Denver mayor announces housing experiment that could bring affordability back to city

Program will bridge gap for market-rate apartments

DENVER -- While there are hundreds of apartments in Denver sitting vacant, finding an affordable place to live is tough. That's why Denver's Mayor Michael Hancock is proposing an innovative partnership to bridge the gap between how much those existing vacant homes cost and how much many people can actually afford.

"If it's not impacting you personally, you know a friend, relative, coworker priced out of the market," said Hancock, in Monday's State of the City Address. "We know many residents need an affordable option today, not a year from now."

Lashella Shelton says she is one of those residents. She and her two children are staying with her fiance's parents, living out of boxes and sleeping on air mattresses.

"It frustrates me to the point where I cry myself to sleep sometimes because I don't know what to do," said Shelton. "I qualify for affordable housing, but I can't find any."

In his address, Hancock announced a new pilot program, a partnership to open 400 existing, vacant apartments to low and moderate income Denver residents.

Erik Solivan, the executive director of the Mayor's Office of HOPE (Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere), said the city will pool resources to create a rent buy-down fund to make higher-end apartments more affordable for families making between 40% to 80% of the area median income (about $35,000 for a family of four and $48,000 for a family of four, respectively).

"The goal is to open up some vacant units currently outside their income by buying down the cost of the rent," said Solivan. "Denver has some of the highest inventories for apartments for families with the highest incomes and some of the lowest inventories for families with some of the lowest incomes."

The details still have to be fine-tuned, Solivan said, but some of the money will come from the city's $150 million affordable housing fund created last year, but that foundations and employers will also contribute.

The Denver Housing Authority, which currently administers the federal government’s housing choice voucher program in Denver, will help administer the new rent buy-down program as well.

Executive Director Ismael Guerrero said that while the program will open up about 400 vacant apartments, there are quite a few more sitting empty around the city and this is just one part of a longer-term solution to Denver’s housing crisis.

“It’s a great solution to try to make units available as quickly as possible from the existing inventory,” Guerrero said. “We’re hopeful this will turn into a long-term housing option.”

Guerrero said that since this program will be mainly city-funded, participants likely won’t have to meet all of the same qualifications as federal housing programs like Section 8, but all the details are still being worked out.

The goal would be to have a three-year pilot program, Solivan said, but at a minimum, families would have a year of participation. More information about applications and eligibility will come out in about two months, he said.

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