The housing board decided in a unanimous vote on Wednesday to allow the six-member Flores family to remain in their 900-square-foot rental home despite safety concerns regarding the unit’s livability.
Longtime local Roberto Flores has lived in the three-bedroom unit at the Smuggler Mountain Apartments for the past 17 years, where he and his wife have raised their four daughters, three of whom are currently attending local schools.
In December, the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) gave Flores until the end of the month to move out so that the unit could be brought up to building codes. That date was extended after Flores went before the housing board asking for help. The family couldn’t find another unit with comparable rent near town and he was out of options, Flores argued.
The 11-unit Smuggler Mountain Apartments are made up nine studios and two three-bedroom apartments, which are all highly subsidized category 1 units. Flores’ rent is about $700 a month.
The small apartment has health and safety issues that can only be corrected if the family moves out, said APCHA Director Tom McCabe at Wednesday’s meeting. Those issues include old electric wiring, overloaded circuits, built up grease in the pipes and there could be mold in the bathroom walls, McCabe said. Part of the reason staff is singling out Flores’ unit over others is that it has been over occupied for years, McCabe said.
“The accumulation of these issues over the years has gotten to the point that for me it is scary,” McCabe said.
There are also rumors that the family is operating a commercial kitchen out of the unit, which explains the amount of grease in the kitchen pipes, he said. McCabe has not visited the unit, but was relying on testimony from APCHA maintenance staff, he said.
The housing authority has warned the family that they would have to leave multiple times over the past year and they kept extending the eviction date to accommodate them, McCabe said.
Cavanaugh O’Leary, a local attorney representing Roberto Flores pro bono, addressed each item. He argued that family was being singled out on the issues of mold and wiring, because all of the other units could potentially have those problems. An inspector who visited the unit on Monday said that the outlets were not being overloaded but some of the circuits could be replaced and that work could be done while the family remained in the unit, he said. Meanwhile, the grease build up is simply due to the fact that the family cooks a lot, he said. The family is not running a commercial kitchen out of the unit, and those rumors are unfounded, he said.
“It seems to me that this family, this man, this tenant is the model of what the housing authority was created for,” O'Leary said. “This is not a man of great means, but he is allowed to live and work in the city of Aspen and has raised four children — all honor students. ... This man should be touted, this man should be made the example. I would say it’s kind of an abomination that he would be asked to leave given what he’s accomplished.”
Six members of the public also spoke before the board arguing against evicting the family.
Local Ruth Harrison questioned why others in the building weren’t being asked to leave and said she was concerned that such action was being taken when McCabe has never been in the unit. Harrison, a former Aspen School District teacher, said she was fortunate enough to teach two of Flores’ children. Roberto Flores was one of the few parents who always volunteered at school events and they were always cooking to thank faculty and friends, she said.
“They don’t need this in their lives,” Harrison said. “What he has done with his kids and his family, we should all live by example. ... This family deserves better, you just can’t do this to them.”
Frank Peters, who is a former housing board member, reminded the board that the Flores family should be considered a client of the housing authority. Kicking them out of a unit and not providing alternative housing is wrong for many reasons, including the fact that it’s the middle of the school year and winter, he said.
“Nothing about this set of circumstances before you is right,” Peters said.
It is the responsibility of the housing authority to take extraordinary steps to ensure that the family has a place to live in town if the board decides it needs to renovate the unit, he said.
“I think this board should be very careful about the kind of persona the housing office presents because it really is a good [organization],” Peters said. “But it looks bad. It looked bad to me.”
Dave Tolen, who has a 13-year history of working with affordable housing offices and rehabilitated 600 units, said that the repairs were largely maintenance issues, which could be done without relocating the family. Tolen suggested that if the family has to be evicted, the housing authority should consider purchasing a unit to house them, he said.
“To me, simply disregarding the family, I simply wouldn’t do,” Tolen said.
Locals Blanca O’Leary, Marcella Larsen and David Bradley also spoke in favor of allowing the family to stay. Kathy Klug, a college counselor at the Aspen School District, Georgina Levey, a teacher, and three of Flores’ neighbors also wrote letters in support of the family.
Roberto Flores spoke in Spanish while Blanca O’Leary translated. Tearfully he thanked the housing authority for putting his family in the situation, because of the support he received from the community in response. He asked that people visit his home so that they would see that the accusations of safety and health violations due to over occupancy aren’t true.
In general he said he’s thankful for Aspen’s affordable housing and education system. Flores, who is from Mexico, has visited many countries and from his experience, there is no other country with the same quality of public schools, he said.
“Aspen es paradise,” he said in tears, meaning Aspen is paradise.
Tim Horne, APCHA maintenance supervisor, spoke briefly without going into great detail, arguing that the wiring in the unit needs to be addressed.
None of the housing board members were inclined to force the family out of their unit. Board members Marcia Goshorn and Ron Erickson agreed that the housing authority was made for families like Flores’. Board member Rick Head said that none of the work appeared to be something that required the family to be out of the unit and board member Steve Stunda said that the fact they’ve been living in the same affordable housing unit for 17 years means a lot.
APCHA attorney Tom Smith suggested that the board ensure the electric issues in the unit are addressed in a timely manner.
“If an electrical fire were to occur out there and you weren’t taking some action to address this problem you would be in trouble,” he said.
Board members agreed and voted to have the work done while the Flores family remains in the unit. The fact that the family has been living in the unit with such problems for so long is appalling, Erickson said.
“I’m embarrassed by it and I apologize to Roberto for it,” he said.
After the hearing, both Horne and McCabe made comments suggesting that information regarding the Flores family’s use of the unit was being withheld, but neither would elaborate. McCabe said sometimes he’ll know something pertinent to an individual’s case and choose not to disclose all of the information, like he did in this situation, he said. At the end of the day, the right decision was made by the board, he said.