Sometimes, the solution to a seemingly intractable problem is staring you right in the face.
That turned out to be the case in Denver, Colo., where a fix for the mounting affordable housing crisis was standing smack in the middle of the city’s booming skyline — in the form of 21,000 brand-new, market-rate apartments sitting vacant, while some 13,000 Denver residents struggle to make rent each month.
It all started last year with a series of brainstorming sessions among friends in the affordable housing business — finance and equity specialists, dealmakers, policy folks, we ran the gamut. We were mulling over the irony that so many teachers, police officers and health care workers were getting priced out of a city with a glut of quality housing — something many U.S. communities experience today.
And then it dawned us: why couldn’t Denver use a private housing subsidy, with municipal support, to match some of those families with unrented apartments?
It was certainly worth a try. And in less than a year, those conversations led to a first-of-its-kind initiative called LIVE Denver (LIVE stands for Lower Income Voucher Equity), that will bring hundreds of those vacant units within financial reach of severely rent-burdened families. Just last month, the Denver City Council approved a $1.2 million funding partnership to make it happen.
It took some doing to make LIVE Denver a reality because nothing like it has ever been done before. First, National Equity Fund, an affiliate of the organization where I work, began the financial modeling to determine what a private housing subsidy would look like and how the city government could seed it. Then my organization, LISC was brought in to refine the process and manage the fund, and begin connecting with the owners of some 400 high-end units who were interested in taking part in the pilot.
Together with the Denver Housing Authority and all of LIVE Denver’s partners, we are collaborating with St. Joseph’s Hospital and some of the city’s other large employers who will help make the program available to more people. They have a stake in catalyzing a more vibrant and diverse economic and social ecosystem in the city: it’s how you maintain a stable, skilled workforce.
So for a two-year pilot period, scheduled to begin this fall, Denverites struggling to make ends meet will get a breather — an affordable rent coupled with financial coaching to help them stabilize their economic lives. Under the initiative, no more than 35 percent of their income will go toward rent in a new apartment in centrally-located neighborhoods — close to the jobs, schools, and amenities we all need.
The requirements for renters? They must work full time, make between 40 and 80 percent of the area median income, and take advantage of one-on-one coaching and budgeting support to start building positive credit and saving for the future. The program will even set aside five percent of the monthly rent payments in an account on behalf of the renters to help kick-start those savings.
Our goal is that many families will emerge from the program financially stable and poised to buy homes of their own if they choose. The program will also connect workers with growth industries in the city, such as health care and logistics, which are having a hard time finding skilled employees who can afford to live in the vicinity. With LIVE Denver, everybody wins, including the economy.
Sure, there are observers who say that the city’s high rents will eventually decline because supply so outstrips demand. But those kinds of market adjustments can take years, and they’re not guaranteed. Working people need help now.
Many of the individuals and families who will benefit from LIVE Denver are stuck in the “missing middle” of the housing market. In fact, there are 52,000 of them. They make a little too much to qualify for housing subsidies, but not enough for a safe, comfortable home within a reasonable commute of work. They may be living one medical event, one broken transmission, away from financial disaster.
And last year, the stock of apartments renting for below the median rate had a narrow three percent vacancy rate. That means tens of thousands of Denver residents have been forced farther from the city in order to find affordable housing.
As LIVE Denver has unfolded, we are hearing from other cities such as Seattle and San Antonio, with similar housing quagmires — too few affordable homes, too many families priced out of the places they live, and too many market-rate units languishing empty. Inspired by Denver’s example, we hope, those cities will also harness the solution looking them right in the face. And more and more Americans will have access to the standard of living everyone deserves.
Celia Smoot is director of LISC’s national housing program. She is based in Richmond, VA.