A line of signs condemning homeless sweeps lean up against a table at a three-day demonstration in downtown Denver on Oct. 15, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated a housing crisis across Colorado as previously affordable enclaves saw rental costs and home prices soar, and as a resort-town homebuying spree shut out low- and middle-income workers from mountain communities.
Meanwhile, homelessness in urban areas became more visible when the streets emptied of workers and tourists. Job loss, economic upheaval and an addiction crisis, all driven in part by the pandemic, left more people unhoused. Low-wage earners, hospitality workers, families with young children, and people of color, who disproportionately face barriers to health care and home ownership, were financially impacted while high-earners saw their wealth grow. In Denver, the number of people at shelters who were experiencing homelessness for the first time grew by 99%, according to Cathy Alderman, public policy officer at Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Alderman joined Gov. Jared Polis and several Democratic state lawmakers at the Capitol on Monday to talk about what they hope will be a salve for Colorado’s homelessness crisis: $200 million in federal money aimed at adding transitional housing, permanent housing with wraparound services, and a substance use treatment and vocational training facility.
The Affordable Housing Transformational Task Force established last year was charged with finding ways to spend $400 million from the American Rescue Plan Act that Congress passed in spring 2021.
Lawmakers on the task force — whose work was informed by housing and homelessness experts on a subpanel, of which Alderman served as vice chair — produced a final report with specific dollar figures for most of their priorities, such as a revolving loan fund for housing developers, grants to help nonprofits and local governments add affordable housing, and support for resident-owned mobile home communities.
But the final report, published in January, did not contain an agreed-upon funding range for two priorities that would specifically address homelessness.
One of those was transitional or long-term housing. Members of the task force and subpanel had agreed on the importance of setting aside some amount of money to develop and build such housing for people leaving jail, prison, hospitals and homeless shelters; people fleeing dangerous home environments; and unhoused people with mental illness and substance use disorders. They did not, however, assign a specific dollar amount to this recommendation.
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Likewise, the task force’s final report recommended awarding grants for new, permanent housing with supportive services for the homeless population and people with disabilities, but it did not include a specific amount of funding for permanent supportive housing.
Now, Polis’ administration is making a total of $200 million in federal relief funding available for these two recommendations, on top of the $400 million originally allocated toward affordable housing, Rep. Steven Woodrow, a Denver Democrat, said at the news conference. The money will come from a cash fund lawmakers designated for economic recovery and relief.
Under the plan revealed Monday, the largest chunk of funding — $105 million — would go toward converting existing properties into transitional or long-term housing. The bill to do that must pass the state Legislature before the funding can be awarded.
Another $50 million will be made available for the permanent supportive housing recommendation from the task force, through a separate bill being introduced this week that will be led by Rep. Iman Jodeh, an Aurora Democrat. This funding would be awarded to a supportive housing developer in the Denver-Aurora metro area.
The supportive housing development would include addiction treatment, behavioral health care and workforce training for people experiencing homelessness. Stella Watts, a graduate of the Bridge House Ready to Work program, touted such a “workforce solution” to help people experiencing homelessness deal with issues like substance use disorders and find successful employment.
“They provide everything that you need to get your life back, and they start from the day that you walk into the door,” Watts, who spoke at the news conference, said of Ready to Work. “They show compassion towards you, and then … they offer a work-first solution to help end homelessness.”
Repurposing Ridge View
Polis and the lawmakers who spoke Monday also made mention of plans to repurpose the former Ridge View Youth Services Center, which closed in 2001. Senate Bill 22-211, which was formally introduced Monday, would use $45 million in economic recovery and relief money to convert Ridge View into a facility serving adults suffering from addiction who lack stable housing. The Arapahoe County campus would provide substance use disorder treatment as well as medical care, vocational training and transitional housing.
The goal, as explained in the bill text: “to have individuals leave the Ridge View Supportive Residential Community in active recovery and improved health so they can transition to stable housing and community-based supports, as well as employment where possible.”
This legislation is sponsored by Sens. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, and Nick Hinrichsen, a Democrat from Pueblo, along with Rep. Alex Valdez, a Denver Democrat.
“By repurposing the Ridgeview Campus, the state in partnership with local communities can focus on reducing homelessness, supporting addiction recovery access and access to behavioral and mental health support,” Polis said. He stressed such an investment from the state was “unprecedented” and that it would be up to local communities to develop their own solutions to homelessness.
Costs challenge housing access
Some of the other recommendations from the housing task force, including grants for local governments to expand their housing stock and a loan program to help preserve affordable mobile home communities, are well on their way to becoming law.
But the cold, hard reality is that some number of Coloradans will likely continue to find themselves unable to access housing in the years to come, despite the state and federal investments.
Colorado’s home prices rose by an average of 20.3% in 2021, slightly outpacing national rates, according to the March economic forecast by nonpartisan Legislative Council Staff. “While real estate values have surged statewide, the Federal Housing Finance Agency reports the fastest rates of appreciation in Pueblo (+23.8 percent), Colorado Springs (+22.3 percent), and Grand Junction (+22.1 percent),” the forecast noted. Pandemic supply chain disruptions, a construction-industry labor shortage and skyrocketing lumber costs continue to present barriers to homebuilders.
In Denver, average monthly rent on a two-bedroom apartment was $1,817 in March, according to data from Apartment List. That’s up nearly 15% from a year ago. Colorado Springs saw average monthly rent grow more than 12% over the same time frame, to $1,443 in March. In Aurora, the average cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment was $1,734, up 15.4% year-over-year.
“We’ve seen the impacts that the cost of housing is having across our state,” state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, said at the news conference Monday. “This pandemic hit our communities hard, particularly working-class Coloradans and communities of color.”
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