Twelve months of meetings. Discussion among members about parliamentary procedure and committee positions. Hours spent debating the nuances of terms like “gentrification.” Listening to reports from Denver’s Office of Economic Development. Public comment sessions. Presentations from community groups about how Denver should tackle its affordable-housing crisis.
But despite all of that, Mayor Hancock's Housing Advisory Committee is still unclear on its role and powers.
That was apparent last Thursday, December 7, at the conclusion of a five-hour meeting of the HAC, which was formed in January with the understanding that the 23-person committee of city officials, service providers and housing experts would advise the city on affordable housing.
The existential questions arose at Thursday's meeting after a surprise announcement by a philanthropic group of investors that they had independently secured $24 million to provide 700 affordable units to Denverites in the next five years. The coalition of foundations and nonprofits forming the Elevation Community Land Trust is approaching the City of Denver to be a public partner, and asked the HAC for its land trust to be included in the city’s forthcoming five-year housing plan.
After the announcement, however, committee members realized that they weren’t sure whether they had the power to recommend city investments — let alone specific dollar amounts of public funds.
“I don’t think we make investment decisions,” Councilwoman Robin Kniech said, citing the specific ordinance that created the committee.
Kniech's statement led others on the committee to start questioning the group's role.
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“We’re uncertain what we can do with what we were addressed with today,” pointed out Heather Lafferty, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver and the HAC’s vice chair. "I personally don’t think we have a lot of influence.”
Lafferty explained that she thought that the five-year-housing plan that HAC has advised on was put together “very quickly” — and mostly outside the purview of the committee's members.
Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless agreed that she felt that certain parts of the wide-ranging housing plan are essentially being drafted in private inside the mayor’s office, then dictated to the HAC.
“We haven’t had an opportunity to discuss the LIVE program. It was basically just told to us by the city,” Alderman pointed out.
The comments by Alderman and Lafferty echo problems that have plagued other committees started by Mayor Hancock. In 2015 and 2016, some members of the city’s Commission on Homelessness complained that they weren’t being properly advised — or listened to — when it came to policies like the urban camping ban and homeless sweeps.
“If we want to see things happen, we’re going to have to put in more time,” proposed board chair Kevin Marchman. “Otherwise, we would have wasted the last twelve months.”
While the HAC was supposed to discuss the creation of subcommittees on Thursday, that idea was quickly thrown out once it became clear that the main committee needs to decide what it is first.
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Member Cris White, who is also executive director of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, proposed that the HAC bring in an independent mediator to settle some of the confusion. “Otherwise, we’re going to be twisting in the wind,” he said.
That motion was quickly approved by other members.
Erik Soliván, director of the city's Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere program, says the HAC will continue to evolve.
"During this initial year, the Housing Advisory Committee continues to evolve and refine, under the ordinance, its role in providing advice and recommendations on policies and programs geared toward preserving and increasing affordable housing in Denver," Soliván wrote in an email. "The committee informed the creation of the Five Year Housing Plan and will continue to gather information about programs and policies that expand and preserve affordability in Denver from the community, staff, stakeholders and partners. With guidance from the City Attorney’s Office and an independent facilitator, we look forward to further refining the committee’s role in addressing the city’s most pressing needs. The conversation at the end of the HAC [meeting] on Thursday reflected this continuing work."