Housing advocates say the public agrees with them: It’s the city’s job to fix affordable housing

More protections for renters now. More money for housing soon. Community groups are gearing up for a new push on housing issues in Denver.

Apartments for rent in Washington Park West. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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Apartments for rent in Washington Park West. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) Washington Park West; real estate; denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite; residential
Apartments for rent in Washington Park West. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

More protections for renters now. More money for housing soon.

Community groups are gearing up for a new push on housing issues in Denver, even as city leaders have moved on to some extent to focus on transportation needs in the 2017 general obligation bond package. They want to see the Denver City Council adopt a suite of tenant protections that will give renters a little more leverage, and they want to see a housing bond on the 2018 ballot that would give a lot more buying power to the $150 million affordable housing fund approved by City Council last year.

To bolster their case, housing advocates are holding up survey results that show housing remains a top concern of Denver residents — and an issue government has an obligation to tackle. Enterprise Community Partners and All in Denver commissioned the survey from Strategies 360. The firm talked to 402 likely November 2018 voters back in February, and they’re releasing the results now.

Among the key findings:
  • Asked an open-ended question about what issues Mayor Michael Hancock and the City Council should deal with, three of the top four responses involved housing. No. 1 was education, which the city can’t do much about, and the next three were affordable housing (30 percent), homelessness (30 percent) and cost of living (19 percent). Transportation was fifth at 18 percent.
  • Asked if affordable housing is a benefit to the entire city or only to those who need it, 69 percent said it’s a benefit to the entire city. Majorities of Democrats and Republicans, renters and owners and voters of all races answered similarly.
  • 72 percent of respondents said government should play a role in solving housing, and of those, 53 percent said city government should play the largest role, followed by the state and then the federal government.
  • 74 percent support the city’s creation of a permanent affordable housing fund, and again, that support extends throughout demographic groups.

As we reported back in March, All in Denver has been trying to build support for the idea of treating housing like critical infrastructure and wants to see a much larger city investment in affordable housing. Bonding would make a lot more money available in the next few years, when compared to spending affordable housing fund money on a pay-as-you-go basis.

All in Denver, a group made up of developers, housing advocates and community members, ideally would like to ask voters to approve a property tax increase to support a $300 million bond program, but barring that, they’d like the city to bond off the $150 million that a combination of fees and property taxes will generate for the existing affordable housing fund.

The survey found support for both options but, not surprisingly, the no-new-taxes option polled higher.

Older voters, homeowners, Republicans and voters of color were all more supportive of the smaller bond program that doesn’t require a tax increase.

While All in Denver originally advocated for making housing part of the 2017 bond package, co-founder Brad Segal said the group now sees several advantages to waiting until 2018. By that time, the city will have adopted an affordable housing plan, so proponents can tell voters exactly how their money will be spent. A mid-term election also provides a more diverse and favorable electorate for a potential tax increase.

“Our objective No. 1 is to say, ‘Hey folks, there is support for this. Can we get it back into the dialogue?'” Segal said.

Segal said he also hopes city officials “show some restraint” in preparing the 2017 bond package. The original estimate for the package was $500 to $600 million, but with increases in property valuations, the city now believes it can support a bond program of up to $900 million without increasing the tax rate for debt service.

But if the city uses all of that for infrastructure, there won’t be as much debt service capacity left for a housing bond.

“Our message on the GO Bond is: Let’s show some restraint so there’s some room for 2018,” Segal said. “If we get over zealous with the GO bond, it could eliminate the appetite for future issues on either transportation or housing.”

Meanwhile, people are being displaced now in a city with rising rents, where the median single-family home price is now $420,000.

Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable housing developer that also works on advocacy, wants to see renter protections put in place at the city level to make it a little harder to evict people and a little easier for people get into units.

Tiana Patterson, state and local policy program officer for Enterprise, said building new affordable housing is necessary, but it’s only one part of the solution.

“Production is great,” she said. “We always need more production. But if we want to talk about helping people stay in their homes and helping people build some economic security and helping our neighborhoods stay more integrated, these policies will go toward that.”

Colorado is considered one of the friendlier states for landlords, and renters here lack many of the protections that renters in other states enjoy. A bill awaiting the governor’s signature would increase the amount of notice that landlords have to give tenants on month-to-month leases from a mere seven days to 21 days before evicting them, but that notice is 30 or even 60 days in other states. A separate bill that would have capped the application fees that landlords can charge died in committee in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Some issues — like requiring landlords to have a “just cause” for evictions — would require statewide legislation, but Patterson said there are several steps the City Council can take to protect renters in Denver. Those include:

  • limiting criminal background checks to the most recent 7 years, excluding those who have been convicted of a violent crime or a sex offense;
  • prohibiting landlords from discriminating against tenants who get income from somewhere other than a job, such as housing vouches, child support or alimony;
  • capping application fees to the actual cost of running a criminal and credit check;
  • creating a rental property and landlord registry.

More than 80 percent of respondents said landlords shouldn’t be able to earn money on application fees, and 76 percent said landlords shouldn’t be able to discriminate against renters using vouchers or relying partially on child support or alimony.

Criminal background checks were a slightly harder sell with respondents, some of whom didn’t want to put too many burdens on landlords, but still 58 respondents were supportive of limiting how far back landlords can go. Right now, landlords can go as far back as 30 years and look at any convictions. In a tight rental market, it can be hard, Patterson said, for someone who has turned their life around to find housing.

The policy Enterprise is supporting would still allow landlords to consider violent crimes and sex offenses from more than seven years ago.

The survey also found that 79 support policies that would require landlords to give “just cause” for eviction and 70 percent support requiring landlords to pay a fee and register their property with the city. This would allow for inspections and help the city better track trends and problems in the rental market.

“It brings a little more clarity and helps level the playing field a little bit between tenants and landlords,” Patterson said. “All we’re really trying to establish is that there is a symbiotic relationship between landlords and tenants, and there needs to be accountability on both sides.”

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.