How Denver plans to create more affordable housing and keep what it already has

New construction on Jason Street in Highland, Sept. 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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Denver has released a much anticipated draft of the comprehensive housing plan that will guide the city’s investments in affordable housing over the next five years. This is the plan that will help the city spend some $15 million a year from its affordable housing fund — or $150 million over 10 years — to help the 70,000 to 80,000 people in Denver who are housing-burdened or straight-up homeless.

This version is still pretty high-level — laying out goals and concrete steps to get there but not getting into how many dollars should go to which area and how many people could be helped with that investment.

The people who work on housing policy for the city want to hear what community members think about these ideas before finalizing the plan — including developing a more detailed financial analysis of the possibilities — and submitting it to Denver City Council for approval in October.

There’s an open house tonight to get more information and tell city officials what you think. One advocacy group is already pushing for the city to include a bond program to put more money into solving the problem more quickly.

Denver’s housing plan has three main goals:

  • create more affordable housing — especially in neighborhoods that are vulnerable to displacement and where there is access to good jobs;
  • preserve affordable housing that exists now, whether it’s subsidized or market-rate housing that just happens to not be expensive;
  • promote “equitable and accessible” housing options along the entire continuum of need and throughout the city, whether you’re a homeless person trying to get back on your feet or a middle-class teacher or store manager looking to live reasonably close to your job.
How is Denver going to do this?
Strategic land acquisition

The plan calls for the city to take an inventory of all public and quasi-public land that might be suitable for housing and work with partners in the community to determine whether and how it makes sense to develop it, as well as to look for property that would make sense for the city to buy for housing.

This could end up looking a lot of different ways. The city could facilitate the purchase of land in coordination with non-profit affordable housing developers, or the city could create a land trust — a possibility that was first reported by Denverite last week — that would keep housing prices down by removing the underlying land from the equation.

As part of a broader cross-cutting strategy to promote long-term affordability for housing investments, the City and its partners should consider mechanisms such as a land trust model to ensure that housing for persons experiencing homelessness, rental housing, and for-sale housing remain affordable for low- and moderate-income families for decades to come. Community participation in the ongoing stewardship should be a core component of the City and its partners’ exploration of a land trust model in Denver.

Housing for homeless people

More housing for people experiencing homeless needs to go hand-in-hand with more coordinated provision of services and more clarity about what people in different situations need, the plan says. A majority of people in the city’s shelters have jobs — but not jobs that allow them to afford market-rate housing. Some people who have been homeless a long time need intensive services to remain in housing, while people who have just recently become homeless could use help finding new housing instead of going into the shelter system and seeing their lives unravel further.

This will involve measures like:

  • Expanding Coordinated Entry Systems for homeless people seeking services and housing assistance so that efforts aren’t duplicated across programs and people get the help they need;
  • Deploying immediate financial assistance — something already laid out in the 2018 budget — to keep people at risk of homelessness from becoming homeless;
  • Developing criteria for subsidizing supportive housing to that funds are targeted in the most effective ways and gaps in funding are filled;
  • Leveraging money from other programs, like Medicaid, Medicare and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, to help people experiencing homelessness get and stay housed;
  • Studying which programs and approaches are most effective at getting people housed quickly and keeping them housed over the long-term.
Affordable rental housing for people with jobs

Denver has thousands of units of deed-restricted, subsidized affordable housing whose covenants are set to expire in the next few years. When the covenants expire, the housing can be converted to market-rate units or sold and redeveloped. The plan calls for the city to work with the state, identify this housing and make strategic investments in keeping this housing affordable based on the populations it serves, its proximity to transit and other factors.

The plan also calls for the city to identify and preserve unsubsidized housing that rents for below market rates. There are at least 130 large-scale apartment buildings with more than 50 units each that currently go for below-market rents. The city should keep an inventory of these properties and work with owners to keep them affordable, for example by providing low-cost financing for repairs. The city should also consider buying these properties with non-profit partners when they’re at risk for redevelopment.

The city should also implement programs to keep smaller-scale rental units affordable. Buildings with fewer than 50 units make up 78 percent of the city’s multi-family housing, and renters are particularly vulnerable when these buildings are sold.

And the city should implement much more robust programs to prevent evictions and help people who are in the process of being evicted find new housing, the plan says. This includes one-time cash assistance for rent, mediation between landlords and tenants and education around renters’ rights.

And last — but not least — the plan calls for the city to build thousands of units of affordable housing in mixed-income projects around the city, near good schools, transit and jobs. Providing housing along the income spectrum is important, the plan says, because right now the market is mostly producing luxury units and middle-income people are occupying housing that should be available to lower-income people. As everyone gets more options, there should be more housing available for the people who need the most help.

Homeownership

This is another area where the plan calls for preserving existing unsubsidized affordable housing and for targeting the city’s efforts to the neighborhoods most vulnerable to displacement. The plan calls for more tax rebates for seniors and people on disabilities, more investment in rehabilitation programs that help people pay for needed home repairs and an expansion of Financial Empowerment Centers to improve financial literacy, help people plan better and prevent homeowners from being taken advantage of.

The plan also calls on the city to make it easier for people to build accessory dwelling units — think carriage houses and converted garages — on their property. This can be a way to build wealth and bring in more income and also promote intergenerational households.

And with important court decisions and new legislation on their side, city housing officials hope to promote the construction of more condos for middle-income, first time buyers.

The city also wants to expand its down payment assistance programs, both for first-time home buyers and those who may have lost their homes during the Great Recession. The city already has programs that help with up to 4 percent of the purchase price of home, and Wells Fargo has revived its LIFT program, which provides $15,000 in assistance to people who earn up to 80 percent of area median income.

Next steps:

Denver is holding an open house to discuss the comprehensive housing plan. Denver will release a draft version of the plan on Monday, with a lot more detail about the policies the city is considering.

The open house is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 19, at Bruce Randolph School, 3955 Steele St.

You can read the entire draft plan here.

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, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.