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.

"If you look at the Stapleton plan, some of the units are on the smaller side," Morales-Ferrand says. "There is some resistance as [buyers] get farther away from the inner-city core to condominium living and smaller units."

Lowry and Green Valley Ranch have built and quickly filled single-family affordable homes, but it took clever financing in one case and low land costs in another. Lowry's secret lies in its community land trust. A homebuyer purchases the actual sticks and bricks of the home but leases the land underneath it from the trust, a non-profit organization set up to ensure the long-term affordability of the unit. The 125 occupied units — some of them townhomes where families live side by side rather than one on top of the other — were cheaper to build and to buy. The trust also allows Lowry more oversight of its affordable program, assisting buyers — all of whom had to take ownership classes — when they are ready to sell.

So far, there hasn't been a foreclosure in Lowry's affordable development; Stapleton, on the other hand, has weathered three.

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.

Green Valley Ranch was able to build low-cost single-family homes simply because the land beneath the development was inexpensive. The community adhered closely to the city's 2002 affordable-housing ordinance, building around 630 detached homes, some of which sold for just $100,000.

Another problem for Stapleton was that, until recently, it didn't aggressively advertise its affordable product. To an outsider, the community might seem more "Pleasantville" than new-urbanist, a wealthy white suburb with little to offer a waitress or a truck driver looking to buy a home.

"When you begin marketing a community of this size, there are a lot of demands for your efforts," says Anderson, of the Stapleton Development Corporation. "You want to hit the marketplace running, and the risks are so great, there is a tendency to focus on the product that the marketplace will absorb. I think Forest City quite naturally did that. But that's why we're here, to remind them of their responsibilities in delivering affordable units."

In recent months, Stapleton has worked to change its image with a series of workshops hosted by American Sunrise Communities, a Santa Monica-based company that specializes in educating potential affordable-home buyers. The conferences have netted six closings since February.

"Forest City has to build affordable housing. Everyone was under the impression that it would sell like hotcakes," says American Sunrise's Janeen Cameron, who fills the workshops by cold-calling area businesses and inviting their employees. "At my conferences, I find that people are shocked that there is affordable housing at Stapleton. It is great that we are here to say, 'Yes. There is affordable housing at Stapleton.'"

Stapleton has also been caught in the recent problems that have plagued the entire housing market nationwide, Cameron adds.

After an avalanche of foreclosures, lenders are shying away from people with poor credit. "I would say 90 percent of the people coming to our conferences have bad credit," she points out. "They don't understand finances. They don't understand how to budget. They don't understand the kind of a down payment they need. We're working with them to understand that. The people who are in that situation, we're helping to get them on the path to home ownership."


Forest City says its biggest challenge to selling affordable homes is the deed restriction, the mechanism attached to each unit that limits appreciation and ensures long-term affordability. Demand is very high for everything else, says Melissa Knott, Forest City's director of housing initiatives. Some regular homes have sold at seven per week, while the affordable program has chugged along at three closings per month.

But housing experts say the deed restriction is the only way to ensure that people looking for a quick buck don't buy cheap and immediately flip the home for a much higher price. "Sometimes it can be a barrier to selling the homes," says Karen Harkin of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority. But in the current market, "in which properties are not rapidly appreciating, that shouldn't be something that would inhibit the sale of the units," she adds.

Yet Forest City's initial hold-up in its affordable-housing program had less to do with filling the units than simply getting them built.

In 2003, a local developer named Jackie Peterson broke ground on Stapleton's first affordable development, the place where Zweck and Piceno now reside: Roslyn Court. Peterson had built affordable rentals before, but not for-sale homes. Even so, she received a $6.5 million loan from the city. But she underestimated the project's costs and defaulted on a portion of the loan when she was about halfway through. Forest City was left to pick up the pieces, selling the eighty units itself over the next four years.

Since the going was slow, Forest City lowered the price of the units from $176,000 to $164,000 or less for a three-bedroom home. The city also administered federal down payment assistance to some Roslyn Court buyers, giving a single person as much as $22,000 to urge him or her to move in.

"A lot of the people who bought before the money came out are probably pretty upset if they know that other people got that money," says Evan Jansen, a preferred lender in Stapleton's affordable program. "The affordable homes were sitting there. They weren't being sold. They were overpriced for people who were income-qualified to buy them."

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