Construction Watch

Denver's Affordable Housing Committee: We Deserve a C-

Lots of last-minute edits are being made to Denver's housing plan.
Lots of last-minute edits are being made to Denver's housing plan. Creative Commons / Flickr user Nic McPhee
Denver's housing crisis is coming to a head. A recent study suggests that the city’s shortage of housing will peak at 32,000 apartments and homes during 2018, keeping rent, well, too damn high.

As Westword explained in a December 5 cover story, the city’s main response to the housing crunch is a five-year plan called “Housing an Inclusive Denver,” which utilizes a $15 million-a-year fund that was approved by Denver City Council in 2016.

But now that amount of funding, and the urgency with which it’s being deployed, is being heavily criticized – not only by the public and nonprofits like All In Denver, but also by members of city council and the Mayor’s Housing Advisory Committee (HAC).

The Mayor’s Office was initially implacable when it came to raising more money for affordable housing through voter-approved bonds, citing concerns about negatively affecting Denver’s credit rating and burdening taxpayers.

But at city council and HAC meetings this week, the Hancock administration seemed to have changed its tune, at least by promising to consider bolstering funding for affordable housing. If the city supported a half-mill levy tax proposed by All In Denver, for example, it would add about $300 million in funding for affordable housing, completely changing the scope and rollout of the housing plan.

That has created an awkward situation: The five-year-plan is catapulting toward consideration by city council on February 20, but many aspects of the plan — not only the amount of funding it can access, but even some of its core ideas like subsidizing luxury units to house low-income residents — are coming under scrutiny.

The public, too, has become increasingly engaged with the issue, as demonstrated by recent events like the massive Gentrification Summit on January 13 that grew out of the Ink! Coffee controversy. One of the main topics of conversation at the summit was how to pressure the city to aggressively counteract displacement.

Finding itself under pressure from all sides, the Hancock administration appears to have opened up its housing plan to revisions and additional considerations like raising money through a housing bond next election. The problem is that it’s pretty late in the game to make such sweeping changes.

All of this raises a central question: What were the city council and the HAC doing while the Mayor’s Office was putting together its big plan last year?

click to enlarge
At Thursday's HAC meeting, Councilwoman Robin Kniech said she thought the group was too large to be effective.
Chris Walker
At a HAC meeting on Thursday, some of its 23 members — a mixture of politicos, nonprofit representatives and individuals from the private sector — voiced frustration about not having their advice heard by the Hancock administration, even though the mayor formed the body over a year ago specifically to advise on the housing plan.

There is enough consternation that the HAC is bringing in an independent facilitator, Carolyn Love from Kebaya Consulting, so that she can figure out what, exactly, the group's role and powers are.

At Thursday’s meeting, Robin Kniech, the sole city council member on the HAC, looked and sounded exasperated. After sitting through a long and testy exchange between a couple of HAC members about gentrification and race-based displacement, Kniech declared, “We are now having a 45-minute open conversation not on our agenda.” She then pointed out that the HAC had way too many members to conform to what she called “best practices.” She concluded, “If we just sit here and brainstorm [without an agenda], we’ll be ground into irrelevance.”

Another HAC member characterized the group's accomplishments (or lack there of) during 2017 this way: “It felt like we just turned in our first homework assignment and we got a C-.”

Among the goals not met was forming and approving a 2018 "action plan" for tackling the housing crisis. HAC members did establish that they want their concerns over funding and parts of the plan, like the LIVE program, to be incorporated in the final version approved by Denver City Council.

Expect a lot of lobbying, posturing and last-minute changes during the next few months, especially after the first read-through of the plan by city council on February 20.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker