Elizabeth Milias: For APCHA, leadership is the issue
The Red Ant
It’s widely known that the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority is a mess. Whether it’s the pricey, new, barely working database designed to provide transparency to an archaic, paper-based system, a 3,000-unit portfolio of deteriorating inventory, rental housing lotteries controversially conducted by third parties, or underfunded maintenance reserves throughout, the instances of systemic failure are rampant. And while it’s easy to point out the issues, the reason why the program is such a disaster is its leadership. Or, more concisely put, the lack thereof.
APCHA is an independent inter-governmental agency, neither a department of the city nor county. With a stated commitment to “foster creative solutions to solve problems and increase cooperation in the community, be open to new and more effective ways of doing business, and have a long-term vision and strategy for success,” the organization is currently poorly structured to achieve its goals.
There are four elected representatives on the board (two from the city and two from the county), the result of a controversial change to APCHA’s governance structure in 2019 when it was deemed important to have electeds seated on the previously all-volunteer citizen board. At the time, local bureaucrats became concerned that an all-volunteer citizen board might make far-reaching changes to the program, loosening the city’s iron-clad grip.
Until recently, Skippy Mesirow was the city’s voting member and board chair while Rachel Richards was the alternate. It’s not so much a case of self-dealing that’s the issue here, but one of clear conflict of interest. Skippy ran for council on a platform of bringing more subsidized housing to Aspen’s masses and Rachel is long-known as the godmother of Aspen’s subsidized housing program, having been instrumental in its development. Mesirow’s “more is more” focus brings a penchant for dramatic changes to the program that are frequently at odds with Richards’ steadfast protections of the status quo. The dual roles are inherently conflicted, considering the board’s role serving as a housing advocate and translating this into concrete recommendations to the local governments.
At a recent council meeting, Mesirow and Richards got into it over who, in the new council term, would be the APCHA board’s voting member. The two strong personalities demonstrated how important their personal housing agendas are, and in the end settled on splitting the two-year role at its midpoint with Richards assuming the voting position.
This all takes place under a dark cloud whereby the program has no executive director. APCHA’s former housing director was let go by city manager Sara Ott for what she deemed “insubordination” when he presented the board with a salary assessment showing how grossly underpaid his position was in comparison to peers at far smaller programs. This, and the governance structure that oddly has the APCHA executive director reporting to the city manager and not the board, effectively strips the board of any power to counter the desires of city management when it comes to independent, reform-minded policy making.
So in effect, the city manager is the de-facto APCHA director, and the citizen members of the APCHA board have a say, albeit a small one. Their voices are frequently drowned out by the know-it-all electeds on the board whose political priorities are often less about addressing the critical issues and more about pandering to hierarchical constituencies. The new governance structure was criticized in 2019 for its obvious and inherent problems, and like most everything else with APCHA, remains problematic to this day.
There are small glimmers of hope, however, despite the uphill battle. This week, the APCHA board amended the housing guidelines to include a long-overdue change to the process of selling APHCA units. Beginning Aug. 1, sellers must undergo a formal inspection prior to listing their unit for sale to ensure compliance with minimal livability and life safety standards. This is a notable step toward ensuring the long term maintenance of our housing stock.
Over the objections of the elected representatives, the citizen members of the APCHA board are encouraged to keep chipping away at the critical issues:
Conduct a program census. This integral component of knowing what we have and who lives where is at the heart of good program governance, and is decades overdue. Besides, we need accurate data to ascertain what it is we actually need for the future.
Improve the bi-annual affidavits. Require occupancy information on each APCHA unit. It is unconscionable that we do not know how many people we are housing in our existing inventory.
Address the expiring deed restrictions. APCHA is set to lose 496 units comprised of 787 bedrooms in coming years as deed restrictions expire. These can never be replaced.
Further improve the sales and pricing process. Tie appreciation to the physical and financial condition of the unit, complex and HOA.
Improve APHCA governance. Get the electeds off the board, or at least relegate them to non-voting positions. Assert the independence of APCHA from the city and county, and hold board members to account for maintaining the physical and financial integrity of our housing program.
An independent and elected APCHA board, not unlike the school board, is where we ought to be heading.
Serving on governmental boards can be a thankless task. Thanks to the citizens on the APCHA board who are trying to move the needle. Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net
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