Hired to work on Denver’s housing challenges, “HOPE” chief quits after a year

The announcement comes just a week before the Denver City Council is set to consider the new housing plan Erik Soliván helped write.

Erik Soliván speaks before the Denver Commission on Homelessness on Feb. 27, 2017. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

Erik Soliván, the housing leader who joined the city of Denver to much fanfare last year, is resigning from his city government job, as he confirmed for Denverite today. The announcement comes just a week before the Denver City Council is set to consider the new housing plan he helped write.

Soliván was hired in January 2017 as the executive director of a new office called HOPE, or Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere.

At times, he was the administration’s do-everything housing handyman, giving interviews on topics from eviction to homeless services. As recently as Monday night, he was speaking alongside Mayor Michael Hancock on a gentrification discussion panel.

Soliván confirmed his exit in a text message early Tuesday afternoon. City officials provided his resignation letter soon afterward.

“Working alongside you and the team over the last 13 months has been a tremendous experience,” he wrote in his resignation letter to Hancock. “I have seen a passion to make this city great, learned how this city brings people together to foster new ideas, and observed your unwavering commitment to making Denver a global city.”

A year ago, Hancock described HOPE as a “first-of-its-kind initiative,” a “unified and forceful effort” to find and create homes for people across the income spectrum. Soliván’s hiring came just a few months after city leaders approved the ten-year, $150 million housing fund. His role was broad enough to be vague, so journalists settled on called him the “chief housing adviser” or even the “housing czar.”

“I don’t fit within any one particular department,” Soliván said last year. “My role, being positioned within the mayor’s office, is … ‘How do we get past our silos?’”

But the winds seemed to change late in 2017 as Soliván’s once-independent office was swept under the supervision of the Office of Economic Development. Soliván was also set to get a new boss, a “chief housing officer” that the city is currently hiring.

Soliván said in his resignation letter that he supported the reorganization, but he did not give a reason for his departure.

“Erik’s decision was his own. We absolutely respect that he has decided to pursue other career opportunities, and we do wish him the very best. He brought such an innovative culture to the city and this administration will miss him,” said mayoral spokeswoman Amber Miller.

What changed?

It’s unclear what prompted the changes to the city’s housing effort, but some city council members and nonprofit leaders had expressed confusion and concern about the planning of the new housing strategy.

For example, after a year of meetings, some of the 23 members of the Housing Advisory Committee said they still weren’t sure of their role. Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said it was often unclear whether the advisory group should be working with Soliván or with the Office of Economic Development.

“I think there wasn’t a clear path,” she said. “I think that the administration really needs to focus on providing a clear vision and clear priorities to the Housing Advisory Committee.”

Council members At-large Robin Kniech and Debbie Ortega also raised concerns about the fact that the city was spending money from its new housing fund before it had a new housing plan. (City officials said it was necessary to fund projects while planning was still underway, and that their choices were prudent.)

“We’re struggling with a strategy right now,” Council President Albus Brooks said in December.

What did Soliván do?

“There was some vagueness in that role. That’s for sure. It was going to look like this, then it was going to look like this over here,” said Veronica Barela, a HAC member and president of NEWSED Community Development.

“I have been very impressed with Erik Soliván.  His knowledge and expertise are exemplary.  I’m sorry to see him go,” wrote Councilwoman Kendra Black in an email to Denverite.

Miller said that OED’s manager of housing policy and programs, Laura Brudzynski, will take on the responsibilities of HOPE for now.

“This approach that the mayor laid out, to ensure more coordination in between our agencies as well as our partners, was the right step forward,” she said.

Soliván can report some concrete accomplishments from his short tenure. He was one of the planners of Denver Day Works, an employment program for people experiencing homelessness, which has received national attention. His office did much of the drafting of the five-year housing plan. He also compiled a list of 30 “action items” that could be used to measure the city’s progress.

Another of his efforts, the LIVE program, was meant to create a new kind of housing voucher that people could use to rent a broader range of apartments in Denver. It was spotlighted in The Wall Street Journal, but it faced criticism from council members who wanted more oversight of its planning. It’s now stuck in a review process.

Soliván also played central roles in creating a guide and a mediation service for landlords and tenants, and he helped the organizers of the tiny-home village work their way through the city’s process.

Soliván grew up in North Philadelphia, the son of a factory worker and a secretary. He most recently was a senior vice president for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, where he oversaw the Office of Policy and Planning.

He calls himself a “houser” — someone whose career is dedicated to getting people housed. He hopes to remain in Denver, he said.

What’s next?

Councilman Paul Kashmann said that the city’s housing efforts are “still percolating.”

“I’m hoping it turns out to be just a speed bump in the process,” he said of Soliván’s exit. “As to whether there was a problem with what Erik brought to the table or a problem with the structure of the office of HOPE, it will take a little while to shake out.”

Alderman, of CCH, urged the administration to continue Soliván’s original mission: the coordination of housing construction with other services that help people out of homelessness and housing insecurity.

“I hope this doesn’t mean that the administration is backing off its promise to really focus … on coordinating housing issues and addressing homelessness issues,” she said.

She noted that the city hasn’t reconvened its Commission on Homelessness, which dissolved in May. Soliván was supposed to help the group reformulate itself with a new mission.

“Because the homelessness commission has not been reconvened, and now seeing this position either be eliminated or vacant for some period of time while they figure it out, it really doesn’t bode well for a real clear strategy on how to address homelessness and the affordable housing crisis,” Alderman said. City staff are working now on a plan to reconvene the commission, per Miller.

In his departure, Soliván expressed optimism. “The challenges Denver faces in the near future are great, but so is the City, its residents who have been here, and those who continue to come,” he wrote to Hancock. “The diversity, strength of neighborhoods, growth and prosperity make Denver a city of hope.”

Andrew Kenney

Author: Andrew Kenney

Andrew Kenney writes about public spaces, Denver phenomena and whatever else. He previously worked for six years as a reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. His most prized possession is his collection of bizarre voicemail. Leave him one at 303-502-2803, or email akenney@denverite.com.