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Aspen City Council, Pitkin County commit to nonprofit for regional housing

carbondale housing authority
Caroline Llanes
Aspen Public Radio
Carbondale is one of the towns involved in the creation of the Greater Roaring Fork Housing Coalition.

The Pitkin County Board of Commissioners and the Aspen City Council have each approved $10,000 for the creation of a regional nonprofit to address housing in the Roaring Fork Valley. Glenwood Springs approved $10,000 of its money for the nonprofit last week.

The idea for the nonprofit comes from the Greater Roaring Fork Housing Coalition. The group, formed in 2018, consists of representatives from Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Basalt, Snowmass Village and Aspen, as well as from Garfield, Eagle, and Pitkin counties. Members, who have been meeting for a few months, drafted a letter of intent to form a nonprofit that would be the governing body for the coalition.

The proposed mission of the nonprofit is to “increase the availability and accessibility of affordable community housing in the region” and to serve as a resource for all eight government entities in the region — without being a government agency itself. It also seeks to improve on the Greater Roaring Fork Housing Coalition’s 2019 regional study.

The participating entities will decide on a governing structure for the nonprofit and form a board of directors.

Assistant City Manager Diane Foster has been going to the coalition’s meetings since fall. At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, she explained some of the benefits of a nonprofit organization as opposed to a government agency. The biggest benefit is access to state funding.

“Because TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) prevents local governments from applying for some funds, a local nonprofit can have that ability,” Foster said. “There are also some advocacy advantages of also having a nonprofit.”

That includes the ability to raise funds through charitable contributions. Another benefit outlined in the letter of intent is independence from government institutions, particularly given the need for multiple municipalities to work together across three counties.

The timing of the formation of this nonprofit would also coincide with the state’s plans to distribute $450 million in federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for affordable housing projects.

Fifty percent of those funds will be in the form of low-interest loans, and the other 50% will be distributed as grants. The five municipalities and three counties would be ineligible for the loans individually, so the intergovernmental nonprofit could open a significant amount of funding for housing in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Overall, council members were supportive of the goals outlined in the coalition’s letter of intent, but they had some reservations — mainly about full cooperation from the other entities in the valley.

Council member Rachael Richards discussed the formation and growth of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority as a potential point of comparison for a potential regional collaboration. She talked about the gradual formation of RFTA, and how that involved years of starts and stops, including sending buses to Glenwood Springs before they joined the authority.

But she pointed out that there are significant differences in communities up and down the valley that would provide potential hurdles. Two examples are different mitigation rates for new commercial growth and differences in real estate transfer taxes.

“How do you settle the equities between things in proximity to work?” Richards said. “You know, it's likely that Burlingame III and maybe eventually the Lumberyard will be some of the least expensive housing in the valley, but I don’t think we’re building it for people to cross-commute downvalley to Carbondale.”

Council member Skippy Mesirow said he felt some provisions for housing and transportation should also be included, to keep with the city’s goals of reducing carbon emissions. Mayor Torre said he felt the group would be very open to adding such provisions as conversations progressed.

City Manager Sarah Ott said her understanding of the situation is that the City Council is in a good place to sign the letter of intent, given their relative economic strength and experience with affordable housing work.

“I think $10,000 is a low cost of entry for that experimentation — that is completely within your control,” she said. “But it means we are not going to have answers to some of these questions, sometimes for a long time. This is just a letter of intent.”

Ott acknowledged that there would need to be an intergovernmental agreement, or IGA, implemented among all eight bodies in the coalition as the process moves forward. She echoed Richards’ comparisons of the endeavor to the creation of RFTA and its success.

“You know, RFTA is actually the only other example I know of here in the Western Slope of this level of cooperation, and it's taken a long time to get there,” Ott said. “And so we need to start somewhere even if we can't answer all your questions.”

Council member Ward Hauenstein said he wants to see cooperation from the other communities up and down the valley, but he was ultimately encouraged by the letter of intent and the goals of the proposed nonprofit.

“The RFTA model is the gold standard for regional cooperation,” he said. “So, for $10,000, I'll gamble with the city’s money.”