Colorado’s housing crisis touches every inch of the state. Lawmakers hope $400 million will help.

A new legislative task force will be the third state-appointed group in a year to tackle affordable housing and homelessness

By: - July 23, 2021 5:00 am
Telluride

A photograph of Telluride, Colorado. (Getty Images)

Colorado’s affordable housing crisis touches every inch of the state, whether it’s rising rents coupled with stagnant wages, limited available affordable units, or unattainable building costs. 

State lawmakers this session set aside $400 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to try to alleviate the growing housing pressure seen across the state. The challenge now will be coming up with solutions that address the unique challenges urban, mountain and rural communities are facing.

“That’s a big chunk of change,” said state Rep. Dominique Jackson, an Aurora Democrat who is chairing a new legislative task force charged with determining where to direct the historic amount of federal funds. “We really need to be thoughtful, but we also need to be creative and aggressive and think really big. This is an opportunity that is unlikely to repeat itself.”

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The task force — which is composed of six Democratic and four Republican state lawmakers — will meet through the summer and fall to draft legislation that allocates the funds in anticipation of the 2022 legislative session, which convenes in January. The proposals will need approval from the whole Legislature. 

The group of lawmakers will be supported by an eight-person sub-advisory panel of stakeholders and experts, who will be selected by legislative leaders on July 23. The result will be a final report that will be presented to state lawmakers and Gov. Jared Polis. This will be the third official task force focused on affordable housing that Colorado officials have convened since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. It’s unclear how much overlap the three groups — or their corresponding findings — will have.

An apartment building in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on Dec. 10, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Jackson said some of her priorities include looking at policies to support people experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming unhoused. She also wants to see investment in policies that promote wealth-building and homeownership, particularly for communities of color and other marginalized groups that have been historically excluded from such opportunities due to ongoing housing discrimination and income inequities.

“We are going to have to look at it all,” said Jackson, who is a member of the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado.

State lawmakers appointed to the Affordable Housing Transformational Task Force:

Rep. Dominique Jackson, an Aurora Democrat and chair of the committee
Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and vice chair of the committee
Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat
Rep. Steven Woodrow, a Denver Democrat
Rep. Dan Woog, an Erie Republican
Rep. Andres Pico, a Colorado Springs Republican
Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat
Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat
Sen. Dennis Hisey, a Fountain Republican
Sen. Rob Woodward, a Loveland Republican

Housing crunch felt in Colorado’s mountain communities

State Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat appointed to the task force, wants to focus on how to address the housing crunch in Colorado’s mountain communities.

“Several communities here in the mountains have literally declared states of emergency because of the lack of affordable housing for our workforce,” said Roberts, who chairs the House Business Affairs & Labor committee. “We’re at a tipping point here.”

Though Colorado’s mountain communities have long felt the affordable housing crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic brought on new challenges. A recent report found that 44% of newcomers in a six-county region on the Western Slope had not spent time in their receptive mountain county on a regular basis prior to the COVID outbreak in 2020. 

If we don’t do something transformational in the next few years, we’re going to have a state of being here in the mountains where the wealthy tourists want to come and enjoy our amenities but we have no workers to support those businesses.

– State Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat

An influx of wealthy residents pushed home prices to record highs and increased rents between 20% and 40% in one year, according to the report. The survey, which was conducted by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments and the Colorado Association of Ski Towns, looked at housing trends in San Miguel, Pitkin, Eagle, Summit, Grand and Routt counties.

“If we don’t do something transformational in the next few years, we’re going to have a state of being here in the mountains where the wealthy tourists want to come and enjoy our amenities but we have no workers to support those businesses,” said Roberts, who is also a deputy district attorney in Eagle County. 

He wants the task force to look far past just building more housing, such as policies that would limit how many short-term units are allowed in a community.

“We can’t build our way out of this problem, especially in the mountains with our limited land,” Roberts said. 

“If you are a restaurant employee or a ski area employee or even an independent small business owner trying to make it here in the mountains, you cannot find an affordable place to rent for more than a month or so,” he added. “That is not the way it used to be before Airbnb and other platforms came along. I’m not proposing to ban short-term rentals, but I think we need to have a robust discussion on what is a reasonable check on that market.”

Removing regulations on developers and increasing homeownership

Sen. Rob Woodward, a Loveland Republican appointed to the task force, wants to focus on policies that will make homeownership more accessible and remove regulations placed on developers that inhibit them from building more homes. 

“We’ve put a burden on developers of new housing, which is the way most houses are built these days, by saying, ‘You need to have a two car garage on every unit and you must have a long driveway, and you can’t be too close to the neighbor’s house and you can’t build this kind of landscaping,’” he said. “A lot of those things drive up the upfront cost to build the new house.”

Though he stressed the importance of increasing residents’ access to good-paying jobs to make it easier to buy a home, he wouldn’t definitely say whether he supports increasing the federal minimum wage, which has remained stagnant over the last decade as housing prices have soared. 

Alamosa
Alamosa County, which includes the San Luis Valley, outside Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, is pictured in this May 2016 photo. (Gates Frontiers Fund Colorado Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division/CC0 1.0)

Woodward wants to ensure that any new policies don’t negatively impact landlords. “As soon as you start adding fees and licenses and increasing taxes on landlords, they pass those costs through to the tenants,” he added. 

I generally support things that are going to make it easier for the people that have the money to build the house, or to build the projects to get more supply out there, because that's really what I think is going to get housing prices to go down.

– State Sen. Dennis Hisey, a Fountain Republican

Sen. Dennis Hisey, a Fountain Republican also appointed to the task force, echoed Woodward’s concerns.

“I generally support things that are going to make it easier for the people that have the money to build the house, or to build the projects to get more supply out there, because that’s really what I think is going to get housing prices to go down.”

“There are thousands of apartments being constructed across the Denver area and close to that down in the (Colorado) Springs area, and I keep thinking when they come online, that’s going to help drive the cost of renting and owning a house down,” he added. “But I guess that hasn’t happened yet.”

Hisey hopes the task force looks at ways to decrease building costs to create more affordable housing, which he refers to as worker housing. 

“I’m really not looking to try to create apartments full of Section 8-type housing,” he said, referring to the federal Housing Choice Voucher program, which provides rental assistance for low-income families, the elderly and disabled people. “I’m going to focus more on the folks that have a job.”

Rising rents, fewer affordable housing units in rural areas

Katherine Roby, executive director of the Fountain Housing Authority, said the assumption that people who receive housing vouchers are unemployed is false.

Roby, who has worked at the FHA since 1994, said rising rents and limited affordable housing units in Fountain are driving the city’s housing challenges. Since 2016, the cost per unit for the housing available to voucher holders has increased by 52%, from $591 per month in 2015 to $901 in 2021, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

People who receive a voucher are required to pay 30% of their income towards rent and utilities, and the Housing Authority picks up the remaining amount, according to Roby. 

“As the (rent) cost increases, then the Housing Authority has fewer funds to help people because we get a certain amount each year,” Roby said, adding that her housing authority is allocated 240 vouchers a year. “If that amount of money will only cover 200 vouchers, that’s all we can lease.”

Fountain’s voucher waitlist currently has 238 families, according to Roby, though their application for assistance has been closed since March 2018, meaning the number of people needing assistance is likely higher. 

It seems to me that there have been apartments being built, but a lot of them are on the higher end with the thinking that people with more money will move to them, and free up spaces for more moderately income people. I'm not so sure that actually works.

– Katherine Roby, executive director of the Fountain Housing Authority

Though the amount the housing authority will pay fluctuates every year depending on cost of living in the area, it’s often still not enough, Roby said. “Sometimes landlords can get more money from people that are not on the voucher program,” she said. “And there is a limitation on how much we can spend. It’s got to be a reasonable amount of rent.” 

The need for more vouchers is clear when you look at the number of people on waitlists throughout the state, according to Roby. But having more vouchers doesn’t miraculously create more available units.

“It seems to me that there have been apartments being built, but a lot of them are on the higher end with the thinking that people with more money will move to them, and free up spaces for more moderately income people,” she said. “I’m not so sure that actually works.”

She said a new housing complex for senior residents is currently being built in Fountain, and a complex of family units is coming down the pipeline. “But by the time they come online, it’s going to be a drop in the bucket of units,” she added.

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Moe Clark
Moe Clark

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Newsline reporter that covered criminal justice, housing and homelessness, and other social issues.

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