Elected officials in a work session on Tuesday decided not to give priority to first responders who qualify for Pitkin County-owned units, in opposition to a long-standing housing authority policy.
The Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) allows local workers who are first responders to move to the top of the rental sign-up list for APCHA-managed and city-owned properties. First responders, who have worked in the position for a year, also are bumped up in the lottery system, which favors those who have lived in Aspen for four years or longer, giving them a better shot at winning a chance to purchase units in the program, said Cindy Christensen, APCHA operations manager.
The reasoning behind the policy is that those workers should live within city and county limits so that they can respond quickly in the case of an emergency, Christensen said. Aspen City Council and the Board of Pitkin County Commissioners made the decision years ago, she said.
“They thought that it was necessary for first responders to live close to town,” she said.
APCHA’s guidelines define an emergency worker as an employee or volunteer who is on call seven days a week for life-threatening emergencies. To qualify as an emergency worker, employees need to get a recommendation from their supervisor and be approved based on APCHA guidelines.
On Tuesday, Pitkin County commissioners decided to strike the rule moving forward with new county-owned units because they argued it is unfair.
“I don’t agree that first responders should get ... priority,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield. “Where I come from all employees are equal.”
Commissioner Rob Ittner, who owns Rustique Bistro, agreed with Hatfield’s assertion, arguing that restaurant employees deserve to live in subsidized housing to stay in the county as much as first responders do.
The county needs to create a policy that is fair and equitable across the board, Ittner said.
The conversation came out of a discussion on how new county-owned affordable housing properties will be used. The commissioners directed staff in a retreat in February to purchase free-market units for affordable housing. So far, the county has closed on its first acquisition — a townhome in Basalt — and is in negotiations on others, according to a work session memo.
As the county moves forward with purchasing properties, commissioners decided to initially retain ownership of all units without a deed restriction and offer them as highly subsidized, low-rent units. That will give the county flexibility in figuring out what the community’s housing demands are as the program matures, said County Manager Jon Peacock.
Currently there are 2,615 affordable housing units in the APCHA program to provide workforce housing, and the county has two designated for its employees. The city has multiple units for its employees at Water Place near the water treatment facility and on Cemetery Lane. New county units will be divided evenly between those designated for county employees and APCHA qualified workers until a better understanding of housing demand is assessed.