Last week, I reviewed what Lyons lost more than six years ago in the flood and affordable housing efforts since then. Summit Housing Group has been working on a proposal to build 40 affordable rentals in Lyons Valley Park, which would make some progress in replacing the nearly 100 homes destroyed. But so far, the only affordable housing added to Lyons since the flood are four Habitat for Humanity affordable homes (two duplexes), with two more (one duplex) still under construction.
Our entire Lyons community faces challenges because of the lack of affordable housing. Affordable housing needs across the state are more complex, and might be more daunting. But maybe there’s something we can learn from other communities as we address this issue together.
What is affordable housing, and why is it a challenge here in Colorado?
When people say “affordable housing” they usually mean something ranging from “housing that I can afford” to “housing that my family members can afford (grown children starting out on their own, for example, or older relatives on fixed incomes)” to “housing that people with working-class jobs can afford.”
I typically reference federal housing funding that measures income levels as percentages of the area median income (AMI). For example, rentals built with Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) funding require rents to be affordable for households at 60 percent AMI or less. The AMI changes every year, and varies depending on the number of people in a household, but you can download recent Colorado County Income and Rent Tables here. Homes built with these kinds of federal affordable housing funding have restrictions in place to ensure long-term affordability for future renters or homeowners.
Housing that is “affordable” should cost no more than a third of a household’s monthly income. According to Home Wanted and their Expanding Access to Diverse Housing for Our Community report, “A home is considered ‘affordable’ if a household spends no more than 30% of income on rent or mortgage.” Examples in the report include a family of two with a household income of 60% AMI (like a plumber who earns $45,000 a year and has one child) with an affordable rent of no more than $1,190 a month. The same household could afford a home valued at $215,000 or lower (assuming a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage with a 20% down payment and a monthly mortgage payment of $1,045).
At the “Squeezed Out: Challenges of Diversity and Affordability in Colorado Communities” conference at the University of Colorado conference this past fall, speakers from across the Denver metro area described a common problem. A booming economy and high demand attracts investors to housing, driving up prices for rentals and homes for sale.
“Since rents went so high in Boulder, the return is best for investors, which pushes out people in the middle income even,” said Korkut Onaran of Pel Ona Architects and Urbanists. “There is a housing supply, but it is above the area median income.”
Irene Aguilar of the City of Denver Neighborhood Equity & Stabilization Team said developers in Denver are building more to the higher-income market. She said people are pushed out in areas vulnerable to gentrification, where there are lower median incomes, where fewer people own homes, and where there are few people with bachelor’s degrees. “The root cause is basically income inequality,” she said. “Look at who has money and who doesn’t.”
“A real problem is that wages haven’t risen at the rate of housing [costs],” said Tony Chacon, Redevelopment & Revitalization Manager at the City of Longmont. Chacon presented at least eight factors contributing to the housing dilemma in the region. Supply has not kept up with demand, and costs of commodities, land, and construction labor continue to rise, he said. Also, people move within cities and neighborhoods, driving up costs in other neighborhoods. Then, when the housing market gets really hot, he said, people are less likely to move, so fewer homes are available. The economy is naturally cyclical, but governments don’t take advantage of opportunities in economic down cycles (for example by buying land when it is cheaper), Chacon said. He also cited “neglecting housing as an integral component of economic development planning and policy” as a factor.
Why we need everyone at the table
I often hear people talk about how Lyons isn’t the same as it used to be. We know that’s true in the years since the flood, as we recall neighbors who have moved away. This dilemma about how newcomers relate with old-time residents is a problem across the region as well, but I learned that we don’t have to sit by and become bitter. We can take positive action.
“When neighborhoods change, the community history gets sanitized,” said Nita Mosby Tyler of The Equity Project, LLC. She advised that communities should define their assets: the people who were in the community before the community changed. “Newcomers don’t know the history. We can’t sanitize history, lived experiences, in the process of being inclusive,” she said.
Tyler suggested that communities develop tools to invite everyone to participate, and that individuals and community groups ask people directly what they would need to feel welcome. She also said that newcomers, especially those with more wealth or social status who are told “you don’t belong here” by neighbors, shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. “There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I really want to be here. Help me understand what you mean,'” she said.
Next week: More ideas we can try here in Lyons