Denver’s plan to stop residents from being squeezed out

By Danielle Krolewicz

Denver officials have released a five-year strategy to increase affordable housing access as Mayor Michael Hancock acknowledges a growing housing crisis. This month, the city is expected to finalize the plan that could mean the difference in housing hundreds of thousands of low and middle income residents.

The Stout24 row home project currently under construction in the historic Curtis Park neighborhood. The complex will be open for income-qualified residents starting in 2018. Credit: Sarah Ford

The Stout24 row home project currently under construction in the historic Curtis Park neighborhood. The complex will be open for income-qualified residents starting in 2018. Credit: Sarah Ford

Denver officials will decide on how to move forward with a new affordable housing plan for the city after publicly releasing a draft for a five-year plan. Denver’s Housing Advisory Committee, the Office of Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE), Denver’s Road Home and the Office of Economic Development worked collaboratively to create the Housing an Inclusive Denver plan. Now, it’s in the middle of a 45-day review period during which feedback from the community is being solicited online as well as through forums. The finalized plan will be submitted to City Council for approval this month. 

Despite Denver’s unemployment rate being at 2.2 percent, housing costs are crowing at a rate that incomes cannot keep up. Since 2010, over 100,000 new residents have moved to Denver. 

Four main goals are addressed in the 98-page draft: create affordable housing (2,000 units by 2023), preserve affordable housing (1,000 units), promote programs that help residents access those options, and stabilize residents at risk of being displaced. The latter would include counseling and downpayment assistance for 10,000 units and counseling/eviction assistance or landlord mediation. 

Funding will come from the $150 million fund approved last year to address Denver’s housing crisis, which is designated for spending over the next 10 years. The Housing Inclusive Denver plan will invest roughly $15 million annually into building and preserving units. 

Mayor Michael Hancock said in a press release, “Our new five-year housing plan celebrates the diversity of our neighborhoods and identifies ways we can deploy our resources to help keep Denver a vibrant and affordable city. It’s our job to bring opportunities to communities that lift people up, not push them out and this plan outlines strategies to make this a housing market that works for everyone.” 

The plan focuses not only on helping the 3,336 homeless individuals on the street on any given night in Denver, but also on households that are cost-burdened (paying more than 30 percent of their income toward rent) and extremely cost burdened (individuals and households paying 50 percent or more of their income towards rent). According to the statistics outlined in the draft, the average rent rose in five years (from 2011 to 2016) from $941 to $1,376. 

Although 16,000 newly constructed units were added to the market, most of those were not affordable. The draft acknowledges a need for at least 15,500 units. Specifically, the need for older, more affordable units.

According to a report recently released by mortgage agency Freddie Mac, Colorado saw one of the largest drops in housing affordability over the past six years. In 2010, 32 percent of units in Colorado were considered affordable for families with “very low income.” In 2016, that dropped to eight percent of units. The study defined “very low income” as households making less than 50 percent of area median income, which the National Low Income Housing Coalition found to be an annual salary of $39,316 in the Denver Metro region. 

While the proposal notes that Denver has roughly 21,000 units (15 percent of total rental units) under restrictions keeping them in a rent-controlled range, there is a high likelihood of hundreds of thousands more Denverites being priced out in coming years. 

“More than 2,200 affordable homes are at risk of becoming unaffordable over the next five years if the existing income-restrictions expire and owners can rent the units at market rate prices,” the draft notes. 

A map of Denver’s vulnerable neighborhoods in a gentrification study released by the Office of Economic Development in 2016. The report was considered in the drafting of the five-year affordable housing plan. Credit: Gentrification Study: “Mitigating Involuntary Displacement”

A map of Denver’s vulnerable neighborhoods in a gentrification study released by the Office of Economic Development in 2016. The report was considered in the drafting of the five-year affordable housing plan. Credit: Gentrification Study: “Mitigating Involuntary Displacement”

What makes the plan a unique approach to previous attempts is that it openly acknowledges neighborhoods that are experiencing gentrification, where longstanding Denver residents may find it difficult to remain in their homes and experience involuntary displacement. Housing an Inclusive Denver takes into account a gentrification study conducted by the Office of Economic Development to identify five different types of neighborhoods that elicit specific strategies depending on how susceptible they are to gentrification. 

Hancock writes, “The plan outlines strategies to create and preserve strong neighborhoods with diverse housing options that are accessible and affordable to all Denver residents.”

Hancock also spoke about the need for additional help in transportation accessibility, healthcare and workforce training, stressing that there is a multifold of issues to be considered which contribute to housing unaffordability in Denver. 

A complete plan is available to all residents both in Spanish and in English, and feedback is not only solicited but strongly encouraged. ■