Way back in November of 2019 — before the COVID scourge descended upon the world — I wrote a column that perhaps it's time for the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority to gain its genuine independence from its two governmental overseers, the city of Aspen and Pitkin County. My perspective then and now is that affordable housing for local workers is more important than ever, and its singular importance merits the oversight of a singularly focused board of elected leaders — unfettered by the political and societal complexities and often conflicting interests and priorities of running a full-service local government — like Aspen City Council and the Board of Pitkin County Commissioners. Besides, concentrating so much power among the same elected officials — including health, safety and welfare, as well as housing— seems like a lot of power vested in a very small group to me. In my humble opinion such power should be spread around a bit. For those reading this online, a link to that column is at the bottom of the page.
That, of course, did not happen, and there is no indication that it will. Aspen’s political boundaries around the issue of affordable housing are well-established. Aspen City Council, and to a somewhat lesser degree, the Pitkin County Commissioners, rule the roost on deed-restricted affordable housing. Permitting the entry of a new cohort of elected officials solely responsible for directing a staff that manages the affordable housing inventory in Aspen – unfettered by the aforementioned conflicts and complexities of all other local government responsibilities — is just not in the cards, it seems.
Since May of 2019, APCHA has operated with a board that includes one voting member from the city council and county commissioners along with three volunteer citizens instead of the prior arrangement with a seven member all-citizen board of appointed volunteers.
I get it: Finding the courage to let go of such an important responsibility as developing, and overseeing, a 2,000-plus-unit inventory of workforce affordable housing is hard. The system that provides the lifeblood for Aspen and Pitkin County’s economy by housing perhaps as many as half of its local employees, and more than half of Aspen’s residents, is complicated. But while it is complicated, it can most simply be described with a reasonable degree of accuracy through application of the “golden rule” of government control. That rule being that those with the gold make the rules.
In this case, the biggest pile of gold belongs to the city of Aspen, with its dedicated .5% affordable housing real estate transfer tax and .45% sales tax that when combined generate around $10 million annually from free-market property transactions and retail sales within the city’s boundaries for use in developing and managing city-owned affordable housing — which constitutes a substantial subset of the entire inventory of housing units that fall under the APCHA employment and income guidelines. Oh yes, and subsidizing APCHA’s operations. As of Jan. 1, 2020, the city’s affordable housing special revenue fund, into which these taxes are poured, had a fund balance of $53.5 million, according to the city’s annual financial report for 2019 (which is the city’s most recent publicly available audited report).
So as a first step toward a more diversified approach to governmental oversight of peoples’ lives in Aspen and Pitkin County, perhaps something smaller that ceding position power to dictate APCHA’s every action might be a better place to start. In the city’s case, as well as providing the largest pot of money for affordable housing development and management in general, it operates two complexes — Truscott Place adjacent to the Aspen Golf Course and Marolt Ranch just beyond the hospital along Castle Creek. So, what if the city were to divest itself of its ownership of these two housing developments?
Eliminating responsibility for day-to-day operations of rental housing developments would simplify the city’s role, allowing it to focus exclusively on the policy level elements of ensuring a stable, sustainable program to meet the community’s workforce housing needs over the longterm. Proceeds from the sales could be driven back into the Housing Development fund and used to leverage other sources of development capital to further the program. It would also eliminate any possibility for conflict between the city’s role as landlord of regulated properties and its role as the affordable housing program’s ultimate de facto regulator through its policy and financial influence over APCHA.
I do not know if there would even be interest from the private sector in owning and operating these developments. But it seems to me, based upon the existing landscape of affordable housing in Aspen, simplifying and streamlining the role of its biggest financial benefactor and ensuring a program focused on providing housing efficiently and effectively would be worth considering.
Here is a link to my column from November of 2019: