Philanthropic Group Raises $24 Million to Provide 700 Affordable Homes in Denver

Nearly three hours into the December 7 meeting of Mayor Hancock’s Housing Advisory Committee, Dave Younggren, CEO of Gary Community Investments, made a surprise announcement: A coalition of investors and foundations have come together, on their own, and committed $24 million to create the Elevation Community Land Trust, which aims to provide 700 affordable-housing units in the next five years — first in metro Denver, and later throughout the state.

That Younggren announced the program at the HAC meeting was no coincidence. He wants the city to be a partner in the land trust, which works by buying up parcels of land and selling deeds to the houses on top of that land (thereby taking land appreciation out of the equation and enabling perpetual affordability).

Before Younggren's announcement, the HAC, which for months has been advising the mayor on Denver’s five-year-plan to address Denver’s housing crisis, had heard from other groups, including All In Denver, a nonprofit that wants an affordable-housing bond on the 2018 ballot, and two other groups working on land trusts.

Usually, large housing funds built through public-private partnerships are initiated by the “public” side of the equation: government bodies like cities or states.

The Elevation Community Land Trust — funded by Gary Community Investments, the Colorado Health Foundation, Bohemian Foundation, Gates Family Foundation, the Denver Foundation, Mile High United Way and Northern Trust — started from the other direction, securing the private funding first.

That process apparently took a long time.

Younggren says that the land trust has been in the works for nearly a year and a half and was organized independently of the City of Denver.

"All our partners already do some form of work in the community, and we had a discussion about how affordable housing is so difficult,” Younggren explains. "We thought what was missing was not only affordability, but home ownership. Fortunately, there are 280 land trusts nationally, so there's lots of models to look at."

Drawing on expertise from the Urban Land Conservancy — one of the partners in the Elevation Community Land Trust — Younggren says the group created multiple models of land trusts and conducted studies of their long-term viability. They settled on a plan that uses a “scattered site model” — housing throughout a metro area rather than concentrated in a single neighborhood — and is overseen by a governing board that includes homeowners and community members. The properties will be a combination of existing homes and new builds.

The next step was securing the money.

"We talked about sequencing, and we thought it was really important that we first find out: Is the private funding available to seed and catalyze a platform like this? We know that it takes a public-private partnership, but we thought it's difficult to go to the public resources without the private partners actually committing."

Younggren says that the group absolutely needs public funding — approximately $30,000 per affordable unit to make the model sustainable — but it wasn't ready to approach the City of Denver until this week.

Not that the City of Denver was totally in the dark, Younggren adds.

"We had some preliminary discussions with them this summer — a few months ago — but we hadn't secured all the private commitments yet. And until then, we didn't want to go public,” he explains. “We just got our final approval from the last foundation on [Tuesday], so [Thursday's HAC meeting] was our first chance to say, 'Hey this is what we have.' And we're hoping that out of this comes a significant commitment to this public-private partnership. We thought Denver's been really creative with their 150 million fund, so they're the logical place for us to go to.”

No commitments have been made by the city yet, but Younggren's presentation immediately set HAC members buzzing. Now there is yet another consideration to make in the not-yet-finalized plan to tackle Denver's housing crisis.

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