As she walked to the bright-red door of her new three-bedroom home in Aurora, T’nia Loya got right to the truth of all that moving business.
“It was exhausting,” she said with a laugh.
When she passed through that red door at the Aurora Housing Authority’s new Village at Westerly Creek complex, Loya beamed with pride at the new two-story apartment she shares with her husband and children.
And while she is excited about the new home — chiefly that spacious garage connected to the back of the unit — she’s also relieved that her family is one of the lucky ones that no longer has to sweat finding a home in an increasingly pricey and competitive housing market.
After living with her in-laws after her last apartment hiked the rent a full 30 percent, Loya said she considered moving to Las Vegas in search of an affordable place to live. But as a Colorado native, her preference was always to stay here — if she could find one of those coveted units in her price range.
“It’s a big deal for me to stay here and raise my children here,” she said.
A dream turned bad in metro Aurora
For generations, moving toward the American dream has been tied to home ownership. Young couples entered the market with a starter home and continued to trade up as their family grew in size.
Yet that path to building wealth and stability has become more of a pipe-dream in places like the metro area.
The average home on the market in Aurora requires a buyer to have an annual salary of at least $61,000. You’ll have to make more than double that if you want a brand new home — and it’s what keeps many of the city’s residents from realizing their dream.
For years Aurora has been considered affordable, if only in relation to other parts of the Front Range. The Denver Metro Association of Realtors reported the median home price across the region is now beyond the half-million-dollar mark at $540,624. In Aurora, the average price for homes on the market is at $363,986.
It’s a tough market for renters, too. In Aurora, the average one-bedroom apartment is $1,125, according to rentcafe.com. Financial experts suggest housing-costs take up about a third of a person’s gross monthly income. So to afford the average 1-bedroom in Aurora plus utilities, it takes an annual salary of about $44,000.
A person making minimum wage, $10.20 in Colorado right now, would be hard-pressed to find an apartment. And for those who can find one, it could be eating up more and more of their paycheck.
A 2015 study by the Make Room campaign, a collective effort of nonprofit organizations including the Ford and MacArthur foundations, found that about 40 percent of households in Colorado are housing cost burdened — meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. The same study found 25 percent of Coloradans were severely burdened and paid at least 50 percent of their income to put a roof over their head. And when low-income families are stuck in a situation where more than half their paycheck goes straight to the landlord, they spend about $150 less a month on food, and they skip medical treatment.
“If you make minimum wage in order to afford an average-priced two-bedroom apartment here in the Denver metro area, you have to work 90 hours a week, and to afford an average one bedroom a minimum wage worker has to work 74 hours,” said James Gillespie, community impact and government relations liaison for Comitis Crisis Center.
“This is not just about the homeless population. It’s about school teachers or medical professionals like nurse practitioners. They make $70,000 to $90,000 alone, and they are having a difficult time finding affordable housing. They’re cost-burdened even with that high salary.”
These facts aren’t news to local leaders. And examples of the ramification of so many people being priced out of living in a community are plentiful. Just a quick look at what cities like San Francisco and Seattle are going through right now, where skilled labor is being pushed farther and farther away from jobs and homelessness is rising at alarming rates, highlight a clear reason why discussions among lawmakers are becoming unavoidable.
Developments like the one Loya just moved into at Westerly Creek are helping to chip away at the affordable housing shortage, but even AHA officials say they know they are barely making a dent.
AHA is hoping to have more than 30 brand new units at Westerly — with rents ranging from $1,159 to $1,359 — occupied by the end of the month. Still, AHA Executive Director Craig Maraschky said that isn’t nearly enough to meet the need. “We could probably build ten of these and not meet the demand,” he said.
That leaves the city looking at other ways to tackle the housing shortage, and finding plans that a city council majority can get behind hasn’t been easy.
City struggles with intervening or standing back
Affordable housing has become a regular point of contention at Aurora City Council meetings, with two distinct, and conflicting, perspectives: More conservative members see the free market as a driver of more affordable housing, whereas more progressive members have fought against projects and matters that cause low-income families to be displaced from their homes.
Earlier this month council members sparred over a condominium project that could go up at East 14th Avenue and Potomac Street. While the measure was one of rezoning, the ultimate goal is to replace four, three-story apartment buildings with a 17-story building of condominiums.
Councilwoman Crystal Murillo, whose ward encompasses the site, worried that the people living in those 176 units might not have a place to go if they’re forced from their homes. The developer told city council that his team put together a plan to help find those renters other units, and make sure displacement doesn’t become a major issue with the project.
The council opted to postpone a vote until they could get that plan in writing. The discussion highlighted a major question facing the city: With redevelopment becoming more and more attractive in the most affordable part of the city, what happens to the people who already live there?
“My vision is that everyone has a house,” Murillo said. “I don’t think that’s crazy to ask for.”
Getting there won’t be easy. Murillo said she realizes the complexities of the broader topic of affordable housing. But that shouldn’t hold back the city from trying to preserve housing for low-income families, especially as she’s seen the difference being able to have a stable home can have. Murillo, a recent college graduate at 23, grew up in Aurora. She moved around a lot with her brother and mother, she said. As a result she transferred schools a lot.
“At one point my mom had three jobs,” she said.
For Murillo, affordable housing is a tool in ending the cycle of poverty.
But so far, the conversations regarding affordable housing has been mostly caught up in city gridlock. A divided city council has stalled a lot of efforts. There has been some movements, however, Murillo sees as a big step forward for the city.
Earlier this year, Murillo was successful in initiating a task force to study the role of mobile home parks in the affordable housing picture, and what the city should do as they begin to disappear after being closed for redevelopment.
The task force came along with a moratorium on the redevelopment of mobile home parks after Denver Meadows Mobile Home Park said it would close, displacing at least 200 people. Many living in mobile home parks told council members at meetings they don’t know where they will go. There’s nowhere as affordable in the entire region.
Murillo said she sees that task force, even narrow in scope, as a big conversation-starter in Aurora. It could even be a model for the rest of the state and nation.
Other more progressive city council members have made attempts at affordable housing options too. Councilwoman Nicole Johnston proposed requiring a home developer in the East Aurora Annexation to have 5 percent of homes complete as “affordable housing.”
She told council members she proposed the affordable housing requirement because council members collectively decided affordable housing isn’t a responsibility of the city’s.
“I think we need to start asking developers as we approve this to provide this (affordable housing),” she said.
The majority of council members didn’t get behind the idea, even as the developer agreed to the proposal. Some council members didn’t like the idea of changing a development plan, and that a larger policy should be made, not address things by a case-by-case basis.
Councilman Dave Gruber said he was against the proposal because the above-market-price homes would have to sell for even more to help subsidize the discounted affordable housing.
In general, Councilwoman Francoise Bergan said she’d like to see developers address the problem through the free market. Her philosophy is that if homebuilders were sanctioned by fewer regulations, they’d be free to create more housing. And from there, Bergan said, it’s simple supply and demand: more houses would equal lower prices.
But Bergan isn’t sure what that cost reduction would look like, or what exact reforms should take place. Instead, she said she’d like to see the developers at the table to provide more insight.
“I think we’re kind of being closed-minded to say it has to be one way or another. I don’t like mandating anything,” she said. “I’d rather be like, ‘Who wants to (build) and how do we make that happen?’”
Developers have been at the table in some instances, like the effort to allow smaller lot sizes in new home developments. It would allow the same size of homes, but more in a development. Those negotiations on what to allow developers have been on-going, as city staff say they want well-thought out neighborhoods, not just rows of suburban houses.
Off the market and no replacement
Part of the issue facing Aurora and the metro region is a massive influx of new residents without a matching increase in housing stock. The seven-county metro region saw about 430,000 new residents move into the area between 2005 and 2016. And the state expects another 270,000 new residents to move in by the end of 2020.
Those new residents are a major contributing factor to the heated real estate market that has driven up the median price for a home in Denver proper by 9.8 percent just between 2015 and 2016, and rent by 50 percent in a four-year span between 2012 to 2016.
Yet the influx of new blood in the area isn’t the only reason for affordable housing scarcity. Many of the affordable housing units metro residents relied upon for the past 20 years have disappeared, said Tracey Stewart, investment director for family economic security at the Piton Foundation.
Apartment complexes and subdivisions built with tax credits and public funds have restrictions that a percentage of total units rent and sell below market rate, usually for 20 years, Stewart said. But once the deed-restrictions end, owners can rent or sell units without any price restrictions. And with private financing more readily available for new developments because of the heated real estate market, fewer and fewer units are being built with the requirement that they rent even a portion of available units at a below market price.
According to Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, there are currently about 2,710 subsidized affordable housing units across Aurora. But by the end of 2021, 570 units will have their affordability periods end, meaning a 21 percent hit to the total stock. And the situation in Aurora isn’t unique. Across Colorado, one independent study found the state is losing about 1,200 affordable housing units a year.
“Sadly as far as developers are concerned, they don’t have to do affordable housing developments because they are making lots of money off renting them at market,” Stewart said. “(National developers) are hitting all these areas with these hot markets where they can build because they’ll get $2,500 for a two-bedroom. When my incentive is to make money that way, I’m not really looking at what would happen if I was to engage in building with an eye toward affordability.”
Even with inclusive housing ordinances that push developers to set aside units in new projects for below market rental, Stewart said many builders will instead opt to pay fees or take another path that doesn’t lead to a multitude of below-market units opening up.
In another proposal brought to council members, a zoning update in Original Aurora would allow accessory dwelling units to be placed at most single-family homes in northeast Aurora, many of which sit on larger lots. Essentially, the unit would be a small, detached suite on the same lot as a home, and potentially a cheaper housing option for some people. The units would be restricted to 650 square-feet and could only be allowed at owner-occupied homes, 29 percent of those homes are owner-occupied, according to the city.
Each ADU would be individually approved by the city.
Some residents argued to council that allowing those ADUs would drive up crime and worsen traffic because more people would be living there.
The entire rezoning effort was tabled, but it is expected to be back before council after the mobile home affordable housing task force makes recommendations.
The conversations about affordable housing at the city are typically lengthy, but it’s better than no talk at all, said Andrea Chiriboga-Flor, a housing organizer for 9to5 Colorado. She advocates for more affordable housing options and policies frequently at city hall.
“I think Aurora can be a model when we’re talking about the mobile home park, but also a model to the metro area that will take care of its own people first and develop in a way that benefits everybody, not just people who can afford market-rate housing,” she said.
Chiriboga-Flor has been working with residents from the Denver Meadows Mobile Home Park for more than two years now — that issue in particular has seen huge strides, she said.
But perhaps the real win has been in the awareness those conversations are having, even if the council members don’t always come to an answer.
“Our goal is to shifting the narrative of how we think about mobile homes, but also housing in general — as a basic necessity,” she said.
Taking out the land to afford the home
While cities work to find ways to induce or force developers to build affordable housing, some nonprofit agencies are looking at another way to increase options for low-income families to find housing stability — taking the land out of the equation.
While community land trusts aren’t a new invention, they have become a new center of focus as affordable housing becomes scarcer across the state and country. There are a handful of trusts working in Colorado right now in specific areas, including Colorado Community Land Trust, which was founded in 2004 by the Lowry Redevelopment Authority. Along with the established ones, the Piton Foundation, which is a part of Gary Community Investments, has partnered with the Colorado Health Foundation, Gates Family Foundation, the Denver Foundation, Mile High United Way among others to create Elevation Community Land Trust.
“We’re not housing the lowest of low income. These are families that want a place to raise their families and feel secure, and they can’t afford the pricing of the market right now,” said Jane Harrington, executive director of Colorado Community Land Trust.
In a community land trust, an outside group buys land with either existing homes or develops the homes themselves. Then a buyer who meets income restrictions purchases the home, but the land is still owned by the trust and instead is connected to the home through a 99-year lease. That allows a home that is valued at a market rate of $300,000 to be purchased at a much lower rate, closer to $200,000.
The lower price opens up homeownership to families that would have been able to afford a starter home in years past. And the reduction in price makes it easier for potential home owners to secure a loan, Stewart said.
When a homeowner wants to sell their home in the land trust, they must sell to someone who meets the same income restrictions as the original owner qualified under. And owners are only able to receive a portion of the equity that has developed due to an increase in the home’s value. Elevation Community Land Trust has rules that would allow future homeowners to take 25 percent of the equity, with the rest going back into the land trust to help defray costs like administration.
So if someone bought a home valued at $300,000 for $200,000 through Elevation, and five years later the home was valued at $350,000, the seller would get $12,500 plus the original investment of $200,000 and Elevation would get $37,5000.
“Making money off the investment isn’t the reason to buy a home in a land trust. If you could afford a $500,000 starter home, I don’t know why you would want to buy a home in a land trust,” Stewart said. “Land trusts were developed for people who can’t afford that type of investment. Instead of throwing away rent for the rest of their lives, this allows them to develop a savings and have a safe home they won’t be priced out of.”
Elevation has raised more than $24 million, but Stewart said a big roadblock they’ve found so far is finding a community that would welcome the project next door. While Elevation would be serving people who couldn’t afford a home in the overpriced metro market, Stewart said too many people can equate subsidized housing with halfway-homes and homeless shelters.
“We’re talking about nurses, teachers, first responders, civil servants,” Stewart said. “We are talking about folks that 20 years ago could walk into a home with no problem but cannot walk into a home now because they’ve been priced out.”
Since they’ve been in operation, Harrington said when people first hear about a potential project from Colorado Community Land Trust, they imagine large public housing developments from the 1960s. But once they learn about the process of land trusts and projects like the ones throughout Lowry, that trepidation goes away. A big issue Harrington said her group has had in recent years is patching together funding from enough sources to afford the cost of land and construction. With the heated construction market costs have risen rapidly for materials and labor, which means funding doesn’t go as far as it could just 10 years ago.
“It’s one of the trickiest times to work in the industry right now, that’s for sure,” Harrington said.
But she said land trusts are still an important piece in providing affordable housing stock in a market that doesn’t look to be cooling off in the foreseeable future.
“When it’s done right, (land trusts) can have a lasting impact,” Harrington said.