Elizabeth Milias: City of Aspen — Housing for me, but not for thee
The Red Ant
A well-kept “employee housing” secret exists right here in our midst. You thought you were paying into the local subsidized housing coffers with your contribution to the RETT and your regular contributions though a portion of a 0.45% sales tax, and you are.
But did you know that you’re also additionally paying for a proprietary housing program exclusively for city of Aspen employees, who, in the housing sense, are a very special class of citizen? This relatively small group has access to 25 rental housing units owned by the city of Aspen, comprised of over 43 bedrooms, and an additional 23 “ownership units” with 44 bedrooms that the city has purchased and sold to select employees at highly subsidized rates.
As I have written in the past, the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority’s 3,000-unit housing portfolio does not properly serve the Valley’s largest employers, and as a result, they are independently addressing their own workforce housing needs. But uniquely, APCHA, jointly controlled by the city and the county, has apparently failed the city as well. Not to be outdone by Skico, the schools and the hospital, the city has amassed a vast housing portfolio that you and I pay for through what’s called the 505 Fund.
I’ve been doing a little digging and sent a Colorado Open Records Act request to the city to find out more about the interworkings of their housing.
The 505 Fund is, in city parlance, an “internal service fund,” that derives its revenue from the city’s rental housing units, as well as monthly transfers from various taxpayer-financed city funds: the general fund, the parks fund, the Wheeler fund, the transportation fund, the day care fund, the stormwater fund, the electric fund, the water fund, the parking fund, the golf fund and the IT fund. Yes, to the tune of nearly $600,000 a year, these inter-fund transfers ensure that city housing dwellers never have to pay for their own repairs, HOA dues or reserves.
Cited as a recruitment and retention vehicle, the city’s housing program allegedly gives priority to regular full-time city employees who “partake in emergency response activities” such as police officers, electric line technicians and utility workers, as well as department heads, and is additionally tapped to sweeten the pot when hiring for new management positions. As a throwback to the Barwick-era fiefdom in city hall, in the end, however, all it takes is the signature of city manager Sara Ott to designate the recipient. It’s a great way to pick favorites and reward loyal soldiers.
Like APCHA, the city too is loose with its inventory management. In many “ownership unit” cases, one person lives alone in a 3-bedroom unit, ranging in size from 1,300 to 2,400 square feet. There are also some fabulous boondoggles, such as for the paralegal who lives with her family in a 2,100-square-foot, 3-bedroom half duplex on Cemetery Lane along the golf course that the city sold her in 2012 for $240,000. This and other similar prime real estate holdings are further evidence of not only an extensive housing portfolio but an expensive one.
But homeowners, get this. You know all too well the high costs of maintaining your Aspen home. Be it the boiler, the roof or the driveway that you might share with others, or the handyman needs, plumber or appliance issues, these things can get really expensive, really fast. But not for the city folks; the city of Aspen graciously pays for their repairs and remodels, regardless of whether the unit is rented or owned. Electrical and mechanical work, flooring, painting, lighting, garage doors, countertops, sinks and backsplashes, even balcony repair is paid by the city of Aspen. Don’t like the bathroom in the unit you just bought? Remodel it and send the city the bill. It’s a great gig if you can get it. And the 505 Fund just shells it out, repair after re-carpet after remodel. They say it’s to maintain the assets. After looking at millions of dollars spent over the past six years spent on “maintaining” this proprietary housing portfolio and the many tens of thousands in ongoing work, I am not sure quite what to say. Other than, clearly these slush buckets of public money kept and used by the city of Aspen are a terribly selfish and self-serving use of public funds. Is there zero employee responsibility?
As the community grapples with the acknowledgment that we have built a large subsidized housing program over the past five decades that does not house our actual workforce, and the large employers who have the means to obtain their own housing are doing so, at the same time, the city has quietly built a special little enclave just for government workers using public money. As such, Aspen may indeed have the largest subsidized housing program and one of the oldest, but we are definitely not the envy of other resort communities; rather, we have become the example of what not to do. At a certain point, we really need to stop and reassess. But does council have the appetite to do so? The next municipal election is in March 2021. Let’s make this the critical issue. The future of our housing program depends on it.
We clearly have more housing than we knew about. But they say we desperately need more. Do we? Maybe we ought to better utilize what we already have. Contact at TheRedAntEM@comcast.net.
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For those of you who follow my monthly missives, and occasionally read between the lines, you may have noticed a trend toward a bit of cognitive dissonance and some internal conflict on my part.