Longtime local Roberto Flores is fighting to keep the 900-square-foot affordable housing rental unit that his six-member family has called home for the past 17 years.
The Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) had given Flores and his family until the end of December to move out of the Smuggler Mountain Apartments complex so that the unit can be brought up to building code. However, the move-out deadline has been extended through the holidays.
Flores came before the housing board during a public comment period on Wednesday asking for help. His wife and four daughters have been living in the three-bedroom unit since 1995 and they make about $4,000 a month, he said.
Flores’ wife works in Aspen and he receives a disability check for about $2,000 a month due to an injury he sustained working one of his three jobs in 2009. He has a 7-year-old daughter, who attends Aspen Elementary School, two daughters at Aspen High School — including one who is graduating next year — and a daughter on scholarship at Colorado College.
“I think I’m a normal family,” Flores said.
If his family is forced to leave their home, Flores doesn’t think he’ll be able to find another place for comparable rent near town, he said. Flores has looked for other housing and even reached out to the county’s health and human services network, but hasn’t been able to find a solution, he said.
“I need a house for my family,” Flores said.
The small apartment has health and safety issues that can only be corrected if the family moves out, argued Tom McCabe, housing director.
Flores’ apartment has old aluminum wiring that needs to be replaced and there are possible repairs needed in the unit’s plumbing, said building manager Kai Ramsey, who attended the meeting. There is also the possibility that the unit has harmful mold growing in the walls and one of the unit’s rooms is not large enough to be considered a bedroom under current building code, Ramsey said. It’s unclear how long the repairs will take.
Board member Marcia Goshorn asked why the upgrades need to be done now and questioned why Flores’ unit was being singled out. If wiring needs to be replaced in one apartment, that should apply to all of the units, she said.
McCabe argued that part of the issue is that the unit was over used due to the number of people that have lived in it for the past decade, creating health and safety concerns.
“Roberto has overpopulated that apartment,” McCabe said. “Everything in that apartment is over used.”
Ramsey agreed, noting that an over-loaded circuit in the unit recently became near flashpoint, which could have set the building on fire.
After the repairs, the housing authority could rent the unit back to the family, but the agency is not inclined to because it believes too many people are living in the unit, McCabe said.
The 11-unit Smuggler Mountain Apartments complex was built in the 1970s and the housing authority acquired it in the early ’90s. The rental unit complex is made up nine studios and two three-bedroom apartments, which are all highly subsidized category 1 units. Due to their affordability, there is low turnover and families tend to stay there, McCabe said. Flores’ unit is rented at about $800 a month, he said.
The Smuggler apartments were planned to be torn down, along with a neighboring property, to make way for a new free market and affordable housing development, which led housing officials to delay repairs on Flores’ unit and others in the complex. However, that redevelopment — known as Aspen Walk — is on hold and potentially sidelined while a private development group seeks a buyer or other investors.
Denis Murray, a plans examination manager with the city, said that the over-occupancy issue gets raised regularly by homeowners associations. Building codes do not place specific limits on how many people can live in a unit per-square foot, but the city’s land-use code dictates that a family, which is defined as two or more related people, can live in a single dwelling unit. The code also says that no more than five unrelated people occupy the same apartment, according to Murray.
Murray acknowledged that the broad definition of a family makes it difficult to determine if a residential unit is over occupied.
“How do you enforce that?” he asked, “I have no idea.”
The housing board directed staff to come up with possible solutions to the issue, which will be presented to the board at its first meeting of the new year on Jan. 6. In the meantime, Flores and his family were granted an extension to remain in the unit through the holidays.
Board member Ron Erickson expressed frustration with the situation.
“We should have been dealing with this months ago,” he said, adding that he was not comfortable with allowing the family to continue to over occupy the unit and pose a safety risk to all of the building’s tenants.
McCabe acknowledged that the situation was difficult, but it comes down to a question of health and safety.
“We’ve been sympathetic to his plight,” McCabe said. “It’s a no-win situation for APCHA. If we ask the guy to leave we’re seen as the bad guys, but if we permit him to stay at risk of health and safety, it’s unfair to the other tenants and ultimately unfair to him and his children. [We’re] darned if we do, darned if we don’t.”
Flores has been warned for months that he needed to leave the unit or minimize the number of people living in it, McCabe argued.
“If we’re guilty of anything it’s that we’ve cut him too much slack,” he said.
Flores, who is originally from Mexico, cried as he explained his situation to the board. He has struggled with depression since he was injured and became unable to work. Now that he might not have a home for his family he is all but losing hope, he said. Still, Flores is trying to teach his daughters that they have to be strong and deal with the unexpected challenges of life as they present themselves, he said.
“The life,” Flores said, trying to explain his philosophy in broken English, “is the life.”