Multisector partners are working together to bring fresh thinking to the issues of apartment affordability and availability
Even with development of new housing units picking up, many workers attracted to Denver’s booming economy and jobs as nurses, fire fighters, police and hotel workers can’t afford the city’s rents.
Denver is tackling the problem head on, with partners from many sectors working together to find ways to keep housing affordable for all. The city adopted an affordable, inclusive housing plan last year that lays out policy solutions that address the needs of people along the “housing continuum” and boost the diversity of housing options for all residents.
“Cities and states have to come up with their own solutions to the affordable housing crisis because we’re just not getting the big checks from the federal government anymore.”
To that end, the city is testing innovative, multi-sector solutions, such as a two-year pilot called “LIVE Denver,” or the Lower Income Voucher Equity Program, which aims to match vacant units with working families, funding the gap between market rent and what they can afford to pay.
“Cities and states have to come up with their own solutions to the affordable housing crisis because we’re just not getting the big checks from the federal government anymore,” said Celia Smoot, former director of housing at Local Initiatives Support Program, or LISC, which promotes community development across the nation.
The ‘missing middle’
A problem in Denver, as in other places, Smoot said, is the “missing middle.” Over the past decade, affordable housing has gotten increasingly more out of reach for people whose income falls below the area median but not low enough to qualify for federal housing programs, such as Section 8 rental subsidies. LISC estimates 52,000 Denver households are rent burdened but can’t use affordable housing programs.
LIVE Denver was a reaction to that conundrum. Families and individuals earning between 40% to 80% of the area’s median income can apply to be matched with vacant apartments. A fund paid into by the city, private foundations and philanthropists, and employers — and managed by LISC — makes up the gap between 35% of renters’ incomes and their rent. Renters are required to sign two-year leases and take part in financial literacy coaching. An escrow account saves 5% of their monthly rent payments; when they leave, that money is theirs for a new rental deposit, a down payment on a home, higher education or other expenses.
Employers like Saint Joseph Hospital refer their employees to the program, which makes it attractive to landlords and apartment managers, said Mike Zoellner of Denver real estate development and investment company ZF Capital.
“These are people who have jobs and an employer has hand-selected them for this program, so you know they are valued employees [that] the employer wants to keep,” he said. “They are going to be some of your most model residents.”
Three households have gotten apartments through the program since it officially kicked off in January, and several more are in the pipeline. One Saint Joseph employee, a scheduler at a cancer center who could not have otherwise lived downtown, was able to walk to work during a bomb cyclone this winter. She rescheduled all the patients, saving the day because the rest of her team couldn’t make it through the storm.
As a new idea that hadn’t been tried before, LIVE Denver’s start has been slower than partners had anticipated. And they say one program on its own can’t solve the affordable housing issues Denver residents face.
“All sectors have to be represented to put in place true, long-term solutions. … You have to have everyone at the table.”
But Smoot said with a problem that looms as large as housing does, “You can’t underestimate the need for a city like Denver to at least attempt something innovative like this.”
Other multisector solutions are underway. Saint Joseph’s is working with private developers to convert a building on land it owns into apartments for low-income seniors. And Nancy Burke, vice president of government affairs at the Apartment Association of Metro Denver, would like to see the city create an eviction prevention program, perhaps modeled on the work of the Resident Relief Foundation, in California.
“This is not an issue that can be resolved from one perspective,” Smoot said. “All sectors have to be represented to put in place true, long-term solutions. Philanthropy, economic development, developers, the city, financial intermediaries. You have to have everyone at the table.”