Fear, distrust of Aspen’s housing program a growing concern

Elected officials, Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board recognize agency’s public relations problem

Carolyn Sackariason
Aspen Times
The Smith Ranch neighborhood in Silverthorne is pictured Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. The Summit Combined Housing Authority helps manage the Smith Ranch neighborhood in Silverthorne. The organization is similar to the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority.
Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority/Courtesy photo

ASPEN — The Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority has a public relations problem, and those who oversee the program are scratching their heads on how to communicate to the masses that the agency, which manages 3,128 deed-restricted units, is not corrupt but rather a community asset.

It was a topic of conversation last week when Aspen City Council and Pitkin County commissioners met about future affordable housing in the upper valley.

Commissioner Greg Poschman voiced opposition to building more of it because he doesn’t trust the system, which is predicated on many constituents’ comments to him over the years.

“What I am hearing from them is don’t do anything to be noticed because there is a fear that their lives are going to be ruined,” he said on Friday in a follow-up interview. “There are so many different rules, and that’s where the suspicion comes from.”

He told his elected official colleagues during last Tuesday’s joint meeting that he apologized in advance for his naivete, but the fear of the agency is real.

“It’s not just me alone, I am not out here in my own little bubble,” Poschman said. “I do hear from the community that they don’t feel particularly being heard or cared for, and I guess that is something that you are going to have when you have a system that is really fraught with all of the inequities.”

Poschman on Friday walked back some of his previous public comments and said he couldn’t point to any specific claims of corruption or compliance infractions.

“If I have an apology, it’s to the people who are close to the agency and work for it, because I’m not criticizing APCHA staff or think they are corrupt,” he said, adding that he questions the city’s approach to affordable housing, particularly its planned Lumberyard project across from the airport. “It’s easy to conflate the two, the city and APCHA.”

The ABCs of the housing authority

One of the housing authority’s board members, Alycin Bektesh, said during Wednesday’s housing authority meeting the problem is that a lot of people have a misunderstanding of what the agency is, and there is a gray area of what the board is responsible for.

“I think a communication directive would really be to explain the role of the APCHA board and what it can and cannot do,” she said.

The organization is jointly funded by the county and the city in a 50-50 split partnership.

The city is the dominant developer of workforce housing, since it collects revenue from real estate transfer and sales taxes.

The housing authority is a city department with 14 employees and is charged with overseeing the affordable housing program, which is to verify qualifications of residents who apply or live in ownership and rental units and to enforce the rules, among other things.

Its board of directors comprises two representatives who are county commissioners, two who are council members and three citizens.

The board makes policy decisions like how to deal with depleting capital reserves in homeowner associations and the conditions of aging units in the 40-year-old program and leaves compliance issues to staff and an outside hearing officer.

Addressing the fear-mongering

Housing authority board member and City Councilwoman Rachel Richards said she agrees that more communication with the public is necessary, especially if elected officials are questioning the validity of the program.

“At (Tuesday’s) meeting, Greg used the term he fears and doesn’t trust APCHA, and he recognizes that, and I really fear and don’t trust that position he is coming from,” she said during the organization’s meeting. “When you are an agency that has the effect of denying people at a certain rate because they didn’t return their information, or they are over the income, there’s going to be angst, and there always is.”

The housing authority’s board members spoke about their interactions with constituents, and they said the distrust is real, but typically it’s not backed up with specific evidence supporting claims of abuse.

Kelly McNicholas Kury, a county commissioner and a board member of the housing authority, said people have come to her saying they want a tenant bill of rights because they feel they need more protection.

“I think we have an image problem, and I think we need to make more of a concerted effort related to the value to the community that this administration is bringing,” she said. “This isn’t for me just a few squeaky wheels. … I’m hearing it more and more often and hearing from people I find very unexpected, and those are very confrontational conversations, and I think they merit attention, because this program is really important to me, and I think it brings a ton of value.”

Upping its PR game

The housing authority’s public relations problem is not new, and historically the agency hasn’t spent the time, money or energy on communicating with the public.

In 2019, the agency hired Fort Collins-based Slate Communications as it was beginning to roll out its new online platform known as HomeTrek.

The directive then was to build identity and explain what the housing authority does for the public.

That communications plan fell flat.

“I want to point out that when I came on the board 19 months ago, the main topic of conversation was how to communicate better about what APCHA does and who we are and try to dispel the distrust and the animosity toward APCHA,” said board member and county Commissioner Francie Jacober.

When Matthew Gillen, the new executive director came on last fall, a renewed effort to build trust with the community began.

The housing authority is actively using its social media accounts and is consulting with Slate Communications to get public messaging out through those channels.

So far this year the housing authority has paid Slate Communications just over $11,200 to help staff get social media accounts active and routinely used; Gillen recently began doing live Facebook posts to talk about the agency.

“We are putting in a concerted effort and are upping our communications strategy,” said Bethany Spitz, the housing authority’s deputy director.

Board member John Ward suggested during last week’s meeting that compliance updates, such as cases that are open or are being investigated, be included in the agency’s newsletter.

Gillen said that was a great idea and wished he had thought of it.

All bite and no teeth

Many citizen complaints that come to board members or staff lack facts or understanding, officials said.

“I get it on the street all the time, ‘So and so are renting their place.’ Well, are they? It turns out no, they aren’t,” said Ward.

The organization’s board chair Carson Schmitz said people often confuse the city’s initiatives with the agency.

“What happens more, which to me is even more concerning, is people will start going off on how much they hate APCHA,” but when he asks for more detail, they say they hate a project that the city is building or can’t provide any details of a perceived compliance violation or mistreatment.

“I think more communication is good,” he said. “In my opinion, staff is very transparent, and I think staff is very compassionate, and I have seen nothing that gives me concern of an overbearing APCHA or anything that would create legitimate distrust within the community. … I wish that we could more clearly communicate that to the public.”

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