John Colson: APCHA’s housing program does its job, despite troubles
January 28, 2019
Let us discuss for a moment the much-vaunted and much-vilified affordable-housing program that holds sway in Aspen and Pitkin County. It was started in the 1970s as a way to provide workforce housing in a resort economy that was rapidly pricing all but the very rich out of any chance to have a home here.
The program has been cited by some as an example that all resort towns should aspire to, equal or better, and by others as an example of government overreach and bureaucratic meddling in an area that should be left to the private sector — housing that is.
But, in fact, the idea of "affordable housing" is now part of the conversation between the governed and the government in a broad array of towns, cities, counties and states across the U.S., which alone is a form of proof of the prescient, progressive thinking on the part of Aspen and Pitkin County way back then.
To personalize the matter, my wife and I used to live in a deed-restricted condo in the "working-class ghetto" that made up a good-sized chunk of east Aspen in the 1990s.
It was about 900 square feet of ground-floor space, with two small bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room and a kitchen. There was no storage space worth the name, the heat came from electric baseboard and a small wood-burning stove, the cooking range, refrigerator and water heater were all electric, and the annual appreciation of the condo's value was limited to, if my memory serves, about 3 percent.
We paid about $136,000 for it in 1991 or so, and when we sold it about a decade later, the value had risen to about $160,000 — between the appreciation and the equity we had built up, we were able to buy a nice little free-market townhouse in Carbondale, where we now live.
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I provide this history to bolster my contention that the ongoing trials and tribulations of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority, which controls the pricing for a couple thousand apartments, condos, townhouses and houses in its jurisdiction, are not to be taken as evidence that the housing program is a failure.
Rather, the ongoing battles to ensure that those benefiting from the housing program are qualified buyers and renters, and not cheating the system, must be seen as evidence that the program is basically sound and working as it should.
The volunteer members of the board of APCHA (it's actually known to many by the pronunciation of that acronym, as in "app-chuh") have a tough job. It is their responsibility to ensure that the program is not being scammed by individuals whose interests are not in being rules-following residents, but in abusing the system to make as much of a profit as they can by that abuse, or in having a bigger or fancier residence than they qualify for by whatever ruse they can muster.
These cheaters, unfortunately, exist in sufficient numbers that the APCHA board has its hands full just keeping up.
There are a number of compliance-related investigations and processes going on right now, including two cases that made headlines this week — that of Bert Przybylski and that of Bill Lipsey and Linda Girvin.
In both cases, the APCHA board has investigated accusations of non-compliance with the rules, found the accusations to have merit, and has ordered that the two units involved be sold to buyers who actually qualify under the rules.
I'm not going to go into the specifics of the two cases, since I know perfectly well that I would quickly be drawn into a quagmire of "he said, she said" competing claims, and that would not do me, the claimants or the APCHA board much good.
It is highly likely, for instance, that each of the cases involves accusations of bad-faith dealing by one party or another, and recriminations in all directions have unfortunately drowned out reasonable discussion far too often.
For instance, I long ago heard of one situation in which a resident was accused of having a larger unit then she qualified for. That situation never got investigated, however, possibly because the resident happened to work on the APCHA staff or perhaps for other reasons.
In any event, there have been those who, having also heard of this situation, have fumed in private about the unfairness of the program and those who manage it.
But, accepting that there are inequities that can be found within the program, I do not go along with those who maintain that the program should be upended and redesigned, or even scuttled entirely so that all of the units in the program could be sold by the owners at free-market prices (yes, that suggestion has been made by more than one local politico).
I don't deny that, as with all human endeavors, there undoubtedly are problems with the housing program that should be periodically addressed, perhaps leading to modifications that make the rules a better fit for today's circumstances and needs.
The way to do that is to systematically examine the working of the program, not to hire attorneys and consultants to try to chip away at certain aspects of the program on behalf of individual buyers and renters.
Because the best thing about the APCHA program is that it has allowed thousands of actual local workers to live in the town where their jobs are, as well as affording them a leg up toward buying homes on the free market after having spent sufficient time in deed-restricted housing to build up a little equity.
Aspen and Pitkin County will never be examples of egalitarian fairness in housing, at least not as long as they operate under resort economics that favor the wealthy rather then the working class in terms of finding nice places to live.
But the APCHA program, flawed though it may be, has been a huge step toward making things at least a little more fair in that regard.
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