Fear of “war on suburbs” may convince Jefferson County to reject $1.7 million for affordable housing, other programs

An opposition group argues that accepting federal money will mean Jefferson County will be forced to “gentrify” by building low-income housing.
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Construction at the future site of the Speer Boulevard Lofts. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; development; real estate; kevinjbeaty; civic center; golden triangle; colorado; construction;

Jefferson County's three commissioners have a big decision to make on Tuesday: Will they accept $1.7 million from the federal government that could help ease the housing crisis?

Update: After hours of very interesting debate, they took the money.

The money is available for the creation of housing for people with low incomes, as well as rental assistance, sidewalk construction and more across Jeffco and its municipalities.

Governments across the metro often have accepted the money with little hesitation, but a local advocacy group, AFFH.net Opposition Group, appears to be gaining traction in its campaign against the federal affordability program. AFFH.net warns the money is part of a "war on the suburbs" that aims to force Jeffco to build dense housing. One legal expert describes that as a misreading of new federal rules.

Facing similar resistance, Douglas County decided not to accept federal money, sacrificing a source that had provided $1 million for low-income assistance in 2015, as Colorado Community Media reported. In Jefferson County, Tuesday's decision appears to be a "toss-up," as Amy DiPierro reported when she broke the story for BusinessDen. 

It could be a huge decision.

The three-member board starts its meeting at 8 a.m. on Tuesday.

Reached by email, Commissioner Donald Rosier said he'd received "a large number" of emails and letters about the issue, but declined to state his opinion. DiPierro reports that first-term commissioner Libby Szabo could be the swing vote; she has not responded to Denverite's request for comment.

"There's a very palpable concern that the ability of the development community to provide affordable housing, even to the extent it’s doing now, would be totally wiped out," Brian Connolly, a Denver attorney who has published legal analysis on the topic, told Denverite in an interview.

Projects totaling up to 500 new units may depend on tomorrow's vote, DiPierro reported.

Jefferson County received about $1.6 million from the two federal programs in question in 2016 and a total of $24 million since 2003, according to federal records.

Why not take the money?

The opposition group, AFFH.net, states that "by taking the money, you the suburbs will be forced to gentrify your neighborhoods with low-income, racially diverse, high-density housing."

(Just for reference, Merriam-Webster says gentrification is when middle-class people take over poor areas, not the other way around.)

Essentially, the argument is that money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development isn't really free. There are any number of arguments about government spending here, but the main concern is a new rule created under President Barack Obama.

The "AFFH" rule (Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing) of 2015 set new requirements for communities that receive HUD money. The funding in question here comes through HUD's CDBG and HOME programs.

Grantees now or in the near future must go through a planning process to identify "integration and segregation patterns," and locate "racially or ethnically concentrated areas of poverty," among other concerns -- and then take "meaningful" action to fix them.

HUD argued that the new rule was simply a way to uniformly enforce the goals of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Communities previously had to undertake a similar but less uniform analysis, according to Connolly.

"HUD hopes the database will enable communities to more clearly track where poverty and segregation overlap, where housing voucher recipients live relative to good schools, which neighborhoods contain no affordable housing at all," the Washington Post reported. (The tool already can be used to see some data around the Denver region.)

To some conservative critics, the data collection is an attempt to manipulate smaller governments.

"If we continue to accept the HUD grants, we will be forced to prepare detailed taxpayer-financed studies of our schools, retail, housing and other community aspects to HUD who will decide if our neighborhoods are 'furthering fair housing,'" according to a letter from the Castle Rock council, as provided by AFFH.net.

The letter goes on to say that "HUD on a whim could force us to build low-income, government-subsidized housing into our neighborhoods if HUD decides we aren’t racially balanced enough."

That's not true, according to Connolly, the attorney. First, the requirement to provide equitable housing comes from decades-old federal law and applies to all communities, not just those who take the money.

"Any obligation like that ... doesn’t come from the receipt of HUD funds," he said. And, he added: "There is no court out there that’s going to order that there be this large-scale development of dense housing in these outlying single-family neighborhoods."

Also, HUD's main way of enforcing its rules and the fair-housing requirements is generally to withhold future funding, not to force a community to build something.

Still, it's true that communities can get in trouble.

A nonprofit's lawsuit accused Westchester County, New York, of lying about its efforts to encourage fair housing, and the resulting settlement forced the county to build hundreds of affordable housing units.

Connolly was actually a staffer for Westchester County at the time. He notes that the case predates the new AFFH rule, and argued that the new rule is actually meant to prevent that kind of liability by making data collection more uniform. Still, part of the opposition fear is that providing more information and participating in the program will make it easier for the federal government and other parties to find and investigate fair-housing issues.

Jefferson County also won't have to comply with the new rule until 2020, even assuming it's not derailed by new challenges in Congress, according to a staff presentation.

Forty groups, from the city of Wheat Ridge to the Salvation Army, have urged the commissioners to accept the money, as BusinessDen reports. AFFH.net's representatives didn't immediately return a request for comment.

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