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Affordable Housing Hard To Come By On Fast Growing Front Range

Joe Mahoney
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News, File

For families seeking affordable housing in Fort Collins, the best option might be to start searching somewhere else. While the city recently announced it would bump up its assistance to $15,000 for qualified families, the stock of homes meeting program criteria is almost nonexistent.

According to a KUNC search of available properties that meet the city's Homebuyer Assistance Program standards (the sale price must be under $237,500), there are 10 available properties in town that fit that requirement.

"Historically, the program has helped up to 40 households a year when there is sufficient affordable inventory," said Beth Rosen, the city's affordable housing administrator. "In 2014, I was only able to assist 8 households. In 2013, I assisted 15."

That's because the few houses for sale in Fort Collins are selling well above that price, making them inaccessible even with significant financial support from the program.

Across the Front Range, from Metro Denver north to Weld County, rapid population growth and a shortage of new housing is leading to increased rents and home prices.

The problem has become large enough that Housing Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing, just launched a website and campaign calling for action to address Colorado's housing crisis. According to their data, one in four renters spend more than 50 percent of their household income on housing.

Most affordable housing experts say a household should spend less than 30 percent of its income on housing. When the ratio rises higher, families and individuals are considered "housing burdened," and spend less on consumer goods -- things like shoes or ski trips.

This in turn hurts the local economy. Municipalities collect less sales tax. Local businesses make fewer sales.

In Weld County, 23,066 households spend more than 30 percent [.pdf] of their income on housing. In Adams County, the number is 45,850 -- one in every three households [.pdf]. According to the Housing Colorado analysis, which is based on U.S. Census data, the additional income Adams County residents were forced to spend on pricey housing meant they had $170 million less to spend on other goods.

Particularly in Colorado, you don't have to be poor to be stuck in unaffordable housing. The hypothetical family of four in the Housing Colorado scenario makes $59,000 a year, not exactly poverty wages. After paying housing and other ordinary bills, they have $29 in extra income.

"When you start looking at their living expenses and living costs, what's left over, it's a scary reality," said Sarah Riopelle, of Housing Colorado.

The speed of Colorado's recovery from the Great Recession is one reason for the problem. For a few years after 2008, no one was building any new houses. Skilled workers left the trade or even the state, said Don May, of the Adams County Housing Authority. Now that housing is making a comeback, it's expensive to build. Construction is partly slowed by the lack of workers.

"A lot of the construction companies are having a real difficult time getting subcontractors and getting employees to work for them," he said.

May also cited the state's problematic construction defects law. The 2005 law made it very easy for homeowners to sue developers over defects, and the exposure to liability has kept condos from being built, developers say.

"The only product being built is high-end housing because they can insure the significant increases for (liability) insurance," said May.

Condos are often an entry-level home purchase for younger families or lower income earners. Since fewer are available, those people are being pushed into the housing or rental market, putting upward pressure on prices.

The state Legislature is considering reforming the construction liability law, although past attempts have failed.

In the meantime, affordable housing options remain few, and demand is much higher than supply. Developers who build affordable housing can apply to get a federal tax credit, but the money for that program is limited, thus limiting the amount of affordable units that get built.

The state also allocated money -- $5 million a year -- for its own low income housing construction tax credit program in 2015 and 2016, although not as much as advocates would like.

In Adams County, May notes the demand for affordable housing -- offered to people at 30, 40, and 50 percent of the area's median income level -- far outstrips supply. The authority only opens to new applications once a year, "and it's fiercely competitive," he said.

"We get a few thousand households [that apply], and the reality is we are only able to help 150 or 200 a year," he said.

May is placing his hope in construction defect law reform and also in the power of awareness -- the more legislators know affordable housing is a problem, the more likely they are to try and do something about it.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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