Councilwoman Debbie Ortega doesn’t want Mayor Michael Hancock’s affordable housing fund to be a “blank check”

How much control Denver City Council would have over a new permanent affordable housing fund has been a sticking point.

Residential property in Five Points. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)five points; residential; development; apartments; fugly; construction; kevinjbeaty; colorado; denver; denverite;
Residential property in Five Points. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) five points; residential; development; apartments; fugly; construction; kevinjbeaty; colorado; denver; denverite;
But is it affordable? (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Councilwoman At-large Debbie Ortega has a condition she wants to place on Mayor Michael Hancock’s proposed permanent fund for affordable housing: There needs to be a concrete plan for how to spend the money, and that plan needs to come back to Denver City Council for approval.

“It means the decisions are based on some criteria, and it’s not just a political decision,” Ortega said. She’s not prepared to “write a blank check” to the administration.

The Denver City Council holds a public hearing and final vote Monday on a proposal from Hancock’s administration to implement linkage fees on new construction and increase property taxes by a half-mill to raise roughly $15 million a year for affordable housing. There’s also an alternative ordinance from Councilman Chris Herndon on the floor. That proposal would delay the fees until October 2017 and the property tax increase until 2018 to allow more time for debate and possible changes to how the money would be raised and used.

It’s not like the mayor’s proposal included no plan at all for how to spend the money. The original proposal, which was unveiled in July, called for the money to be used for supportive housing for homeless people, for rental housing for people earning up to 80 percent of the area median income ($64,100 for a family of four), for for-sale housing for people earning up to 100 percent of AMI ($80,100 for a family of four) and for downpayment and mortgage assistance for people earning up to 120 percent of AMI ($96,120 for a family of four).

More detailed policies would be worked out between an advisory committee, most of whose members would be appointed by the mayor, and city housing staff in the Office of Economic Development. The goal is to create or preserve 6,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years.

But some City Council members are worried both that the goal is too small and that not enough of the money will go toward helping the people threatened by displacement now. Ortega said last week she wants to amend the ordinance to require that an affordable housing plan come back to City Council. This is something Ortega has wanted for a while, but until Herndon introduced the alternative bill, she didn’t get a lot of traction.

On Friday, she said in an email to her council colleagues that there was consensus on the language of that proposal between herself, Hancock and Councilwoman At-large Robin Kniech, the primary council sponsor of the administration proposal.

Ortega’s amendment would require that a three- to five-year comprehensive housing plan be presented to City Council by Sept. 1, 2017. The plan would identify top priorities, explain how they’ll be met and account not just for the money raised by the new permanent fund but also for all other city, state and federal housing money.

The comprehensive housing plan she wants to see would include:
  • A complete list of all city spending on housing, including money from other programs, like the Denver Housing Authority and the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, which administers tax increment financing,
  • The creation of measurable goals for each type of housing and for the mix of housing affordable to various income levels,
  • Provisions for tracking and reducing the effects of gentrification in the neighborhoods where rents are going up fastest,
  • Parameters for using some of the housing fund for supportive services — not just housing — for people who are homeless,
  • Parameters for using some of the housing fund for land banking, the practice of buying land now for future affordable housing projects,
  • And parameters for using the fund to increase the amount of mixed-income housing that gets built.

The amendment would also require annual action plans and annual progress reports. The advisory committee would recommend metrics to track the success of the city’s spending and community engagement strategies. There would be at least one public hearing a year on the affordable housing plan.

“I think it’s important to define where the greatest need is,” Ortega said. “Fifteen million is not a lot of money when you look at what some of these housing projects cost.”

Some of that greatest need lies in keeping people in the homes where they live now, Ortega said, not just in building new housing that would be available in two, three or four years. The city might consider giving tax rebates to landlords who keep rents low, she said. That’s an idea suggested by the Apartment Association of Metro Denver.

“In the neighborhoods that are going to be impacted by I-70, those people are being displaced today,” Ortega said. “If we can assist them in staying in their homes, we can affect gentrification and displacement today.”

The amendment may not put to rest all the concerns.

Some council members worry that the linkage fee will have the unintended consequence of making market-rate housing that much more expensive or of discouraging development that Denver needs. Others want developers to carry a higher share of the burden compared to existing property owners.

Herndon wants the city to spend money from its substantial reserves to get the affordable housing program rolling while officials take another look at how to pay for it over the long term. The pros and cons of this were pretty thoroughly discussed at council last week, and you can read about that here.

Next steps:

The Denver City Council holds a one-hour public hearing Monday on both affordable housing proposals before voting on the ordinances. The City Council meeting starts at 5:30 p.m.

Assistant Editor Erica Meltzer can be reached via email at or

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Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, or @meltzere.