asking local governments for a bailout.

Crook maintains that the boards of the various associations are responsible for tackling matters such as raising dues to increase their capital reserves, without mandates from local government.

“Is there a role for government, and if so, what is that role?” Crook asked. “I think that’s what the conversation will center on. We’re going to try and not make this about Centennial but instead try to have a conversation on the policy level.”

County Commissioner Jack Hatfield said a joint city-county policy discussion on housing rules every few years is a necessary and positive step. He said he’s happy with the city’s overview of housing matters and wouldn’t want to see the county take on a larger role in the program.

“I think we need to reinforce that the homeowners’ associations need to be responsible for their own capital reserves and need to have planned for that for years,” Hatfield said. “I understand that there’s a huge debit – like $7 million that the (homeowners’ associations) are undercapitalized – and I wish them luck in coming up with a good plan to meet their needs.”

He pointed out that construction of local affordable-housing units is subsidized by either the developer, the city or the county and therefore they are sold at a much cheaper rate than houses on the free market.

“Each of those (homeowners) got a leg up on living here with a subsidized unit in a subsidized complex, and they need to be responsible for their own maintenance, repair and upkeep over the years,” Hatfield said.

Another discussion point will revolve around homeowners who have retired after having fulfilled their work requirements under the housing program. Officials fear that over the next decade or so, a large portion of units will be occupied by retirees, which defeats the purpose of one of the program’s goals – to house a local work force that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to buy a home in Pitkin County.

Hatfield said he’s not in favor of booting out retirees, but added that incentives could be developed to encourage them to downsize, perhaps selling their properties while renting others.

Frisch said a lot of things have changed since the last housing summit in 2007.

“Until the economic crisis, there was almost an unlimited demand for people to buy into the (housing authority) program,” he said. “Regardless of the condition of the unit, there was always someone willing to pay the maximum price within five minutes of anything coming up.

“But since 2008, that’s changed. There’s not as many buyers, and those buyers are more particular about what kind of condition the units are in. And the banks are also making it harder for people to get financing to make sure they can afford to buy it. So for the first time in history, there’s not an insatiable demand for the program. It opens up a lot of questions that we weren’t aware of when the community first started the program.”

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