Garfield Commissioners reluctant to fund landlord-tenant assistance program
Want more info from neighboring counties, agency buy-in before reconsidering
Garfield County commissioners are questioning the need for a regional fund to help renters and landlords weather the potential longer-term economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
Commissioners were asked Monday by a coalition of nonprofit, school, health and religious organizations to consider granting $500,000 to fund a proposed three-county “Landlord/Tenant Regional Housing Recovery Plan” in Garfield and Pitkin counties and the Roaring Fork Valley portion of Eagle County.
The plan, put forward by the Mountain Voices Project and its partner organizations, would set up a special fund to help renters who’ve lost their jobs or had their hours or pay cut, to stay in their homes.
It’s also designed to help landlords who would rather not lose a good tenant, by providing a means to reach a short-term deal until their renters can get back on their feet financially.
The way it would work is that tenants struggling to make rent would enter an agreement where they would pay one-third of what’s owed. The special tri-county assistance fund would pay a third, and the landlord would forgive a third for a limited period of time.
In addition to the various forms of direct, month-to-month aid that is available from individual relief agencies, the assistance fund is seen as a way to “triple the effort,” Mountain Voices organizer Alice Steindler said.
Beyond the immediate need in the past three months since many resort-area businesses were required to close or scale back operations to slow the spread of COVID-19, the bigger concern is the potential long-term impact, Steindler said.
“We’re trying to prevent something that our landlords are anticipating,” she said.
Commissioners, however, pointed to $1.7 million in county assistance that has already been provided to individual agencies in Garfield County and through the county’s Human Services Department for needs including rental assistance.
Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said the longer-term need for the program may be overblown, depending on how fast the economy recovers.
He said he’d rather see any additional county funding should go toward direct relief efforts through organizations such as the River Center in New Castle, Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army.
“I feel much better giving these funds to someone we already have a direct relationship with,” Jankovsky said, adding he would be willing to give further consideration to funding the landlord/tenant plan on a couple of conditions.
First, the level of commitment from Pitkin and Eagle counties needs to be known, he said. Requests of both neighboring counties are still pending, Steindler said.
“They do bear some responsibility for human service issues in Garfield County,” Jankovsky said, noting that many Aspen-area workers live in Garfield County.
Second, the agencies in Garfield County need to be part of the conversations about how the program would work.
So far, for a variety of reasons, that hasn’t happened to the extent necessary, representatives from the River Center and Salvation Army said during the commissioner’s video conference meeting Monday.
“We keep hearing the names of our organizations that are being asked to do some of this work, but we have not been a part of this plan,” Heather Paulson, executive director for the River Center in New Castle, said.
Also, while the need for rental assistance still exists, applications have gone down and it’s hard to predict the long-term impact now, she said.
“We would like to be part of this conversation more before moving forward,” Paulson said.
Local Salvation Army Director Karen Lee said she, too, would like to know more about the multi-agency approach, but thinks the county’s money might be put to better use.
County Commissioner Mike Samson agreed that all the participating organizations need to be on the same page if the plan is to be implemented. In addition to waiting to hear from Pitkin and Eagle counties, Samson also wanted to see if some of the CARES Act funds going to Garfield County could be used for the effort.
The Mountain Voices Project coalition has lined up $103,000 in seed money from private donations to go toward the assistance fund. Supporters said government participation is key.
“It’s important that Garfield County work with both Eagle and Pitkin counties for these long-term solutions,” said Ross Brooks, executive director of partner organization Mountain Family Health Centers.
Jon Fox-Rubin, another Mountain Voices organizer and Mountain Family board member, said the beauty of the landlord/tenant solution is its public-private partnership.
“I ask you to leverage the public money, which will take it three times farther than direct aid, so that direct aid can be used when people truly need the handouts,” Fox-Rubin said.
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State department of transportation crews are well on their way to clearing Highway 82 to Independence Pass, which should open on schedule May 27 at noon.