Tensions rise as affordable housing subpanel seeks $400M solution
Group tasked with recommending how to spend federal money faces time crunch, disagreement
A small housing complex in Lyons. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)
Tensions are rising for members of a state subpanel tasked with recommending ways to spend $400 million in federal money to alleviate Colorado’s affordable housing crisis.
During a virtual meeting Sept. 29, member Eric Leveridge of Colorado Jobs with Justice called the limited time available for subpanel members to focus on promoting equity in housing a “slap in the face to marginalized communities across this state.”
Another subpanel member, Paul Weissman of Lument Capital, said he took issue with a comment that “the existing funding mechanisms don’t appear to be working” to promote equity in affordable housing. He argued that evidence to the contrary was the fact that Section 8 housing vouchers go to “disproportionately BIPOC folks.”
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The stakes are high as the ideologically divided subpanel has weeks remaining to develop initial recommendations for spending the $400 million in coronavirus relief funding that Congress sent to Colorado through the American Rescue Plan Act and which state lawmakers designated for affordable housing. The subpanel members, who were appointed by Democratic and Republican legislative leaders, must develop recommendations for the state lawmakers and agency heads on the Affordable Housing Transformational Task Force, who will use the recommendations to propose legislation and dole out funding.
A key hurdle: The 15 members of the subpanel, who work for organizations ranging from an association that represents landlords to a nonprofit that serves people experiencing homelessness, currently require 75% support, or 10 members’ “yes” vote, on any strategy they formally recommend.
“Given the composition of the subpanel and that high of a threshold, which is not required for any piece of legislation that’s actually going through the legislative process, I think those two factors combined basically guarantee that nothing that is actually transformational will get out of this subpanel,” Leveridge told Newsline. He emphasized that he spoke for himself and that his comments did not represent the entire subpanel’s thinking.
Leveridge is the strategic research analyst with Colorado Jobs with Justice, a coalition of labor, community, faith, student and youth organizations that work to advance workers’ rights, housing and immigration justice, and corporate accountability.
The coalition wants to see some of the affordable housing funds go toward new areas where the state hasn’t invested much, Leveridge said. One example would be “alternative ownership models,” like community land trusts — nonprofit, community-based organizations that acquire land and enter into long-term, renewable leases with property owners instead of traditional home sales. This model aims to keep housing affordable for low- and moderate-income people.
Given the composition of the subpanel and that high of a threshold ... nothing that is actually transformational will get out of this subpanel.
– Subpanel member Eric Leveridge
But Leveridge worries that some subpanel members want to put a lot of the money into new affordable housing construction instead of trying new ideas.
Subpanel member Steven Cordova had a more positive take on the process of forming recommendations. Cordova is the executive director of Total Concept, a housing and community development corporation focused on serving Bent, Crowley and Otero counties in rural southeast Colorado.
“The two co-chairs are doing a fantastic job in trying to synthesize and summarize everything … I’m thinking we’re making good progress,” Cordova told Newsline, referring to Brian Rossbert, the executive director of Housing Colorado, and Cathy Alderman, chief communications and public policy officer for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “We’re up against a timeline as well. … (Figuring) out a way to get as much input as possible is very important.”
Differing viewpoints on how to help
So far, the subpanel has developed four strategic priorities to guide its funding and policy recommendations: expand housing capacity, stabilize existing affordable housing, strengthen the safety net, and ensure equity and access.
Members of the subpanel brainstormed ideas for specific recommendations under each of those strategic priorities. For example, under the “expand capacity” priority, one idea was to add funding to existing programs at the state Division of Housing that would enable cities and counties to build new affordable housing projects.
In recent weeks, the subpanel members have begun the process of whittling down the ideas under each priority, and they plan to present initial funding recommendations to the affordable housing task force on Oct. 27.
While some members have raised concerns about the timeline not being adequate, Cordova pointed out that given more time, the subpanel “would always take up all the time that’s allowed.” He’s hoping to see recommendations that address the unique housing challenges faced by rural communities.
“I believe that now is the time for us to make bold changes,” Cordova said. “If we continue to do what we’ve always done, we will only get what we’ve had. We need to make and suggest changes that are bold, that will lift our state up and move forward.”
But the subpanel members are beginning to feel the time crunch, and frustrations were on display during the Sept. 29 meeting.
One topic that came up as a matter of contention was the question of who should benefit from new affordable housing.
“My general feeling is by creating the maximum number of units at certain affordability levels, you could then implement some form of voucher program that requires a lesser subsidy for those residents because you have the additional units,” said Weissman, Denver-based senior managing director and head of affordable housing production at Lument Capital, a nationwide commercial real estate lender.
At the Sept. 29 meeting, Weissman voiced support for funding units that were income-restricted to people making up to 60% or 80% of area median income, pointing out that it would be more cost-effective than building housing for people at extremely low income levels, who would require a larger voucher or government subsidy to cover the difference between what they could afford and the market rate.
Leveridge countered that he had “yet to see” market-rate supply or higher rates of housing supply work to alleviate the pressure on renters, 1 in 5 of whom are considered extremely low-income. In the Denver metro area, the Department of Housing and Urban Development defines “extremely low income” as a four-person household earning up to $31,450 a year.
Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue expressed concern that her fellow subpanel members didn’t understand the context of the affordable housing crisis in Colorado’s resort communities. In Summit County, extremely low-income is defined as $28,850 a year for a four-person household and short-term rentals are increasingly seen as the problem limiting housing supply.
“We could put millions of dollars in Summit County alone into vouchers, and it wouldn’t be a useful tool,” because there’s no housing available, she said.
Subpanel seeks public input
The affordable housing subpanel is collecting responses from a public survey to further help it narrow down recommendations. The online survey will be open until 5 p.m. Monday, subpanel members agreed during the Oct. 6 meeting.
Beyond the survey, there’s a link on the Affordable Housing Transformational Task Force webpage where members of the public can submit comments throughout the process.
Leveridge is working to spread the word to members of his coalition to elicit as many survey responses as possible. But he has some frustrations about the survey, one being that it’s not available in Spanish. “It’s very hard for people who are not in the housing world to understand really what any of the questions are,” Leveridge added. There’s jargon like “critical infrastructure” and “capacity investment.”
And there are accessibility issues with the process in general, Leveridge said. The meetings are held over a video chat, but the public has access to an audio stream only and can’t see the documents or presentations that subpanel members are discussing in real time.
“We’re not having public testimony,” Leveridge said. “We don’t have anyone who strictly represents renters on the subpanel. I am doing my best to fill that void because of the partners that we have, but … (it) seems like a really gross oversight.”
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