John Colson: Housing office deserves support, not whining

John Colson
Hit & Run
John Colson
Courtesy photo

After a week off duty, I return to find that Aspen is a-tumble with whining tales of people who say they do not “trust” the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority, otherwise known as APCHA, pronounced “appcha.”

This all sounds terribly familiar, not to mention terribly predictable, given that a certain class of Aspenites (real estate types, the wealthy) has always despised affordable housing.

I should point out that I have been a beneficiary of the APCHA program, and I was endlessly grateful for the help.

Back in the 1980s, I lived for several years in a Hunter Creek condo owned by my boss, the late Aspen Times publisher Bil Dunaway, who had the foresight to buy up apartments and condos all over town in the preceding decades as a way to keep his employees housed.

He knew full well, starting shortly after he bought The Aspen Times in the 1950s, that Aspen was moving helter-skelter toward a day when working folks would not be able to afford living in the town where they worked, and worked hard.

Not that ol’ Bil was being entirely munificent in his own little affordable-housing program — he was merely being smart.

He knew that, in order to hang onto workers and build a deep bench of reporters, photographers, layout people, front-office staff and others, he had to be able to assure them of a place to live.

He also knew that, worker benefits aside, all those condos, apartments, etc. would ultimately be worth many times what he paid for them.

Bil was a man who knew the value of real estate, just as well as he knew the critical need for journalists who know the town they work in, inside and out, and that learning the ropes of a small-town culture comes much more easily to someone who lives in the town where he or she works at the local paper (or radio station, or magazine or what-have-you).

As I noted above, Bil was just being smart, and the local governments slowly developed the same kind of smarts starting in the 1970s, when the affordable-housing program started up.

To get back to my own experience, I gave up my Dunaway-owned housing when I quit the news business for a couple of years to try my hand at alternate careers that, to put it mildly, never really panned out.

By the time I got the call from then-editor Mary Eshbaugh Hayes to come back into the Times fold (this was in 1991, I believe) I’d been living in a trailer in Woody Creek for a while.

As a qualifying full-time employee again, I used the equity I’d built up in the trailer (only in Pitkin County, right?) to buy one of the last non-lottery-controlled affordable housing units sold in Aspen, at the Midland Park condo neighborhood, built by Pitkin County in the early 1970s.

I lived there for a decade and, in the early 2000s, moved to Carbondale to run the local paper there, and again used the equity I’d accumulated and bought a free-market townhouse.

So mine is a success story in terms of the APCHA, and I’m here to tell you that the program is a god-send to the local working population.

As for all this caterwauling about not being able to “trust” the program, or expressing “fear” of running afoul of the APCHA guidelines, I’m not sure where it’s coming from.

Sure, there have been a few high-profile cases of people violating the housing rules and being caught, causing them to forfeit the right to live in subsidized housing.

But as far as I can tell, many of those, if not all, were cases of self-injury by people who thought they could get away with something and failed.

Certainly, the housing program has its foibles and inequities, I guess. What human-created endeavor does not find itself in hot water from time to time, typically caused by a mix of hubris and bad planning on the part of civil servants who are doing their best under trying circumstances.

But I worry where all this moaning and complaining is leading us.

I remember when, during an earlier binge of anti-APCHA harangues, some suggested that those living in subsidized housing be allowed to sell them on the free market, which would be a recipe for disaster.

Sure, some working stiffs might get a big windfall, but it would not enable them to buy a home on the open market in Aspen and would end the program immediately.

There also has been talk of making it a priority-managed system, in which someone gets to decide what an “essential worker” is and the housing is handed over only to those working in “essential” jobs.

Again, this would backfire badly, as was recently pointed out by long-time commentator Mick Ireland — it would pit worker-groups against each other and only make management of APCHA more difficult, probably killing the program.

And that would be a shame, because the APCHA program has long been held up as a shining example to others of what a government can do to make sure its constituent working class gets something approaching a fair shake when it comes to finding a place to live near where they work.


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