Aspen City Council supports the hiring of a hearing officer to enforce the guidelines of the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority, it was decided this week during a work session. At that same meeting, council also gave a green light to a series of fines that would be applied to various housing violations.
The hearing officer would be a hired as a third-party, rather than as an APCHA employee. The position would take over adjudication of non-compliance issues and eviction proceedings. These hearings are currently overseen by APCHA’s volunteer citizen board of directors, who say they should be focused on policy, not enforcement.
APCHA Board Chair Ron Erickson said that many of the complaints that come to him are for conduct that is allowed within the program’s deed restrictions, and he spends a lot of his time telling people that their neighbors are not actually breaking the rules.
“If we are going to have a complaint-based system, we should do everything to increase education,” Erickson said. The proposed schedule of fines would help provide funding for educating the public about employee housing guidelines.
APCHA recently hired Bethany Spitz as the organization's first compliance officer. Kosdrosky told council that on her first day, Spitz had a backlog of 150 cases to investigate. He said for many of those violations, ACPHA is stuck between not taking any action, or evicting the owner or renter.
“It’s an all or nothing, and a lot of folks know they can abuse the system without any penalty and that’s a problem,” Kosdrosky said.
The series of fines would mean there are consequences for minor infractions that are not as extreme as the forceable sale of a house. A minor infraction, such as failing to turn in biennial affidavits proving employment and residency, would have a $250 fee that increased over time, up to $5,000. More egregious violations, such as accepting payment on a deed restricted house above the set purchase price, would be an automatic $5,000 fine.
APCHA attorney Tom Smith said that the adoption of the fine schedule may help tenants self regulate, once they know there are consequences to breaking the rules.
“If APCHA is more diligent about enforcement through the hearing officer and penalty program, I think the word will get out in a hurry and it will enhance voluntary compliance” Smith said.
Kosdrosky pointed out that in a recent survey of deed restricted homeowners, 45 percent responded that preventing fraud and abuse of the system should be among APCHA’s top priorities.
“This is coming from deed restricted owners, I thought that said a lot,” said Kosdrosky.“I think the vast majority of people in our program are abiding with the rules, so I think they are more sensitive to it than anyone else when they see someone who is not complying with the program rules.”
But it is the landlords, not the owners or tenants, who are perceived to be the greatest offenders. The new fine structure would include landlords, as well as business owners who are skirting the policies by allowing renters who have not been vetted by the housing authority.
“One property this fall did not qualify roughly 50 percent of their tenants,” Spitz told the council. “And that’s just really frustrating. Landlords just have no consequence if they don’t follow the rules.”
Councilman Bert Myrin questioned the fine structure, and if the dollar amount should coincide with the income category that the resident qualifies under. Ultimately, the board decided to keep a flat fee based on the severity of the violation, not based on the offender’s income. Council did recommend an automatic adjustment to the fees to keep up with inflation.
They also asked for more specifics about the hearing officer qualifications. Kosdrosky told the council that specifics had not been discussed, but that there would likely be a request for proposals and a roster of hearing officers selected. A supplementary budget to pay for the role would need to be improved, but the hope is that moving forward, the new fees would help offset the cost of the hearing officer.
Under APCHA’s current governmental structure, council still needs to formally approve the resolution, as do the Pitkin County Commissioners, who have scheduled their discussion of the hearing officer for March.
“It is a very positive step forward for the program, and for ensuring the current and future integrity of the program” said Kosdrosky.
He said the more the housing authority can do to show that everyone is playing by the rules, the more successful the program.
“Our goal is 100 percent compliance,” said Kosdrosky. “The integrity of the program is at steak and we want to earn and secure the public trust so that this can continue on for generations.”