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HUD chief Ben Carson tours Aurora complex, touts partnerships to ease housing crisis

Author: Ernest Luning - July 31, 2018 - Updated: July 31, 2018

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U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, flanked by U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, left, and Aurora Mayor Bob LeGare, discusses federal housing policy at the HUD-funded Village at Westerly Creek complex in Aurora on Monday, July 30, 2018. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

After meeting with an older couple who sang the praises of their new, affordable rental unit, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson surveyed the view from the fourth-floor deck of the Aurora apartment complex — Pikes Peak barely visible through a slight haze that clung to the foothills — and then paused for a moment to express his delight.

“They’ve got their cable, their internet, their garbage disposals — they’re in good shape,” he said with a melodic laugh.

Accompanied by U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and Aurora Mayor Bob LeGare, Carson on Monday extolled the partnerships behind the Villages at Westerly Creek, a $50 million development that replaced 120 aging public-housing units with nearly 200 apartments for seniors and families with low incomes.

“It really goes to show what can be done when you plan it out well and when you spend time learning from other things that did not work well, and, more importantly, when you have public-private partnerships, when you have a conglomerate of different entities that focus on the problem,” the soft-spoken Carson told reporters after touring the site. “That helps with affordability and it helps with the long-term maintenance of the project.”

During the hour-long visit, Carson discussed the Trump administration’s approach to tackling a multi-faceted housing crisis.

“I think it’s a solvable problem,” Carson said. “It’s a big win for the tenants and for the community when you have private-sector entities that have a vested interest in the success of the community.”

The Aurora Housing Authority’s Villages at Westerly Creek development — scheduled to finish construction and reach full occupancy this fall — was financed by a combination of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and a federal grant program, according to a HUD official.

Carson also hailed Opportunity Zones, a new federal program created by the massive tax reform legislation passed late last year by Congress, which allow investors to realize tax benefits by sinking capitol into projects in designated rural and low-income urban communities.

Days earlier, a scathing New York Times article criticized Carson and his department for sitting “on the sidelines” amid a mounting housing crunch affecting millions. Among HUD’s responses, the Times reported, was a plan unveiled in April to triple the rent for more than 700,000 of the poorest renters receiving federal assistance while raising the maximum rent paid by 4.5 million others.

Carson dismissed the Times’ characterization of his proposal.

“You should take with a grain of salt anything you read in the New York Times, OK?” he said, drawing a hearty laugh from Coffman. “Has there been a proposal to have people who are paying minimum rents of $25-$50 to put a little more skin in the game? Yes. It’s the beginning of the discussion, because we’re talking about the ability to sustain these programs.”

But Carson insisted that wasn’t the most important component of the rental reform proposal.

Housing officials also want to determine income eligibility across a three-year period, instead of just looking at a single year’s income, he said, “so that people are not discouraged from taking a raise, people are not discouraged from getting married or bringing in another income-earning person into the setting.

“We’ve also made sure with any rental increases that we protect the elderly and disabled people,” Carson said, adding that the focus of the program will be people he termed “work-able.”

“Now is really the best time to get work-able people out there, because there are jobs, jobs that are going begging for people, training programs,” he said. “Real compassion is not patting people on the head and saying, ‘There, there, you poor little thing.’ Real compassion is giving them an opportunity to realize the American dream.”

The key to creating more affordable housing, Carson said, is eliminating “huge regulatory burdens” and other restrictions, such as zoning, that stand in the way.

Coffman said after the tour he expects Colorado’s Opportunity Zones — the federal government certified 126 of them across the state earlier this year — should make a big difference, but he expressed skepticism the government is doing enough.

“I’m very concerned about the questions that we have here in Colorado — in Aurora and in this congressional district, that we do have a housing crisis, particularly a rental crisis in terms of the amount people are playing relative to their income for rent, and we have to have relief on that,” he told reporters.

Asked whether Carson understands the housing difficulties facing Colorado residents, Coffman, a Republican, nodded and then shook his head.

“I think he gets it in terms of expanding the programs that he talked about today that are under his department, but we need more than that from this administration. We need more from Congress,” he said and then mentioned bipartisan legislation he’s sponsored to help first-time homebuyers come up with a down payment for a home.

Coffman’s Democratic challenger, attorney Jason Crow, used the occasion of Carson’s visit to release his own affordable housing plan, which his campaign said “creates a stark contrast with the negligent approach favored by Rep. Mike Coffman and the Trump administration.”

Crow’s proposal includes increasing federal housing assistance programs, particularly for the middle class in expensive areas, as well as requiring banks to provide financing for all qualified borrowers and legislation to prohibit discrimination against offenders who’ve served their time.

“Tackling Colorado’s affordability crisis is the most important step we can take to keep our state a great place to live, work and play,” Crow said in a statement provided by his campaign. “Restoring and expanding affordable housing stocks will keep our economy humming and safeguard our social fabric. When teachers, firefighters, and health care workers live in the communities they serve, we all win.”

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.