HUDSON | Solutions continue to elude us on affordable housing

Author: Miller Hudson - July 13, 2018 - Updated: July 13, 2018

Miller Hudson

Most of us experience confusion with the muddle of terminology surrounding affordable versus public housing. For the most part, public housing is a distinct subset within the affordable housing rubric. Nonetheless, a blurry line separates those whose economic circumstance requires public housing assistance from the fully employed who simply can’t locate housing they can afford.

For nearly a century Colorado communities have acknowledged the necessity of providing a limited stock of publicly funded housing units for those with disabilities or poverty incomes. More recently school boards in our resort communities have found themselves financing housing units for teachers whose middle-class incomes fail to match market rentals. This is clearly a public housing demand of a different order.

Several hours spent recently meeting with Colorado’s homebuilders provided an eye-opening tutorial regarding current market dynamics. The phrase “…suffering from economic success” caught my attention. The combination of housing demand, driven by a hundred net new residents arriving each and every day, together with the burden of regulatory mandates, zoning requirements and building codes makes it nearly impossible to offer new units along the Front Range for less than $300,000. Yet, nearly 40% of our state workforce cannot qualify for mortgage financing at this level. Young and blue-collar families require housing entry more in the range of $200,000, plus or minus. It was hoped the passage of House Bill 1279 in 2017, lifting the threat of frivolous construction defect lawsuits, might jumpstart the construction of more affordable condos and townhouses. That has not been the case.

When asked whether the legislation itself was defective, builders stated that it had proven “incomplete” — that it didn’t go far enough. At this point reliance on the magic of the marketplace isn’t likely to prove successful. While homebuilders would be delighted to construct affordable housing if they could turn a profit in the process, without subsidies, either directly or through rebates or land transfers, our housing crisis is likely to get far worse before it gets better. Colorado has a checkered track record with blue ribbon panels and bi-partisan commissions charged with tackling health care costs, traffic congestion, tax revenues and water challenges. For the most part their recommendations, however reasonable, have largely been ignored. Despite this history, perhaps it would be wise to give the process another try, relying on actual stakeholders to craft policy proposals this time around.

It’s debatable whether the provision of affordable housing is a government responsibility. Yet when the market fails, it seems a matter of common sense that government should intervene on behalf of citizens. A place to start that should earn consensus support could be to move government out of the way of those who are willing to tackle the problem. Manufactured housing may offer an interim solution, but not when local communities demand that trailer parks be located elsewhere. BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone) politics corrodes our prosperity more surely than greed. It’s always possible to kill the goose that has been laying Colorado’s golden eggs. Access to homes new residents can be proud of scores well ahead of worries about traffic congestion, underfunded schools or over priced colleges and universities.

Several years ago the Denver Housing Authority rebuilt the aging Lincoln housing project at the east end of the Colfax viaduct. These refurbished units were outfitted with solar panels to reduce utility costs. Undoubtedly there was a little climate change politics in the decision to install sustainability features in a public housing project. Then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro attended the 2016 ribbon cutting. Residents enthusiastically swarmed him to express their heartfelt appreciation for an opportunity to participate in a “green development.”

Inclusion of cutting-edge technology has saved on more than utility bills. It incentivized tenants to take pride in their apartments — to feel a part of the commitment to a more sustainable community. When you drive by the Lincoln homes today, you can tell these units are being well maintained and, somewhat unexpectedly, the grounds have proven cleaner and safer than in many legacy housing projects.

It may even make you wonder why you can’t find similar townhomes, close to downtown, at a price you could afford? Better yet, ask your candidates for the Legislature.

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at mnhwriter@msn.com.