A Guide to Affordable Housing in Denver: DHA Answers Your Questions

The James Quigg Newton homes near 46th and Navajo are among the oldest affordable-housing complexes in the Denver system, dating back to 1952.
The James Quigg Newton homes near 46th and Navajo are among the oldest affordable-housing complexes in the Denver system, dating back to 1952.
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Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and every candidate wanting to take his job who took part in our recent mayoral Q&A series mentioned affordable housing as a major priority.

That makes sense given still-sky-high rents in the Mile High City, not to mention a recent survey that concluded Denver had the worst home affordability in the nation. But plenty of people are unclear about Denver's efforts to help those in need find and secure housing under circumstances that often remain difficult despite the strong economy. So we reached out to Ryan Tobin, chief real estate investment officer for the Denver Housing Authority, for answers.

Below, Tobin offers a basic Denver affordable-housing guide, with key assists from DHA spokesperson Stella Madrid and Derek Woodbury, communications director for another city bureau, the Denver Economic Development & Opportunity.

Woodbury, corresponding via email, spells out the central term like so: "As a general rule, affordable housing is defined as housing where occupants pay no more than 30 percent of their income for gross housing costs, including utilities. This standard is set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Our office has broadened this definition slightly, allowing for a housing cost ratio of up to 35 percent among households that are applying for certain programs."

Area Median Income, among the main metrics when it comes to affordable housing, is abbreviated as AMI.

Madrid provided the following graphic depicting HUD income guidelines for the City and County of Denver:

A Guide to Affordable Housing in Denver: DHA Answers Your Questions (2)
Courtesy of Denver Housing Authority

A more detailed breakdown can be found in the document linked here: the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority's 2018 County Income and Rent Tables, which lists AMI in the state from 30 percent to 120 percent.

Now, without further ado, here are more answers to your DHA affordable-housing questions. They're delivered by Tobin unless otherwise noted.

Westword: What is the Denver Housing Authority's mission?

Ryan Tobin: We manage affordable housing, we develop and construct affordable housing, and we look at the private sector for our Housing Choice Voucher program, which provides subsidies on behalf of individuals to private landlords. Those are the three sub-sectors under our larger umbrella.

How much affordable housing can DHA provide?

We have 3,900 units that we own and manage. We have right around 800 subsidized multi-family units, and another 700 units of mixed-income housing that we would attribute to our affordable mixed-use portfolio for neighborhood revitalization. We also administer over 6,900 federal Housing Choice vouchers, formerly known as Section 8. We serve 25,000 very low, low- and middle-income individuals.

Housing Choice vouchers are a government subsidy program where a subsidy goes to any individual who qualifies — and they're responsible for paying 30 percent of their income toward their household costs. The delta between what they can afford and what the fair market rent is would then be subsidized through the Housing Choice voucher. That helps close the gap between current market-rate housing and what individuals can afford based on their household income. DHA then incentivizes private landlords to rent to individuals who may or may not have the income necessary to afford their units but have government subsidies to close the gaps.

The landlords who work in our program are then assured that there would be fair-market rent for their unit in conjunction with leasing to a Housing Choice voucher tenant. That guarantees they can keep those rents, which is what attracts them to the program.

The City of Denver also helps incentivize developers to rent apartments at below-market rents, but that's through the Office of Economic Development, not the Denver Housing Authority.

Derek Woodbury: In exchange for providing financing subsidies for rental development, the city requires affordable property developers to designate a certain number of units as affordable for a set number of years. Occupants of these units must meet income eligibility requirements, as designated by the restrictive covenant established between the city and the property owner. When affordable-home-ownership units are developed with or without city subsidies, an affordability restriction is also placed on the property for a set number of years. Individuals must meet income eligibility requirements upon purchase of the property.

How long can people remain in city-subsidized affordable-housing units?

Derek Woodbury: For income-restricted units there generally are no limitations on how long a resident can remain in these units.

The Sun Valley Gateway project is currently under construction.
The Sun Valley Gateway project is currently under construction.
Anthony Camera

Is there a standard percentage of units that a developer in this circumstance is required to set aside as affordable?

Derek Woodbury: When the city invests into the development or preservation of income-restricted housing units, an agreement with the developer will specify the number of units that must be designated as affordable, the number of years that it will be restricted for, and the amount of city financing provided. While there is no minimum threshold of units in a development that must be affordable to access city subsidies, we typically invest in projects where more than half of the units are affordable.

The city has developer term sheets available, which outline the targeted outcomes for public investment. Subsidies range from $10,000 to $50,000 per income-restricted unit, depending on development type, other financing sources and populations served.

Are developers paid an incentive for doing this, or is it simply part of their cost of doing business in Denver?

Derek Woodbury: In exchange for receiving public financing, developers enter into an agreement with the city to provide a designated number of affordable units for a set number of years.

Denver is also utilizing zoning as an incentive to produce affordable housing at locations such as the 38th and Blake Station Area. In these areas, developers have the option of increasing the allowable height of their project by providing affordable housing units without city subsidies.

What is the overall cost of this program annually?

Derek Woodbury: Denver’s affordable housing investments include subsidizing the construction of new units, subsidizing the preservation of existing income-restricted units, and supporting a range of housing programs and services provided through contracted partners. The amount invested into housing units varies from year to year, based on the number of projects that come forward to the city in need of funding. In 2017, Denver invested $26,188,252 in 1,502 new income-qualified housing units and 259 preservation units, leveraging $429,523,910 of additional private and public resources.

How do people qualify for the Housing Choice voucher program?

Stella Madrid: The Denver Housing Authority, under its Housing Choice voucher program, conducts a lottery annually in the month of September. In 2018, we had 21,000 interest cards submitted. Those cards are entered into the lottery, and as vouchers become available, we randomly pull from them and notify card holders to come in and complete their applications.

How many openings do you have for this housing each year, on average?

Stella Madrid: I think it's safe to say we award anywhere from 200 to 500 annually. And within the public-housing portfolio, using interest cards, we have 12,000 on the waiting list for anywhere from a one-bedroom to a five-bedroom public-housing unit. That amplifies the need for affordable housing.

What is the range of AMI numbers when it comes to affordable housing?

The general spectrum is from 0 percent AMI to 120 percent AMI. But the percentages that we talk about in the financing of affordable housing are generally characterized as below 30 percent. The average median income changes with economic cycles every season. HUD and CHFA [the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority] both publish them, and we work off those.

Ryan Tobin is the chief real estate investment officer for the Denver Housing Authority.
Ryan Tobin is the chief real estate investment officer for the Denver Housing Authority.
Anthony Camera

How much do people for affordable housing in Denver pay?

It varies. The most vulnerable population would make no income, and they would pay 30 percent of that toward housing costs, which in their case would be nothing — and there would also be a utility subsidy. A person in that category might be chronically homeless.

Currently, 30 percent AMI in Denver for a one-bedroom would allow an individual to pay 30 percent of their gross income toward the household cost. The 2018 income limit for 30 percent AMI is $18,900, and rent for a one-bedroom would be $506. For two people at 30 percent AMI, the income limit is $21,600 and rent would be $607.

Can people with a higher average median income still qualify for affordable housing with the Denver Housing Authority?

We build a lot of units under the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program at 50 and 60 AMI. For a Denver household, 50 percent AMI for two people would have an income limit of $36,000.

But we can do up to 80 percent AMI, which is your true definition of affordable housing — 0 to 80 percent AMI. A single person at 80 percent AMI would have an income limit of $50,200, and a two-person household would be $57,600. They run the full spectrum. But the reason behind the federal guidelines is that people will contribute 30 percent of their overall income to household costs, so they'll still have other disposable income to live their lives, save for retirement or those other traditional goals.

Where are some of the newer affordable-housing projects located?

We've built specific housing sites in places like Curtis Park and Mariposa, and we're moving into Sun Valley as well, building affordable housing in those neighborhoods.

Current projects that are underway include Vida at Sloan's on West Colfax: 176 units of senior and non-elderly disabled housing that is anticipated to receive a certificate of occupancy in the fourth quarter of this year. We have 187 units of multi-family housing being constructed in Sun Valley for a project we call Gateway. It's the kickoff of over 800 units of construction we will see happening over the next five years. We anticipate delivery in eighteen to 24 months, so that would put us into the first quarter of 2021. And we have an additional 68 units under construction in the Curtis Park neighborhood. Those are called the Platte Valley Homes. They're a one-off — the completion of twenty years of investment in Curtis Park.

We've also got a footprint throughout the city in multiple forms of housing types and developments: family housing, senior housing, and non-elderly disabled housing, which are the three types of housing we manage with HUD. They serve our population in most communities. [Click to see the complete 2019 list of Denver Housing Authority properties and units.]

Is the Denver Housing Authority ramping up efforts to create more affordable housing?

Generally speaking, the city, through its administration, is helping support that. DHA is only one of many affordable-housing developers in our community. With limited resources, there are only a select few projects that are developed in Denver County in a given year, but everybody is working to preserve them and make sure they maintain financing and affordability over the long term.

In certain circumstances, DHA also helps finance affordable housing and creates partnerships in the private sector. The idea is to preserve affordable-housing opportunities that might otherwise be lost.

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