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.

But Zweck, a former waitress, and Piceno, who now drives a truck for a living, knew they couldn't afford a home in Denver, at least not in a safe neighborhood. A friend tipped them off to Stapleton's affordable program, and the couple applied to move into the development by providing pay stubs to a housing consultant. With a combined income of $52,000, they made just enough — but not too much — to qualify for the house.

Just before the couple closed on the home, however, Zweck turned in a pay stub a bit above her average; she'd had a particularly good week for waitressing tips. With the extra money, she was told, they were now making more than the federal standard for affordable housing and no longer qualified. So Zweck quit her job temporarily, and they moved in. "We barely made it," she says. "You can't be over. Not even a penny."

But at $1,400 per month, their mortgage is double what it was in their last home. In addition, they have to pay a fee to their homeowners' association. With 401(k) payments, health insurance and house costs, there's little cash at the end of the month. And now that Piceno's sister and son are temporarily staying in Jolan's bedroom, the unit is crowded.

Mark Manger
Nicoleta Nagel and her daughter live in Stapleton's Syracuse Village.
Mark Manger
Nicoleta Nagel and her daughter live in Stapleton's Syracuse Village.

"'Affordable' is an illusion," Zweck says. "It's not like we're dying, but it's a lot of money every month."

Even so, Zweck, who is in school to become an aesthetician, says she's happy. And though Roslyn Court is sectioned off from the rest of community by streets and a parking lot, she says she doesn't feel isolated from the thousands of other Stapleton residents, some of whom live in million-dollar homes a few blocks away. "It's like the edge of the community," she says, "but I don't feel like people treat us differently."

While Zweck and Piceno bought into Stapleton early on, it took around four years for the community's existing affordable homes to fill up.

Forest City's hurdles to attracting buyers stem, in large part, from a factor that housing experts warn about: not knowing what people want, says Rachel Basye, of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, an agency created by the state legislature that encourages affordable-home ownership.

"I think it comes down to understanding the market you are serving and not assuming that if you build something, they will come," she says. "Who is the market of that area? What are people looking for in that area? You should not assume you can build something else."

Lumping the affordable units together was the first mistake, says Jacky Morales-Ferrand, Denver's housing director and a former Forest City employee. In Roslyn Court and in Syracuse Village — where Nagel lives — each deeply discounted home looks identical to the rest, save for the color of the facade. This dearth of variety, both in appearance and cost, can blind a customer to the real value of the home.

"If I am an affordable buyer, I don't have anything else to compare it to," she says, adding that a more successful approach may have been to integrate the affordable units in with the market-rate homes. "I'm not willing to throw myself out there and say that that would solve everything.... I would say that as a matter of policy for the city of Denver, it is our preference to see the units more integrated on a building scale."

This tactic could also have gone a long way toward creating that "sense of community" championed in Stapleton's Green Book.

For David Michael, a consumer credit counselor who moved to Stapleton from California with his wife two months ago, the principle of inclusiveness played a role in his decision to buy there. "We did value that," he says. "We valued it as a spectrum, the idea of different people and populations." But Michael also liked the fact that they could "get something big and new," and he liked its proximity to downtown.

Michael and his wife bought a $500,000 home in Eastbridge, a Stapleton neighborhood that's about two dozen blocks from where Zweck and Nagel live, and he hasn't yet met anyone who lives in Stapleton's small number of low-income homes. "We've very much gotten to know our own neighborhood. They are at the same price point as we are."

Nagel and her neighbors, meanwhile, joke that they have been ghettoized as they chide their homeowners' association for letting the grass die in the common areas. "People say, 'Just because we live in affordable housing doesn't mean we live in the projects,'" she says.

Forest City has no plans to integrate affordable-housing units with its regular housing, but Gleason says the company won't rule it out. "Mixed-income is possible with financing," he says. "A mixed-income high-rise residential building is something that we would look at."

Stapleton's second misstep was to limit the product it offered to attached units, opting not to build single-family homes. Separate houses are typically more expensive to construct, but they are also very popular — especially for first-time homebuyers whose notions of ownership don't necessarily involve apartment-style living.

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