Housing board attempts to get authority back

by Dorothy Atkins, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

The board that oversees the Aspen-Pitkin County affordable housing program is trying to get its power back from elected officials in order to effectively address issues that local residents face in their units.

The Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) has struggled recently with the current process, which prevents its five-member volunteer citizen board from making what it might consider as necessary, “no brainer” changes to guidelines that govern affordable units. The current process mandates that those changes be approved by all three governing agencies involved in the housing program, which include the APCHA board, Aspen City Council and the Pitkin County commissioners. That can take anywhere from a few months to years for decisions to be made, board members have said.

Recently, that was the case for W/J Ranch homeowner Richard Chelec, who went before the housing board in September asking for the asset cap to be removed from his resident occupied (RO) unit. Potential buyers opt out of purchasing the eight homes in his neighborhood with the restriction because the cap is fixed and they will have a problem selling, argued Chelec.

After the housing board tried to give Chelec a final approval, county officials told its members they didn’t have the authority to remove the cap because it could change policy on all RO units and would be a precedent setting move. 

In September, the board hired Barbara Green, an outside attorney, to study the intergovernmental agreement that governs the agency. The $2,000 analysis was done in preparation for a joint housing work session held last month with the APCHA board and elected officials from the city and county.

The agreement says that APCHA has the legislative power to make decisions on housing policies, budgeting and master planning, Green wrote in the opinion.

The housing board can legally ignore its legislative power if it chooses to and instead just advise council and the commissioners on policy, but Green didn’t recommend it. That would create confusion about the board’s role, which could become a legal issue if it were to ask voters to issue bonds or levy taxes for future housing developments, Green wrote.

In a meeting last week, board members discussed the opinion and agreed that they should have the final say on housing issues.

That’s how it used to be, but in the past decade the authority has transitioned into more of an advisory board to the city and county, said board member Marcia Goshorn. Oftentimes, elected officials don’t even follow the board’s recommendation, she said.

The housing board’s perspective differs from the opinion that council and commissioners expressed in the October work session.

At the time, council and the commissioners agreed that housing policy changes should be made in quarterly joint work sessions when a discussion can take place and a decision is made collectively. The elected officials also were in consensus that a “call-up” process wouldn’t work because with so many people involved, nearly every decision would likely be second guessed. A call-up is a process in which one of the elected boards can review and potentially reverse a citizen board’s decision.

Housing director Tom McCabe said he didn’t think the board’s push to assert its legal authority would create conflict between the city, county and APCHA, as long the elected officials are informed about housing issues. Currently, council and the commissioners question the board’s decisions because they don’t have a solid grasp of housing policies and guidelines, McCabe said.

“If communication is better and the knowledge is shared more deeply among the bodies I think there will be higher confidence levels and there’s a fair chance there won’t be so much second guessing,” McCabe said. “I think there will be a better understanding on the part of the commissioners and the council about the nuances of the housing issues.”

City Council members or commissioners also could still be able to call up the board’s decision, before it became policy, said APCHA operations director Cindy Christensen.

Board member Ron Erickson agreed with McCabe’s assessment, and said that he thinks the elected officials will appreciate the effort to streamline the housing authority’s decision-making process.

“I don’t think the system works very efficiently,” he said. “And I think that council and the commissioners agree on that and I think ... that they’re anxious to see what we can do.”

Although a date hasn’t been established yet, the board plans to meet with the city and county managers to discuss how the board intends to assert its authority.