Aspen’s newly sworn-in city council took its first action Monday night in deciding to examine several policies put forward by the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board. Council members decided to look at a measure that would formalize what “affordable” means when it comes to housing the area workforce. They also want to spend time discussing a new contract hearing officer position within APCHA.
Both measures have been approved by the APCHA board, but the system as it is now also requires passage from the city council and the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners in order to go into effect. This may be the last “call up” procedure, as plans are in motion to reconfigure the APCHA board so that its decisions are final and do not require review.
Eighteen months ago, the APCHA board passed a set of affordability standards that could be applied to all of the district’s inventory.
The go-to standard for affordability nationwide is that a rent or mortgage cost should be about 30 percent of a resident’s annual salary. Anything more than that is considered “cost burdened.”
“Cost-burdened households, particularly those in lower income groups, may be forced to make tradeoffs to meet other necessary household expenses, such as food, healthcare and transportation, or in the safety, quality and location of their housing,” Mike Kosdrosky, executive director of APCHA, wrote in a memo to council.
APCHA has recently updated its income classification system that brackets residents into different categories based on their earnings. Maximum rent and sales prices are then set based on the category that units are assigned.
A study conducted in 2017 shows that the average percent of income that goes toward housing for APCHA’s residents is only 17 percent. But the average doesn’t reflect that the cost-burdened population is unevenly distributed — those making the least amount of money are the hardest hit, as well as single-adult households.
“By all standards we are doing really well. The bad news is there are still segments of the population that are cost burdened,” Kosdrosky said in an interview last week.
Fifty-five percent of residents classified as Category 1 or 2 are cost burdened. That means single-person households making less than $61,550 annually, or $70,350 for a couple. In contrast, only 1.3 percent of households in the top category are cost burdened. The salary range for Category 5 is between $148,401 and $173,350 for a one-person household or $169,601 and $198,550 for a couple.
Homeowner association fees are not typically part of the standard 30 percent calculation. Because the types of things that an HOA pays for, like facility upgrades and snow removal, are all changed at the local free market rates, many HOAs in Aspen have high monthly dues. APCHA board member Carson Schmitz spoke during public comment on Monday, telling council he thought the 30 percent threshold was too high, given other costs in the area.
“This would disproportionately affect families,” he told the council, saying that childcare in Aspen is four times more expensive than what his sister pays for care in Dallas.
APCHA has also proposed changing rules that would keep those in lower income brackets from bidding on homes that are too far out of their range, arguing that even if they could secure a mortgage under the 30 percent calculation issued by a bank, the HOA payments in addition could bring them into the cost-burdened category.
Neither incumbent councilmembers Ann Mullins or Ward Hauenstein voted to call up the hearing officer resolution, saying it had been sufficiently discussed in the past. The three new members, however, carried the vote. Rachel Richards expressed concern about the set of standards a hearing officer would use to review residents’ appeals when they are found to be out of compliance.
“I just want to make sure, moving forward, we are doing it right,” Richards said.
The resolution also suggests reducing the minimum square footage required by developers when building affordable units. Right now developers can ask for a variance that cuts down apartment size by up to 20 percent. APCHA Deputy Director Cindy Christensen told council that the majority of development applications have requested and received the exemption. If the required square footage was reduced along with the opportunities for exemptions it would free up staff time.
Much of council wasn’t comfortable changing the standards without public discussion.
“The fact that waivers were given isn’t, in my mind, reason to lower the standard,” Richards said.
A third policy passed by the APCHA board was not called up, which means it will automatically go into effect in 30 days.
The measure updates the definition of emergency workers. The change expands who is considered eligible for being placed on the top of the list when APCHA-managed rentals become available, and reduces the four-year work history requirement for emergency workers interested in bidding in the ownership lottery.