John Scarffe, Peak to Peak. Enterprise Community Partners and Make Room Colorado sponsored a forum on Colorado’s housing insecurity crisis, “Denver Forum for the First,” on February 24, 2017, at the Denver Art Museum. During the past decade, the population and economic growth throughout Colorado has led to a critical shortage of affordable housing, particularly for low income residents, according to the forum’s printed program.
The two-and-a-half hour forum delved into the roots of the crisis, its impact on families and what can be done to overcome it. The event featured opening remarks and keynote speaker Matthew Desmond, author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” His comments were followed by panels of community leaders and public officials.
“In recent years, cities and towns across Colorado have taken meaningful steps to address the region’s deepening affordable housing crisis,” states the program. “In September, the City of Denver passed the city’s first-ever revenue source dedicated to affordable housing, which is expected to generate $150 million over the next 10 years, and in May, the Colorado legislature renewed the State Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, a crucial source of financing for local affordable housing development.
“Despite this progress, Colorado law provides very few tenant protections that promote housing quality and prevent landlord discrimination, unnecessary eviction or forced displacement,” according to the program. “As a result, a recent informal survey found that nine of 10 renters in the Denver area reported facing barriers to finding rental housing in the past three years, while a similar percentage reported facing the same challenges while living in rental housing.
In Nederland, affordable and workforce housing has become a top priority for residents, business owners and the Board of Trustees. The goal for Nederland identified during a public housing forum sponsored by the Planning Commission and a local housing committee in December 2015 was to support quality, affordable housing for the workforce, Town Administrator Alisha Reis told the Nederland Board of Trustees. This was one of six items the Board identified as goals during an August 2016 work session.
During opening comments at the Denver housing forum, Melinda Pollock, vice president of Enterprise, told the packed auditorium room that, since 1992, the organization has been trying to create affordable housing. Enterprise has been working with partners in the room to create opportunities in jobs, health care and housing. Make Room has launched national campaigns to address America’s housing crisis.
Luz Galicia, president of Denver Meadows Vecinos Unidos Homeowners Association, said that, in December 2015, the City received a petition to rezone the Denver Meadows area, located at I-25 and Colfax. Despite efforts of the neighborhood to fight the rezoning, the City Council voted to rezone the area, Galicia said. One hundred families will be displaced in 2018.
“I’m begging the people who have the power to be leaders to say, ‘Why not?’ Let’s create a model that here, we were the first. We were the leaders. I have hope and faith that’s going to happen. Come and visit with me in my mobile home. That way you can see what it’s like,” Galicia said.
Matthew Desmond, author of “Evicted”
Tina Griego, managing editor of the Colorado Independent, introduced Matthew Desmond and moderated two panels. Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard University, works from the ground up and shoulder to shoulder with the people he writes about, Griego said. He moves into the ground of human relationships, which requires a willingness to be vulnerable – intimacy and distance.
Desmond is more than a social scientist. He is the upsetter of apple carts. “Our willingness to stand by while an ongoing extinguishment of humanity goes on, this is who we are, and this is who we will be. Is this what we want?”
Desmond said he is an Arizona boy and is glad to be back in the West. “Such an important part of this journey and challenge is for folks like us to step up.” America is the richest society with the worst poverty.
“I wanted to understand the role that housing played in the story,” Desmond said, so he followed families who had been evicted from their homes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He moved into a mobile home park for five months and then into a rooming house for 10 months.
He went everywhere with the families — to work, court, funerals, births, and tried to get to know them as closely as he could. He got to know the landlords and went with them to evictions, Desmond said.
The circumstances in Milwaukee are no different than those in Denver or Colorado Springs, Desmond said. The standard is 30 percent of a person’s income should be spent on housing, but the percentage of families who are spending at least half has climbed up and up. One in four families is spending 70 percent of their income on rent and utilities.
During the past 40 years, income has fallen in real terms, but housing costs have soared in cities like Denver, Boston and Houston. Rent has increased by 70 percent and utilities by 50 percent.
“Where is public housing? Aren’t these families getting help? No. One in four, who qualify, receive it,” Desmond said. A typical family lives in private housing and gets absolutely nothing from federal sources. The list of applicants for housing is frozen, because 100 families on the list applied 10 years ago. A man would probably be a grandpa before he made it to the top of the list.
“The home is the center of life and a refuge from life’s pressures. At home, we are ourselves and remove our masks,” Desmond said. “Imagine if every family had a decent place to live and didn’t have to pay 80 percent for housing. They would take the money to the grocery store if they don’t have to pay that percentage.
“Then they get strong and are good workers. Shouldn’t having affordable housing be what it is to live in America?” Desmond asked. Housing should be a right in this country. Without stable housing, everything else falls apart.
The good news is that cities all around the country are doing amazing things to confront this issue. “We’ve made huge, progressive steps in the right direction. Organizations around this country are putting in work on this issue. You can earn $150 million in ten years in Denver to build affordable housing,” Desmond said.
“We are bleeding out. We need real, bold, political leadership on those issues. The problem isn’t the design of the programs, it’s the dosage,” Desmond said. Low-income residents should get vouchers and get housing for 30 percent of their income. Families crushed by the high cost of housing can’t stay in one place to hold down a job. Poverty reduces people born for greater things.
Expanding housing vouchers by 30 percent would cost $22 billion more as a nation. “We have the money, we just made other decisions on how to spend it,” Desmond said. “We already have a national housing program, but not for poor people. We’ve decided to have a housing policy that gives it to people who need it least, and not for those who need it the most.
“We have to promote housing initiatives if we care about health, crime reduction and family stability. By no American value should this be allowed,” Desmond said. He has started an organization called Just Shelter and can be found at www.justshelter.org.
Community Leaders Panel
A panel of community leaders followed Desmond’s presentation. Brian Eschbacher, executive director of planning and enrollment services with Denver Public Schools, said the schools enroll 60,000 students who qualify for reduced lunches and 3,000 homeless students.
Students who are displaced every year have an impact on 10,000 students because it also impacts the students sitting next to them. “How do we create continuity for a child? It could be they are being displaced clear across town, so now a councilor from one school talks to one from another school.
Floyd L. Jones, Sr., executive director of Colorado Affordable Legal Services, manages the Colorado Eviction Center and tries to prevent homelessness. Jones said the demographics in Colorado are different with a mix of brown, black and gay, and the state has highly educated groups of residents. Many residents have student loan debt and are living in multi-family units, paying 50 percent of their income on housing.
Jones assists homeless prevention in terms of legal assistance for single mothers. The state should enforce existing laws, Jones said. Many residents are compensated in cash and pay cash to the landlords, but no law says the landlord has to give the tenant a receipt. “We need to bring about awareness of this epidemic. We can do this locally.”
Shirleen Thomas, a community leader with We Organize Westminster (WOW), said “We need renters’ laws. The landlord can do anything they want to, put it on a piece of paper and call it a loss, but it’s not a loss.”
Thomas said she had been a renter in Colorado for 20 years. “Renters should have rights that the landlords could not take away from them, because landlords can take away rights from renters.”
Renters don’t know that the landlord’s attorney can take away their rights, Thomas said. “We’re tired of going to the food bank after we pay our rent. I’m not the only one, and it is not just the elderly. Young people are having the same problem because they raise the rent every year.”
Arturo Alvarado, executive director of Denver Metro Fair Housing Center, works to eliminate housing discrimination and to make sure access to housing is equitable. He said a review of tenant rights is needed in Colorado.
State fair housing laws and sources of income should be reviewed, Alvarado said. Voucher holders should not be discriminated against. Those with alimony or child support are being denied, and lots of states have solutions.
Heidi Baskfield, director of public affairs with Children’s Hospital Colorado, said the hospital has 70,000 kids who are struggling with these issues. Hospital staff see the link between health and housing. Children’s Hospital is engaging in this work by finally asking the question about the housing of their patients.
“What is the role of health care?” Baskfield said. The answer is owning a solution bigger than the moment of treating patients. “We try to leverage what we may have to create affordable housing.”
Public Officials Panel
Adams County Commissioner Eva Henry said she has worked a lot of years as a single mom and once was evicted. “Displaced residents are coming into Adams County, and I welcome them,” she said.
“We have residents who will walk eight miles to receive benefits and then walk eight miles back. Our federal policy is focused on urban areas and doesn’t focus on suburban or rural areas,” Henry said.
A lot of people are moving from Denver to Adams County, Henry said. Adams County has the largest mobile home park west of the Mississippi. They have four mobile home parks in Thornton, which will soon be experiencing the same thing as Denver Meadows.
Eric Solivan, new director of the Office of HOPE for the City and County of Denver, said he has been here for six weeks. Denver does have a strong network that provides shelter. They are mission-driven shelter providers. The city has experienced tremendous growth, so shelter providers are experiencing tremendous stress, Solivan said.
Denver needs to move up the scale with affordable housing, because 81 percent of housing providers have been in the luxury market, Solivan said. “How do you adjust down?” Denver needs to transition families in shelters to a housing space, because they are one step away from moving backwards.
House District 42 Representative Dominique Jackson, an Aurora native, had issues and was a homeless teenager, sleeping at Speer and Downing streets. Jackson is sponsoring a bill in the Colorado Legislature that would create a statewide trust fund for affordable housing. “A whole gamut of people are at risk. We are having issues across our state,” Jackson said.
“Rural communities are very much struggling, such as mountain communities.” Moneys from the trust fund would help developers to close the funding gap and build affordable housing across the state. “Our police, firefighters and graphic artists are working but are in houses with tons of roommates who can’t buy property, and this bill will provide assistance to them through the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority,” Jackson said.
“It has bipartisan support, and I’m very, very optimistic,” Jackson said. The trust would be funded through a document fee when a person buys property, Jackson said. County Clerks currently charge a one percent fee during a property transaction, and this would add another penny to that fee for the trust fund, so someone purchasing property would pay $200 for a $200,000 house. She estimates the fee would raise $10 million per year.
Those who wish to share an opinion about Colorado’s housing crisis can tweet:
#Talking homes for all at #Affordable Denver Forum with @EnterpriseNow and @MakeRoomUSA.