Affordable Housing a Tough Sell in Stapleton

There's room for everyone in Stapleton, but after five years, developers are having trouble finding room for affordable housing.

"In a short period of time, all of these opportunities opened up," says Allegra "Happy" Haynes, a former city councilwoman who helped draft Stapleton's plan and who now serves on several of its advisory committees. Each development was an experiment in how to create a new kind of community.

Stapleton, says Haynes, was envisioned as the most "urban" of the fledgling residential districts. Heralded as the answer to sprawling neighborhoods that priced out middle-income workers, it would be the anti-suburb, where apartment complexes would be built next to single-family homes, with restaurants, stores, office buildings and parks within walking distance. The neighborhood would mimic the style and feel of old Denver — a brand-new "Washington Park" could take the place of the runways and terminals of the former Stapleton International Airport.

In 2000, Denver gave Cleveland-based Forest City the contract to develop the 7.5-mile-long tract of land. Little by little, public property was turned over to the company, which subcontracted with several smaller developers. By 2002, a couple of model homes were built, and later that year, the first buyer moved in. When Stapleton is completed in 2020, it is expected to house between 25,000 and 30,000 residents.

Juan Piceno and Krista Zweck (above) paid $177,000 for their affordable condominium three years ago; Melissa Knott, Forest City's director of housing initiatives, and company spokesman Tom Gleason attended the grand opening of an affordable project in early November (right).
Mark Manger
Juan Piceno and Krista Zweck (above) paid $177,000 for their affordable condominium three years ago; Melissa Knott, Forest City's director of housing initiatives, and company spokesman Tom Gleason attended the grand opening of an affordable project in early November (right).

Affordable-home ownership, like environmental sustainability, was long part of the vision at Stapleton. The early proposal, drafted by Haynes and other civic and business leaders in a document titled the "Green Book," called for workforce housing to be dispersed throughout the development. At Stapleton, it was hoped, firefighters, police officers, teachers, nurses and other middle-income earners who could no longer afford to buy in central Denver would live alongside the upper-middle class.

As part of its agreement to buy what was once public land, Forest City committed early on to developing affordable housing, and in 2001, it formalized its plan with Denver officials. Of the 8,000 for-sale homes slated for construction, about 10 percent, or 800, are supposed to be "affordable," according to federal housing guidelines. And of the 4,000 anticipated rental units, 20 percent, or around 800, must meet the same standard.

"Affordable" means that people making 80 percent or less of the Area Median Income for Denver, Adams, Arapahoe, Jefferson, Broomfield, Boulder, Elbert, Douglas and Clear Creek counties should be able to buy in. Right now, that standard is around $57,350 for a family of four, $45,900 for a two-person household, and $40,150 for a single person.

Each affordable-home builder in Stapleton sets its own housing prices, but they should hover around a rate established by the city — typically, $165,559 for a three-bedroom home. In order to keep the homes affordable for decades to come, each unit has a thirty-year deed restriction attached to it, meaning its value can rise by around 3 percent per year.

Forest City's affordable-housing plan barely predated Denver's own Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, a 2002 mandate meant to help ease the effect of soaring home costs in the metro area. (In September, the average home price was $305,459.) The ordinance directs developers who build thirty units or more to keep 10 percent of their projects affordable; builders who choose not to do this must pay a fee to the city.

Forest City created its own plan so that it wouldn't have to adhere to the city ordinance, which was still being drafted at the time. But the developer actually follows a stricter code than most around Denver, primarily because it included rental housing, says Susan Barnes-Gelt, the former city councilwoman who authored the city ordinance. "Their requirements were more rigorous than the city's," she says.

And there's no opting out for Forest City. If it doesn't build affordable housing, Denver could stop selling it land for future high-end homes, says Dick Anderson, president of the Stapleton Development Corporation, a nonprofit created by the city to oversee the transformation of the former airport. "If we thought that they were not living up to what they had agreed to, we have that power."

Krista Zweck and her husband, Juan Piceno, purchased a $177,000 condominium in Stapleton three years ago. At the time, they were one of just a few families to buy into the community's first affordable development, a series of tan- and rust-colored homes with communal green areas called Roslyn Court. Over the next several months, homeowners trickled into the adjacent units, and the couple slowly became acquainted with their neighbors. The last condo sold in July, and now Roslyn Court feels like a community, with gossipy neighbors gathering in one corner and children running in the nearby park.

The "stability" of a place like Stapleton, as Zweck puts it, wasn't always an option for the couple. When they met working the night shift in a California Denny's, Piceno, an immigrant from Mexico, didn't yet have legal status in the United States. Zweck had never owned a credit card, and when they moved in together, they paid cash for everything.

One summer, the pair traveled to Colorado to work on Zweck's parents' farm and decided to relocate to Denver for good, eventually buying a two-bedroom condominium near Rose Medical Center.

They got married, and Piceno acquired a green card. Their first child, Violeta, was born in 2000, and by the time Zweck was pregnant with their second, Jolan, the couple decided to move to a larger home. "It was less about us and our eccentricities anymore," she says.

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