Denver council president says city needs $100 million more for affordable housing

Some Denver City Council members are showing an appetite for more spending on affordable housing — and using debt to do it.
5 min. read
Stapleton residences under downtown Denver’s skyline. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Some Denver City Council members are showing an appetite for more spending on affordable housing.

At a housing and safety committee meeting on Wednesday morning, Council President Albus Brooks asked whether the city could find ways to spend another $100 million for affordable housing in addition to the $150 million planned for the next decade.

"If we had another $100 million, we'd be able spend it and build and deliver affordable units in Denver," he said, looking to city staff for confirmation. They assured him that Denver could spend much more money and still fall short of solving the housing crisis.

Brooks added: "I just want the mayor's administration to hear this," getting some laughs.

At the committee meeting, council members received a preliminary briefing on an affordable housing plan that will be released this month.

"$15 million isn’t a lot of money," Councilwoman At-large Debbie Ortega said, referring to the yearly spending that Denver expects will result from the new taxes and fees that the council approved last year for affordable housing.

Together, the council members' comments might cheer groups like All In Denver, which has called on the city to increase that spending -- and they gave a hint at some of the conversations we should expect to hear among Denver's elected leaders about housing.

City Council President Albus Brooks. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
However, the two council members are taking different approaches.

Ortega wants the city to consider going to voters and asking for permission to take on new debt. She wants that idea to be a priority in the city's overarching housing plan.

"It doesn't mean we're doing it now, but we could begin to talk about it," she said. Erik Soliván, the city's housing czar, said that new bonds are already a topic of discussion, but that it has a lot of "complexity."

Denver City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega at a meeting. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Brooks is skeptical of going to voters for new bonds. Instead, he thinks that the city could free up $40 to $50 million over the next decade by refinancing old debt. That would not require voter approval, he said. The city could use the extra money to pay developers to make market-rate units available at more affordable rates, he said.

Denver is already preparing to ask voters to approve $937 million in new debt this fall. More than half of that money is going to roads and other transportation spending. None of it is going to housing, despite Ortega's request that $30 million be set aside for that. And the city only has so much appetite and ability to take on new debt.

"I get a little nervous with the bonds, especially with our bonding capacity. We really pushed it to the limit because of our focus on transportation, on mobility," Brooks said in an interview.

Asked to elaborate on his comments about the need for more spending, he said that he's always felt the $150 million plan was short of the true need.

"I’m not shy about it when I say that Councilwoman (Robin) Kniech and I went to the mayor in 2014 and said, 'We’ve got to do something now, and we’ve got to do something big,'" he said. "And through negotiations, that number came down to about $150 million -- and I think we’re $100 million short of what we could do to make a big impact in that first 10 years."

Reached for comment, mayoral spokeswoman Jenna Espinoza wrote in an email: "I think we all share the same concern and sense of urgency around the issue."

"... We agree with Councilman Brooks that affordable housing is a top priority and that we must continue to work with the Housing Advisory Committee to search out new and better ways to keep Denver affordable for our residents. That’s why, in the Mayor’s proposed budget, there’s almost $22 million targeted for affordable housing, as well as significant funding that will help people stay in their homes though programs like property tax rebates and eviction assistance. We believe this a fiscally responsible approach to addressing this issue that factors in the current market conditions and an amount of production that our market can realistically support. "

See more on the budget here.

What's next:

A draft version of the overarching plan for the housing fund should be published later this week or early next week. The plan will emphasize programs that benefit people making less than 30 percent of the median income, but it runs a wide gamut of strategies and areas. It likely will include suggestions that the city:

  • Consider creating a land trust to preserve affordability.
  • Expand and strengthen land-use regulations to encourage affordable and mixed-income housing.
  • Provide tax relief programs for families.
  • Explore the idea of affordable development on public land.
  • Enhance protections and assistance for renters.
  • Expand housing options for people experiencing homelessness.
  • Preserve existing housing and buy land for new housing.
  • Consider making it easier for homeowners to build secondary dwellings on their lots.
Stapleton residences as seen from a hill in Central Park. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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