On a clear day, it’s easy to see why the population in the Denver metropolitan area has grown steadily over the past 10 years. With the Rocky Mountains rising majestically to the west, scenic lakes dotting the urban landscape, and 150 craft breweries, the Mile-High City attracts outdoor enthusiasts year-round – some for a brief visit and others to stay. Unfortunately, popularity comes with a price.
While Colorado was once considered “relatively affordable,” that has changed over the past decades, said Jennie Rodgers, Enterprise’s vice president and market leader for Rocky Mountain and Tribal Nations and Rural Communities. In fact, affordable housing was rated the top concern people are grappling with across the state, according to a recent survey by the Colorado Health Foundation. “Right now, many people here are cost burdened, and many are even on the verge of eviction,” Rodgers said.
At the same time, legislators and advocates for affordable housing are making headway to bring new focus and resources for affordable housing in Denver and beyond.
With our population growth and our popularity, people who have been in their neighborhoods for generations are being displaced, as is happening in other high-cost markets. The difference is that it’s acute and it’s come on quickly here.
Rodgers spoke with us recently about efforts to preserve and create more affordable housing across Colorado, why climate resiliency is a top local issue, and ways in which she’s hopeful for the region’s future.
How would you describe housing affordability right now in the Denver area? In Colorado more broadly?
The biggest issue we’re dealing with in Colorado is the fact that our population has grown exponentially, and we’ve had a hard time keeping up on the housing side. And, housing development that’s coming in is usually expensive, wages aren’t keeping up with that price growth, and we’re seeing a lot of strain that wasn’t here maybe 10 years ago. That’s really happening across most of the state.
The city of Denver’s strategic plan has identified the need for 19,000 more affordable housing units, which is a lot for one city in our state.
In Colorado, our eviction rates were going up before the pandemic and then declined during the pandemic. We and our partners worked very hard on an eviction moratorium that was extended a couple times but was then lifted about a year ago. Since then, eviction rates are going up again and are now higher now than in 2019. Our housing costs didn’t decline during the pandemic and our vacancy rates didn’t increase. People’s incomes haven’t gone up.
What makes Denver unique when it comes to housing and economic development?
Like the San Francisco Bay Area and some other high growth areas, we’re a place that people are attracted to move to, but we also have families and households who have been here for many generations. With our population growth and our popularity, people who have been in their neighborhoods for generations are being displaced, as is happening in other high-cost markets. The difference is that it’s acute and it’s come on quickly here.
We’re grappling with how best to shape policies, interventions, and programs we need as a city and a state, to really deal with the fact that our low-income households and communities are starting to look different. People are having to move. They’ve moved from Denver to surrounding counties and now they’re moving out of those counties and leaving the state.
We have less diversity both racially and ethnically and of income levels. We also suffer in many of these areas from smaller affordable homes being purchased, torn down, and replaced with large very expensive homes.
The key question is how do we bring people back? The city of Denver’s new right to return or first right of refusal policy will soon be implemented, and we worked hard to pass the policy. This is a policy where people who have been displaced from a community get priority if a new affordable housing unit is built there. Statewide, we’re still dealing with the advent of Airbnb because we have a lot of visitors all year long. In some communities, half of our housing stock is being rented out on a nightly basis. This conversion to nightly rentals reduces the existing housing stock for permanent residents at a time when prices overall are rising, and new construction is not keeping up with demand.
Recent reports paint a dire scenario for homelessness in the Denver metro area, and the mayor has taken some recent bold steps. What is Enterprise doing to respond to this growing need for affordable housing and shelter?
We’re focused on how we keep people stably housed and provide housing for people coming out of the homeless and shelter system, while also working to ensure those most in need have access to tenant stability resources. During the pandemic that was the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) and we focused on ERAP in a variety of ways. We pulled together a cohort of community navigators from neighborhoods where residents have been especially impacted by housing challenges. The cohort included people who speak Spanish and work with immigrants, and refugees speaking many languages. We made sure navigators had all the information needed to drive rental and legal assistance resources to people from their communities. There is still great demand for these stability resources but little available.
Addressing growing street homelessness will take a multi-pronged approach. We also need to make sure we’re helping the hidden homeless – the families who are doubled up and people who are couch surfing.
It's important we provide funding to build new units and preserve them for people at the very lowest incomes so that we can keep people in place and provide new affordable units as Colorado’s total housing inventory grows. And that means dedicating new funds to new development, while also preserving housing. That’s why we brought the Preservation Next Academy to Colorado.
Tell us about Preservation Next in Colorado? Why is this an important initiative for this area?
We started planning with partners about four years ago, thinking about all the pieces necessary to create a successful strategy to preserve small currently unrestricted but affordable rental properties and be able to preserve these affordable units. We didn’t have the financing tools available that would allow our partners to bid on the open market for properties and purchase them. If you look at the value based on future rents for an investor and our nonprofits desire to keep rents low, it means that you’ve got a huge gap in what that nonprofit can afford to pay versus the market price for properties.
The speed of access to financial resources to purchase properties has been an issue that we are working to correct. We and partners created a Colorado pilot loan fund that’s being used by our partners – it’s a secondary mortgage product. And we wanted to have the tools like our Preservation Next Toolkit checklist for what to look for in a property. How do you assess your ability to bring on more properties within your organization?
We’ve also created and are expanding upon – thanks to funds from Kaiser Permanente – a dataset of all multifamily properties across the Front Range in the state and in some other Colorado counties, that can be used by nonprofit partners to identify properties they may want to target for acquisition. This dataset is being expanded by 10 more counties from an original seven.
We also wanted partners to have a robust training series focused on small property preservation. Our training cohort has members from nonprofits across the state. We purposely included partners from the Denver area that may target larger buildings but also those from rural areas looking to purchase units as small as twelve plexes and six plexes. One partner from a rural and remote area near New Mexico is looking at acquiring single-family homes as a way preserve rental stock in their communities.
It’s been a hot summer. Let’s discuss climate resiliency and how Enterprise is contributing to this area?
In Colorado, we didn’t need air conditioning in the past – now building owners are having to think through how they retrofit buildings to bring cooling systems to tenants.
Our Building Resilient Futures team is working with our housing finance authority on an Electrification hub – it will be an online toolkit of resources so that affordable housing developers can identify ways they can electrify their buildings. Denver has electrification requirements coming into place and CHFA wants to ensure our partners know as much as they can to meet them. We were just awarded funds from the US Department of Energy to work on a pilot for retrofitting water heaters from gas to electric in existing buildings. We’ll work with two partners, Energy Outreach Colorado and Group 14, an engineering firm, on this exciting project. We’re bringing a Resilience Academy to Colorado – we’re excited because we are offering this academy to other states in our Rocky Mountain region. This will be our first big offering that will bring in nonprofit orgs from surrounding states: Utah, Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico. We’ll focus on issues that are front and center in the West: heat, drought, fires, heat islands in cities.
Can you talk about the role of local partners and how they inform and inspire your team’s work in Colorado?
We don’t do anything that isn’t in partnership, period. For example, with Preservation Next, we had conversations with nonprofit providers from across the state to find out what issues they were facing, what they wanted in a training, what kind of assistance they could really use to preserve housing.
When we’re working on a policy especially at the city level or state level, we want to make sure that as a policy is proposed, we’re talking to our partners to understand how it could be beneficial or detrimental to them. We want to make sure leaders understand why we’re recommending changes or amendments to legislation and local policy. One of the things we’ve done is to ensure that our grass roots partners are aware of policy, as it moves forward, and they know how to engage and advocate for or against that policy.
What brought you to work in affordable housing in the first place?
It was unexpected. I have a degree in anthropology and thought I’d be working in a museum - that had been my dream. I went to work for the park service in Point Reyes National Seashore in California in a back room cataloging artifacts. I decided I needed to work around people, so I became a VISTA volunteer in southern Colorado. I started out working at a regional housing agency for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Durango and I never looked back. I moved from there to Denver and worked for our state housing agency and then was a consultant working with nonprofits. I wanted to do something mission oriented and found my niche in housing.
What makes you hopeful about the future for affordable housing in Colorado?
For one, I see so many young people coming into our industry. I think that’s a good sign for Colorado. For example, our city college is starting a new affordable housing program.
And while it’s true our housing needs haven’t declined in Colorado over the past few decades, when I look back to the period when I worked for the state, we’ve come a long way. We only dreamed of getting new dedicated resources back then and we couldn’t get the attention of the legislature to dedicate funding towards affordable housing. We didn’t have any affordable housing policies in Colorado. Now, 25 years later, while we have more acute housing needs, which is hard to see, we have more sophisticated policies, we have legislators talking about housing as an issue they want to tackle, we have more tenant protections. We passed a ballot initiative last year that exponentially increases the resources we have for affordable housing. While we don’t have the resources of California or New York, we’re catching up.
What’s the best book you’ve read this past summer? Any other recommendations?
I’ve enjoyed reading “Demon Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver. As someone who’s really interested in thinking about what people have to overcome in their lives I’m deeply engaged in that book. On my bedside table, I also have “Poverty” by Matthew Desmond. I was a big fan of “Evicted.” I’d also recommend anything by Isabelle Wilkerson – “Caste” and “The Warmth of Other Suns.” To me, weaving the stories of the families into history is a great way to learn.