Affordable Housing a Tough Sell in Stapleton

Stapleton is big enough for everyone, but after five years, it's having trouble making room for affordable homes.

Last June, Nicoleta Nagel and her three-year-old daughter moved out of their rented apartment in Lowry and into a burgundy-colored condominium in Stapleton. For the 27-year-old Romanian immigrant, the second-story home didn't quite match up with her notion of the American Dream. There was no white picket fence or rolling green lawn, the likes of which she saw on television as a child. And it wasn't as spacious as the newly built home she left behind in Aurora when she divorced her husband, a disappointing American with a growing cocaine habit. But the little three-bedroom place with a balcony would suffice.

Besides, it got her into Stapleton, Denver's new and novel planned community on the site of the city's old airport. Nagel first visited the neighborhood while on a lunch break at a nearby restaurant and knew immediately that she wanted to live there. With rows and rows of new houses, pregnant women strolling down the streets and dogs frolicking in the parks and greenways, she affectionately calls it "Pleasantville."

"Even though I'm poor, I have my own stuck-up ideas of what life should be like," she says.

Unlike most people in Stapleton, however, Nagel lives in an affordable-housing development, an island of have-nots and have-lesses surrounded by homes in the $350,000-to-$650,000 range. Nagel bought hers for $169,900. To qualify for an affordable home — which developers set aside for low-income buyers — she had to prove that she earned 80 percent or less of the median income for families in the Denver area.

Nagel wasn't always strapped for money. She grew up in Bucharest, Romania's capital city, where her parents hired a maid to take care of her. Her mother ran a shelter for homeless youth who slept in the city's subway stations; it later inspired the 2001 Academy Award-nominated documentary Children Underground. Nagel moved to Denver with the help of an American family friend who took an interest in her mother's project. She met the man she would eventually marry a mere ten days after her arrival, while hiking with a church group. The pair wed within two years, and Nagel began work as a legal secretary. When her marriage unraveled, she was left with little income. "I ended up as a stereotypical single American mom out of nowhere," she says, laughing.

Today she works part-time as a paralegal while taking classes toward a political science degree from the University of Colorado Denver. She earns about $1,800 per month, tucking more than half of that into her mortgage, with more going toward car expenses and food. Her ex-husband foots the bill for her daughter's daycare.

In Stapleton, Nagel has followed her mother's activist tracks. She joined a moms' group to pressure the city to build a library. She petitioned Forest City Enterprises, Stapleton's primary developer, to bring more independent businesses to the community. And she keeps a close eye on the development's homeowners' association, making sure that it keeps the grassy areas green and trimmed.

"I think it's a good opportunity," she says of the affordable-housing program. "At least the choice is there. At least the government knows that a woman can't compete with a couple or a single dad. You make it affordable for me and see if I'm embarrassed."

But five years after its inception, the program is still in its infancy. Of the 3,071 homes on site, just 158 of them — or 5 percent — are available to people like Nagel. That's about half of where Forest City should be by now to keep pace with its own affordable-housing plan. In addition, the units that do exist — largely condominiums and duplexes that border the Park Hill neighborhood — have been slow to sell. Nagel's development still has six empty homes.

This has some people wondering how committed Forest City is to attracting economically diverse residents while trying to sell high-priced homes. "I think the profit pressure makes it difficult to stay on task and build affordable for-sale [homes]," says Bill Calhoun, who heads a committee that advises Forest City on affordable housing.

"The case can be made that there is a strong diversity piece," adds Calhoun, who is also a pastor at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church. "The case can be made that it should be stronger."

But Forest City officials promise that the community won't fall short of its long-term goal, whether that's achieved now or in the future. And they say they are working to make their product more attractive to potential buyers.

"Any affordable-housing program is not going to fill all your gaps. You do your best to serve where the need is," says Forest City spokesman Tom Gleason. "It makes no sense to build something when there is no market for it. It's a challenge that everyone is facing."

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Naomi Zeveloff