The rent is too damn high. The idea of buying a home seems a joke for more Denverites as property values continue to rise. And lower-income families are getting displaced out of neighborhoods that they’ve lived in for decades.
There’s no question that affordable housing — or the lack of it — is the topic du jour in Denver right now, and next week, Denver City Council will see its first full reading of an extensive affordable-housing plan that’s been in the works for more than a year. By partnering with the Denver Housing Authority and increasing the city’s sales tax on marijuana (from 3.5 percent to 5.5 percent, effective as early as October), the plan aims to deploy about $30 million annually over five years to create or preserve approximately 6,400 dedicated affordable housing units.
Denver City Council is expected to approve the plan, which is scheduled for votes on August 20 and August 27. Before that happens, we caught up with Councilwoman At-Large Robin Kniech, who has been the council’s representative on the mayor’s Housing Advisory Committee and has seen a lot of the considerations — and challenges — in putting the affordable-housing plan together. Kniech is careful to not take credit for the plan — she says the Hancock administration was the driving force behind it — but during this conversation, she took us through some of the decision-making that went into the plan before it comes up for reading and votes in the coming weeks.
Westword: The decision to increase marijuana taxes completely changed the nature and the scale of this plan, doubling it in size from $15 million to $30 million in spending a year. Was it difficult to get members of the cannabis industry on board?
Robin Kniech: I did not take this idea to the industry personally — the [Hancock] administration did the negotiating — so I didn't hear their first impressions. But I will say I haven’t received a single oppositional statement as a councilmember.
I think it's a moderate tax increase; we don't want to tax marijuana too much to the point where we drive folks back to the black market. So I feel we're still in the sweet spot here.
And I want to commend the [cannabis] industry. Right now, people can't really see where marijuana taxes are going. I think the cannabis industry has struggled as well with the idea that their industry is creating resources for Denver and they can't show exactly where it's going — it gets spread out to policing, to roads, to all sorts of things. So I think it's helpful for them to be able to point to where the funds are going — for housing. I do appreciate their support or acquiescence to this, whichever it may be.
What were some of the challenges in putting this plan together?
The administration is the one that really came up with this plan, so I can't speak to what it thinks the biggest challenges were. But as a city, I think the biggest challenge was trying to figure out: How big should the plan be?
We know that when we built 1,200 units of housing last year — the most the city has ever built in one year — that we helped thousands of people who wouldn't have had help otherwise. But what we don't know is: What's the tipping point for the amount of money at which you could solve the issue? We don't build walls around cities. So how do you manage the fact that you have continuing growth? How do you manage which income levels to invest in? So I think our biggest challenge as a city is not that we're doing things that don't work; they absolutely are helping thousands of families. It's that the scale of them isn't necessarily changing the market. And that is something that every city [in the country] is dealing with.
What I'm guessing you'll hear at some point is: This is an important, robust package. But you'll also have someone on Twitter, someone on Facebook or someone in the media comment: “Well, it's a drop in the bucket, and it's not going to solve the problem.”
And I think my answer to that is: We know it will have an impact for thousands of more people than it would have impacted if we didn't spend it. It doesn't mean we don't continue to look for the next strategy. For me, that's making sure eviction defense keeps getting funded. It's to see the source-of-income bill implemented that we just passed. So that's the biggest challenge. It's helping folks understand that we can impact the issue and grow that impact with each of these steps, but not about seeking silver bullets or magic wands. This doesn't happen like that.
Right. As you pointed out, it would appear that Denver will still grow for a while. The city's recent Deveright plan assumes a population of nearly 900,000 by 2040, so this issue does not look to be going away and may even become more dire. Meanwhile, you can't just keep increasing marijuana taxes to fund future affordable housing. So are there any ideas for finding future funding that haven't been exhausted?
I think we'll have to have a conversation about a voter-approved bond measure at some point.
So how do you address criticism from people who pointed to the $937.5 million in General Obligation bonds that voters passed last November, with no money earmarked for affordable housing? Should affordable housing have been included in those GO bonds to make this plan even more robust?
[During the formation of this plan], nonprofits like All in Denver really prompted the city to learn about general obligation bonds for housing in a way that we never would have without them pushing us. I took that challenge and led the work to analyze the bonding options — both legally and financially. One thing that we learned is that there are different kinds of bonding. The kind that we did in the [$937.5 million] GO bond package is only for city-owned facilities. So we couldn't have done affordable housing with the other bonds [voters approved last November] dealing with transportation and all those other things. And that's something I didn't totally understand last year. This is where I credit the community: that when it is raising questions, even if the answers turn out slightly different than they expected, this is an example of the community influencing government in a really positive way.
What other things did you look for in the plan to gain your approval?
You've got to have four legs of a stool. Leg one is building and preserving dedicated affordable units that people have to qualify for based on their income. The second is getting people access to existing units — that's vouchers, the LIVE program, the source-of-income bill I just passed. The third strategy is keeping people stable — that's eviction prevention, home repairs, all the things you do to make sure someone is stabilized where they are. The fourth thing is that overall supply does matter. But that isn't just about growth, period. Anyone who promises that growing the number of units at the market rate is going to solve the housing crisis without the other three legs of the stool is wrong. But having growth near transit and some of the main thoroughfares — like we identified in the Denveright plan — are important.
Do you think there are any weaknesses in this proposed affordable-housing plan?
The weakness is that there is a general fund transfer that has no guarantee attached to it. It's a promise to transfer money each year, but there's no way to make it last after the current administration, and even then, there’s the concern that hard times come with competing priorities. I would feel better about the package if the general fund transfer were secured by a dedicated mil or some other piece. You may see some feedback from others about that. I share the concern. But it is outweighed by the benefits. I will also be watching.
I understand that there's a limit on the size of each parcel of land that can be acquired by the Denver Housing Authority under the plan — a maximum of three acres. Can you explain why that is? Because some critics think that limit may be arbitrary.
It's important to know that the director of the Office of Economic Development can waive that limit, so it's not a hard limit. My understanding is that the intent is to have neighborhood-scale projects. What we don't want is DHA buying big parcels and redeveloping a whole area. You don't want, for example, 500 units in a very tight, single-parceled area. But if there's a four- or five-acre parcel and it's opportunistic, we shouldn't pass that up. But it shouldn't be DHA exclusively planning that — we should have a conversation. By having the OED director in there, you can have conversations about the larger parcels.
What are some of the greatest strengths of the plan, in your opinion?
I think it’s a pro that we’re using marijuana taxes for housing.
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The second big theme, and I think this was important to the community voices that came forward, is the idea of bringing money up front. We have bonding from the Denver Housing Authority, and I think the administration was creative in identifying their capacity to do that — to have this $105 million from DHA coming up front.
There's also a good focus on low-income families. We've seen some supportive housing providers waiting in the wings, just trying to find land. And I think having some funding and a proactive system for getting that land will be helpful for more supportive housing. I think we've had the capacity; we just haven't had the land.
Do you expect the plan to pass without any issues at city council?