City officials are working to create more affordable housing. But will their efforts be enough?
By Sarah Ford
When the new affordable housing facility The Meadows at Dunkirk opened in January, building managers and officials at the Aurora housing complex weren’t prepared for the rush of eager potential renters it would bring. Hopeful applicants waited out an entire night in a line that, by morning, spanned hundreds of people long. But in the end, many were turned away.
It was another reminder of the desperate state of affordable housing in Denver, an issue that has received particular attention from Mayor Michael Hancock as rental costs remain high and available space remains scarce.
Despite the still disheartening rent statistics, the wheels of change are in motion. In 2014, Hancock unveiled Housing Denver, a five-year strategy to address the systemic barriers to housing Denver’s more vulnerable populations.
“Hancock came into office and made a task force representing a cross-section of the community. They developed the things they wanted to look at—we need a housing plan, we need a funding plan outside of declining federal resources,” said Rick Padilla, director of housing and neighborhood development at Denver’s Office of Economic Development (OED).
That task force ultimately developed a “living document,” a set of prioritized initiatives to increase housing availability, develop funding means, and involve Denver’s business and nonprofit communities in more cohesive action.
Now, as the plan enters its second year, Padilla says thousands who may not have had housing otherwise are finding their way home. Under Hancock’s 3x5 housing initiative, a 2013 plan to create 3,000 units of affordable housing in five years, 1,458 units have been produced with more than 1,300 still on the way. The city is on track to meet or exceed the 3,000 unit target within the five-year timeline.
Though separate from the five-year plan, the success of the 3x5 initiative feeds directly into the larger picture represented in the Housing Denver plan.
“Housing Denver is a high level strategic planning document so we can look at, ‘what are the actual metrics that we want to measure?’” said Padilla. Where 3x5 has unit goals, Housing Denver is a broad picture of how the city will structurally readjust its housing strategies.
The plan is organized into eight “strategic priorities,” including: increasing housing resources, revising city funding processes, addressing needs of the homeless population, increasing housing diversity, and preserving and rehabilitating existing properties.
The plan comes as sustained, heavy population growth continues throughout Denver county, signaling that the affordable housing shortage will only get worse without focused action. Over the next 35 years, the population along the Front Range between Denver and Albuquerque is expected to grow by 87 percent. Last year alone, over 100,000 people moved to Colorado. The rapidly ballooning population has caused skyrocketing rental rates.
In 2015, the Office of Housing and Urban Development found that the Area Median Income (AMI) limit for a single person in Denver County had reached $44,750. Anyone making below that amount is considered to be some degree of “low income.”
For 2016, Padilla says there are two especially crucial focus areas for the city topping the tiered list of goals for Housing Denver’s five-year plan.
“We are starting to look at chronically homeless. As they go into the system, we’re looking to see, are we making an impact on how many times they are going in for services?” he said. There will also be a focus on identifying and preserving or rehabilitating units, which Padilla says is a more efficient and faster method than new construction.
But the approach to solving Denver’s housing crisis is multi-pronged. This is reflected in the final action plan for 2015-16 (the first yearly update for the program), which shows facets addressing numerous socio-economic groups. Focusing on the lowest income groups only, Padilla explained, will not provide the sustainable change that is needed.
Some of these include small business advocacy through increasing loan funds, providing early-stage support, and more. The plan also focuses on aiding job growth and buoying neighborhood development through training, self-sufficiency, and educational programs as well as transit options.
Housing Denver was born partially to help address declining federal assistance for affordable housing programs. Over the past seven years, the allocation for federal funds through the U.S. Department of Housing and Development has been reduced by 35 percent. But finding that funding is not a collective solution.
“If we can create a permanent source of funding for affordable housing, it is going to help address the issue, it is not the issue in and of itself,” said Padilla.
In addition to searching for alternative city funding methods for affordable housing through public and private investments, use of Denver General Fund monies and more, EOD will continue pursuing collaborative strategies to promote job creation and business development.
“Housing in and of itself is not the solution,” Padilla said. “There is lots of interplay between jobs, education, transportation—it’s all about opportunity. We have a strategy with a collective impact.” ■