Meredith Carroll: Housing office should deal in deeds, not dreams

Meredith C. Carroll
Muck Off

On Memorial Day weekend, my family ambled up the Fryingpan River looking for a good spot to drop a line when a riverside home caught our eye. Carved out on the property was a shady little retreat essentially beckoning passersby to imagine lounging, reading or napping the day away next to the prolifically rolling water.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little weekend getaway up here?” we mused.

Later that evening, as we idled on our deck nestled up to the base of Shadow Mountain, we agreed that while the grass is often greener, in our case we’re abundantly grateful for our own little piece of the pie. August will mark 10 years since my husband and I won the housing lottery 13 days before our wedding, an event that changed our lives (the housing lottery and the marriage). On occasion, we still talk about our tremendous providence and what we’d be doing now and where we’d be living if we hadn’t gotten lucky — because we know full well it was only luck that landed us a spot in paradise.

There are plenty of things to which Aspenites are entitled, including leaving poop on sidewalks and trails for their fairy dogmother to scoop up later and taking up two parking spots if their car is small, brightly colored and ends in the letter I. Something not a single person in Aspen is entitled to, however, is employee housing. The Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority does not exist because everyone working in the 81611 has a God-given right to own a three-bedroom, two-bath house in the core with ample sunlight and unobstructed views.

The Aspen Area Community Plan, circa 2000, said of the employee-housing program: “We believe it is important for Aspen to maintain a sense of opportunity and hope (not a guarantee) for our workforce to become vested members of the community. … (We seek) to preserve and enhance those qualities that has made Aspen a special place by investing in our most valuable asset — people.”

Nowhere in there does it also say, though, that some of those assets are more valuable than others. Plastic surgeons dispensing Botox in tony offices on Main Street don’t get priority housing status over, say, the folks who scrub toilets at the Molly Gibson Lodge. As long as you meet the work and financial requirements, you are equally as eligible as anyone else to enter the lottery for the chance to purchase a home at an affordable price. If you win, awesome. If not, better luck next time. Employee housing is a gift, not a gimme.

In the case of the Pomeroy family — who recently bypassed the lottery when a special review committee voted 2-1 to grant them the right to buy a four-bedroom home in Williams Ranch because of what has been described as a medical hardship — good for them. As my dad often reminds me: If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Yet the Pomeroy case seems to be a glaring sign the system could benefit from a tuneup. If the vending machine in a school cafeteria dispenses free bags of M&M’s to which children help themselves, you might give the kids a halfhearted smile for being savvy enough to maneuver a sweet, if not broken, situation, but certainly you’d reserve the harder questions about functionality for the vending-machine company.

Without knowing the specifics of the Pomeroys’ case, it’s unfair to speculate if their hardship is genuinely, well, harder than many other people working locally who would also really, really, really, really like to own a home here, including those missing limbs from wars, accidents or disease; those relegated to wheelchairs; those suffering from cancer and other terminal illnesses; those who are single parents, divorced or widowed; and those who feel strongly about working closely to where their kids go to school.

While the Pomeroys may have only taken one home out of the pool, it was still that much more heartbreaking to those who weren’t even given a chance to vie for it. And that’s a common problem faced by the housing authority: It doesn’t just deal in condos but human beings with feelings and, often, extraordinary circumstances. Yet that the housing authority has a way to be the judge and jury of suffering through a special review committee could mean the program has gotten away from itself, since its website said it was conceived to “assure the existence of a supply of desirable and affordable housing for persons currently employed in Pitkin County” — not to magistrate who’s more qualified for homeownership based on anything other than their income and how many years they’ve worked within county lines. People will always be way more nuanced than how they appear on paper, so perhaps the housing authority would better fulfill its mission by taking a strict black-and-white approach instead of factoring in the colors it sees by reading between the lines.

It’s a nice idea to think everyone who wants to own a home here should be able to, except life isn’t fair. The employee-housing system, though, can — and should — be.

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