Falling Behind: Colorado Latinos hit hard by state’s shrinking affordable housing
Author: Tom Ramstack - September 11, 2017 - Updated: February 7, 2018
Marielena Suarez worries about whether she can find another house to rent in the Denver area at an affordable
She used to have her own apartment but the region’s rising rents forced her to move into a leased house with her
mother, her sister and her sister’s two children.
“Why don’t we help each other?” Marielena quoted her sister as saying. But even pulling together isn’t enough to save the family from being displaced.
The homeowner recently notified Suarez’s family he was selling the four-bedroom house where they live, and they could only marvel at the estimated half-million dollar price.
Although the pinch of rising housing prices is spread across Colorado, it often digs deeper for Latino residents, many
with predominantly blue collar wages that are falling further behind the cost of living.
About 38 percent of Denver area residents rent their housing, according to the online real estate information service Trulia. But among all ethnic groups, Latinos overwhelmingly had the highest percentage of renters, about 65
At their current location, Marielena and her family pay $2,400 monthly rent and $400 in utilities — mostly from the sisters’ wages as home health nurses. Marielena Suarez earns about $42,000 a year.
Four years ago, a comparable house in her south Denver neighborhood rented for $1,400 a month, she said.
“It’s crazy what’s going on nowadays,” the 33-year-old single mother said, in a complaint being echoed throughout Denver, the Colorado General Assembly and hearing rooms of Congress. “You get home and sometimes you can
spend time with your little one, but it’s rush, rush, rush.”
Her first appointments caring for senior citizens and disabled persons can start as early as 5 a.m. and sometimes stretch to 8 p.m. The sisters try to increase their income by working more hours and “trying to find coupons like crazy,” Suarez said.
Other rental houses of the same size and price the family found are far out in the suburbs. They say
their commute time into Denver could be as much as an hour.
“Things just don’t seem to get better,” Suarez said.
Latinos make up about one-third of Denver’s population and just over 21 percent of Colorado residents.
For renters, the cost of living is an increasingly heavy toll.
The Consumer Price Index for the Denver-Boulder-Greeley metropolitan area rose 3.1 percent from the first half of 2016 to the first half of 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Housing had the greatest impact, jumping 5.3 percent year-to-year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.
Meanwhile, blue collar wages remained close to flat.
“I would say most populations of color are being disproportionately impacted,” said Andrea Chiriboga-Flor, housing organizer for 9to5 Colorado, a nonprofit organization that advocates for women in the workplace. “Language barriers also pose a significant barrier when it comes to housing.”
Spanish speaking renters, for example, often struggle with lenghty, complicated leases written in English,
“You are obviously more likely to not be fully aware when you are violating your lease, making it easier for you to be evicted,” she said.
9to5 produced a study recently on Colorado’s affordable housing crisis, citing neighborhood gentrification and stagnant wages.
Boulder was rated Colorado’s most expensive rental market in a survey last year by the National Multifamily Housing Council, with a two-bedroom apartment averaging $2,010 a month. Broomfield, Denver, Golden and Highlands Ranch reported rents only slightly lower than Boulder.
The most affordable two-bedroom apartments for urban areas came in just under $1,000 a month in Colorado Springs, Grand Junction, Greeley, Loveland and Pueblo.
More than 25 percent of Denver’s workforce earns $12 an hour or less, according to the Colorado Fiscal
Institute, a Denver-based think tank on economic issues. A fast food worker would need to work at least 61 hours a week to live in a single family residence in the Denver area.
The same worker would need 114 hours per week to support themselves and a child.
“We are seeing a serious lack of affordable housing statewide,” said Jacque Montgomery, spokesman
for Gov. John Hickenlooper.
“The state is working very hard to support the increase of affordable housing units by investing in development
partnerships. We are also enhancing the voucher programs to help folks with monthly payments. And then there is the new funding from last session that is being used to increase units.”
One of the driving forces behind Denver’s rising rents is the Regional Transportation District’s FasTracks project, the multi-billion, multi-routed light rail initiative to upgrade public transportation.
While widely-hailed for spurring development and for someday, hopefully, alleviating traffic congestion, the lines have led to displacement, affordable housing advocates say.
“Much of the land acquired for the buildout runs through low income communities and communities of color,” the 9to5 report states of the West Line, specifically, from downtown Denver to Golden.
“Most of the rail stations also have comprehensive plans that include high density housing developments
and amenities that drive up housing costs and cater to middle income residents new to the area, rather than the original communities.”
Within a year of the West Line opening, rental rates and property values shot up along the route. Developers started buying up old properties near rail stations to replace them with new restaurants, grocery stores, child care centers
and other services.
Some landlords neglected maintenance in anticipation of selling out or they raised rents to capitalize on greater demand near the stations, according to the 9to5 report.
“Community members described significant pressure to leave their neighborhood,” the 9to5 report said.
The new transit and real estate developments created more jobs but the wages for most of the workers who were hired stayed the same as before the fast-paced gentrification, according to the report.
Another area impacted by gentrification is the old U.S. 40 “motel strip” along Colfax Avenue in Aurora. The strip has provided housing for hundreds of Latino families for years. The buildout of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus just north of the strip has been one pressure point on the old time motels.
The Colfax Community Network, a nonprofit organization that supports displaced families, organized a fundraising campaign for residents of the King’s Inn Motor Hotel after the new owners sharply raised rents. The money is supposed to help the families pay their first month’s rent if they find new homes, but the donated funds were only a temporary fix for the displaced families and other residents.
Shelters and transitional housing are they only way to hold off homelessness for some of the families, according to advocates for the motel strip residents. Another way is to pack more people into a residence.
A divorce and limited income compelled Maria de Luna her to move in with her daughter, Elizabeth Kilburn, at a Denver apartment in the Park Hill neighborhood. The two women pooled their money to pay the $1,145 a month
rent. Maria works for a nonprofit organization while Elizabeth moves between different jobs as a Spanish interpreter.
Their Denver rent has been increasing steadily but their wages stay the same. If they had moved into their apartment a month earlier, their rent would have been $65 a month less.
“We were only left with $145 to buy groceries, to buy milk and my son’s diapers,” Kilburn said. Her
son is nine months old. Her husband is stationed in South Korea for his stint in the Army.
They thought about moving to a cheaper apartment in the suburbs but determined that the cost of commuting to work would gobble up any savings in rent.
Cities tackle the crisis
Government programs for helping renters vary from city to city in Colorado and elsewhere.
Denver has one of the nation’s most aggressive programs, which has included building 3,000 affordable housing units that were completed this summer. They consist of 2,865 apartments and 149 for-sale affordable homes.
Affordable housing is generally defined as being no greater than 30 percent of household income.
Denver is helping to fund another 1,500 affordable housing units in 16 developments across the city.
Erik Solivan, director of Denver’s Office of Housing and Opportunities Everywhere (HOPE), described
the city’s efforts as “pushing multiple levers to steer local housing markets to expand affordable housing.”
When Mayor Michael Hancock organized the Office of HOPE last year, he sought to integrate the city’s housing investments with job and health programs. Hancock also led creation of a revolving loan fund to promote housing options.
The fund helps to finance rent buy-down programs, eviction assistance and to support development of more affordable housing.
This year, Hancock is promoting a program to connect families with affordable housing options. The main federal programs on affordable housing are the the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and the Section 8 rental assistance
program. LIHTC gives real estate developers and investors billions of dollars in tax credits nationally to
build housing for low-income residents. Section 8 has the effect of subsidizing affordable housing.
Even so, Solivan said the federal government could help low and moderate income housing efforts by discontinuing the “practice of national housing policies that prohibit the flexibility needed by localities.”
Colorado Springs is developing a mapping tool to help real estate developers in their quest for the LIHTC tax credits and other funds. The tool identifies neighborhoods that could qualify for affordable housing assistance based on residents’ incomes, the age of housing stock, job concentrations and percentages of homeowners compared with renters.
“Developers will be able to use the mapping tool to support their applications for federal funding, which is often critical to providing cash flow for affordable housing projects,” said Jamie R. Fabos, a city of Colorado Springs communications officer.
The city plans to open 240 affordable housing units in the fall.
Food or rent
Any relief from rising rents could not come soon enough for Raymunda Carrion, who worries about the upcoming turn of weather as summer fades and fall brings a chill to her Denver home.
Winter means higher heating bills on a budget that already requires her and her husband, Francisco,
to pay over half their income for housing.
Their rent jumped from $600 a month for her two-bedroom, one bathroom duplex in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood to $1,070 a month in one year. Heat, electricity and telephone add almost $600 more.
“We have to limit what we eat,” says the mother of three children.
One of her children requires medicine and treatment for lupus, sometimes forcing her to choose between paying for housing or dialysis for her adult child.
She works as a cook during the day while her husband is employed as a meatpacker. They tried finding a less expensive apartment but soon discovered none were available.
Her landlord recently told her that when her lease expires next July, her rent will go to $1,145 a month, leaving her to wonder how she would pay.
“I don’t know,” she said. “That’s what I’m wondering, what I’m going to do.”