Social service agencies must be more involved with the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) in order to combat homelessness, agreed local government officials and nonprofit leaders at a Regional Homeless Coalition meeting held last week.
Members of APCHA and the Regional Homeless Coalition, which is comprised of two dozen health and human services workers from Aspen to Parachute, came together to discuss APCHA’s role in providing housing to those at high risk of becoming homeless. The impetus of the meeting was the housing board’s recent decision to evict a woman living in employee housing for being unemployed. Some coalition members argue that by evicting people looking for jobs, APCHA is contributing to the homeless problem.
Tom McCabe, executive director of APCHA, at last Tuesday’s meeting stood by his conviction that the authority’s role is to provide housing for the local workforce and not to house people who need assistance like the homeless, he said.
“I’m really sensitive to the criticism of the housing authority because the housing authority is set up to do one job and we do that job,” McCabe said. “Now you want to expand that.”
The three main guidelines to qualify for affordable housing are that the individual must work a minimum of 1,500 hours a year in Pitkin County, not own other property in the valley and maintain that the unit is his or her sole residence.
Marolt Ranch is the only affordable housing managed by APCHA that serves homeless locals in the winter. Marolt is intended to house seasonal workers in the winter and music students in the summer, but the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation and the city of Aspen partnered together last year to house six people from the local homeless population at Marolt Ranch at discounted rents.
Barry Crook, assistant city manager, emphasized that there are legal barriers to overcome in changing deed-restricted units into housing for the homeless or otherwise unemployed. Funding for employee housing comes from different taxes and budgets that have restrictions on how the money can be spent, he said.
Patrick Coyle, the director of the Colorado Division of Housing, offered advice to the group.
Coyle acknowledged that as a product of the recession, unemployed residents living in affordable housing has become a statewide problem. To combat it, the housing authority in Denver has been proactive in connecting residents with employment training and job-finding services, Coyle said, adding those people have been the most successful in finding steady, reliable jobs in the restaurant and hotel industry.
“We certainly run into an increasing number who are economically homeless,” Coyle said. “It’s not just a housing conversation. It’s a conversation about providing services to the people who need it.”
The best way to combat homelessness is to link with APCHA the right nonprofits and public organizations designed to help those who are most at risk of becoming homeless, Coyle said.
“It’s not often these worlds come together,” he acknowledged.
Those who attended the meeting agreed that there needs to be a collaborative effort by multiple local agencies to attack the problem of homelessness.
“We need to have a system set up so that we can proactively help people,” said APCHA board member Marcia Goshorn.
Helen Klanderud, former Aspen mayor and a current board member of the Aspen Homeless Shelter, said local housing problems are a product of policies that were created for a different type of community.
When the housing authority’s guidelines were originally formulated in the 1970s, the local government was trying to solve the problem of housing young workers, Klanderud said. Policy makers assumed those people wouldn’t be staying in Aspen through retirement and as a result, they didn’t contemplate housing for the lifelong Aspenite, said Klanderud.
“I don’t think anyone at that time anticipated that people would spend their entire lives here,” Klanderud said. “I understand why the rules and regulations were originally put in place. But maybe the time has come to look at it again because the community has changed ... I think we’re talking about a much more expanded community than what we were then.”
The lack of foresight in APCHA’s guidelines have created the current problems the housing authority faces, such as how to deal with the increasing number of retirees living in affordable housing and how to ensure deed-restricted unit owners are compliant.
McCabe agreed that APCHA’s overall purpose of only providing housing to the workforce needs to be reevaluated to address the problems of a changing community. In the past decade, the city and APCHA have addressed housing issues piecemeal as they arise on a case-by-case basis and that should change, he said.
“I think it’s time to look at the whole thing again,” McCabe said. “It’s kind of like asking ourselves, ‘What do we want to be when we grow up?’”