For months, even throughout the pandemic, housing costs in Aurora and across Colorado have continued to rise, making a manicured lawn and white picket fence that much more elusive for umpteen local residents.
Those emblems of the American dream remain even more intangible for certain slices of the metroplex, and the ideals they represent became a prime focus for the newest crop of state legislators that represent Aurora. The city’s freshman delegation, Naquetta Ricks and Iman Jodeh, both co-sponsored two bills related to affordable housing and tenant’s rights.
“Housing is going to be a big deal,” Ricks said. “It’s a hard nut to crack.”
There’s no “magic bullet” to fixing Colorado’s affordable housing problem, she said. “I think it’s going to take a series of laws and legislations and getting creative with ways of making housing affordable.”
Real estate inventories have hit all time lows in the region and rents steadily tick upward. This month Apartment List reported that rents in Aurora increased 2.5% month-over-month, compared to 2.3% nationally. That now puts a one-bedroom apartment on the rental market at $1,247. The average for a two-bedroom apartment in the city sits at $1,573.
A different report, from RealtyHop, concluded this week that an average family in Aurora would have to set aside a third of their annual income to afford a home, making the growing city #50 on the group’s index of affordable housing markets in the nation. The city’s population is expected to hover around 450,000 people by the end of the decade, according to predictions made using U.S. Census data.
Ricks noted a recent analysis by the Colorado Association of Realtors that found there isn’t one single-family home under $300,000 on the market in Aurora right now. The city’s median home price hovered around $438,000 earlier this spring, according to the group.
As the issue of housing continues to percolate the political stratosphere of Aurora city council, Ricks and the rest of the Aurora delegation at the state Capitol are wrapped in a frenzied session this week that produced a passel of housing-related measures.
Federal Stimulus Money
Even as the legislative session concluded Tuesday evening, lawmakers left the Capitol knowing they’ve a lot of work to do this summer, particularly regarding affordable housing.
Over the course of the session lawmakers allocated hundreds of millions of dollars toward building affordable housing, incentivizing local governments to prioritize affordable housing and giving unhoused people a place to stay in area hotels.
“The need for affordable housing has skyrocketed in Colorado; across our state, hardworking families are struggling to find a place to live or afford their rent or mortgage,” state Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, D-Denver, said of a bill that helped direct federal stimulus money toward affordable housing.
So far, lawmakers have decided $100 million will help construct 7,000 affordable housing units across the state, but this summer the real work begins. State leaders say they’ll continue to work to find the best way to spend $450 million more on affordable housing.
“Housing costs are rising faster than wages and salaries can keep up as more people move into our great state,” Rep. Steven Woodrow, a Denver Democrat who co-sponsored the bellwether stimulus package, said in a statement. “We heard these concerns loud and clear during our statewide listening tour, and we are going to advance transformational changes to make housing more affordable for Coloradans.”
Federal stimulus money in the Colorado Recovery Plan also allocated $10 million for hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness across the state and $8 million for local governments that decide to help further affordable housing measures.
Federal stimulus money has been a windfall in places like Aurora, where eviction rates were above the national average before the pandemic. So far, the city has spent more than $3.6 million in its rental assistance program, staff confirmed this week. Arapahoe County, which covers the bulk of Aurora, said during a presentation to city lawmakers this week they’ve spent more than $1.5 million to keep Aurora residents from losing their homes throughout the pandemic.
Ricks, who works as a mortgage broker, said that she hopes to work with Colorado’s federal delegation on more ways the federal government can provide housing support.
“There’s a lot of money for first time home buyers but people have a hard time qualifying,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunities for changing the criteria.”
A Good Year for Renters
Both Jodeh and fellow Democratic Aurora Rep. Dominique Jackson joined Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, in shepherding a measure intended to bolster renter’s rights by giving residents more time to get their affairs in order after the eviction process begins. It also limits how many times a landlord can increase rent in a given year.
“I believe housing is a human right, and I believe that making it in this world requires a safe and affordable place to live, and you can’t really do a whole lot if you don’t know where you’re going to sleep at night, or if it’s uninhabitable or unsafe in some way,” Jackson said this week. “You can’t study for the exam, you can’t feed your kids — you can’t do anything. Housing is absolutely a very big deal.”
The final version of the measure was prepared Tuesday and is currently awaiting the governor’s signature.
Evictions have slowly ramped up across the Aurora region in recent months, and the federal moratorium on carrying out eviction orders is slated to expire at the end of the month.
Following a total freeze on evictions at the onset of the pandemic in Arapahoe County last spring, the sheriff’s office in the city’s largest county was executing between 40 and 50 eviction orders each month by the end of last year. By comparison, sheriff’s deputies carried out 132 such orders of the 429 received in January 2020, according to a spokesperson from the sheriff’s office.
Last week, legislators passed yet another measure with eyes toward buoying protections for renters that tightens how much a landlord can charge a tenant when they’re late on rent.
Jackson, who served as a sponsor of the proposal, celebrated the proposal on its way to the governor’s desk, versions of which have been introduced and repeatedly killed in recent years.
“Sometimes it takes a long time for good policy to make its way through, but we do not give up,” she said. “ … This was a really good year for housing.”
Earlier in the session, Jackson and Gonzales sponsored a new law that nixes a requirement stipulating that anyone applying for state housing assistance verify their lawful presence in the country. Signed by Gov. Jared Polis on April 15, Jackson said the bill is believed to be the first of its kind in the country.
“It allows people to receive state funding — not federal funding, but state funding — in order to pay their rent, and landlords can apply for this money as well,” she said of House Bill 21-1054. “This is an effort to make sure that people don’t have to end up experiencing homelessness.”
Both Ricks and Jodeh signed on to support the new legislation.
Jodeh also co-sponsored a bill with Rep. Julie McCluskie and Gonzales to create three different programs in the Department of Local Affairs that would provide grant money and other forms of assistance to local governments that come up with “innovative solutions” to create affordable housing. The bill passed Tuesday.
In an email, Jodeh said she hopes that governments will take advantage of the programs.
“We did our best to make the parameters to receive funding as flexible as possible so that local governments of various sizes, situations, and stages of development can get assistance that will be helpful,” she said. “Our parameters are a floor, not a ceiling, and we hope local governments get ambitious about increasing equity and affordability in housing.”
A Boost for Homeowner Hopefuls
Along with Rep. Mary Bradfield and Sen. Jeff Bridges, Ricks was a prime sponsor of a bill that creates a voluntary pilot program that renters can participate in to report their rent payment to consumer reporting agencies in order to build their credit history.
The bill is designed to boost home ownership rates among low-income Coloradans, who are less likely to have a credit history, Ricks said. Bad credit makes it more difficult to access loans for things like mortgage payments, and people with poor credit pay much higher rates than those with better credit.
As part of the program, tenants will be required to participate in financial literacy classes. The hope is that by building a credit history and becoming more financially literate, people will be able to become homeowners sooner than they otherwise would be able to, Ricks said.
“The importance of homeownership is it’s a way of building generational wealth, you can grow equity and you can borrow against it,” Ricks said.
Making home ownership more attainable for minorities is particularly important, Ricks said. She noted that people of color, particularly Black people, were disproportionately impacted during the 2008 recession. Many people lost their homes in the crisis and are still working to make up for their financial losses.
Along with Aurora Sen. Rhonda Fields Ricks also carried a that bill requires HOAs to be more transparent about fees, insurance policies and other information, and subjects them to fines if they do not make the records available.
It also makes it easier for HOA residents to install renewable energy devices such as solar panels and artificial grass.
Ricks said she drafted the bill after hearing numerous stories about poor treatment of homeowners from HOAs.
“Within the state of Colorado, HOAs are very powerful,” she said.
A section requiring HOAs to go through dispute mediation before taking legal action against unit owners was removed because it did not get enough support. Ricks said she would like to reintroduce that component in future sessions.
Another bill, which passed both the House and Senate and earned final approval from the governor, disallows HOAs from regulating the kind of flags and signs a homeowner displays.
That issue was front and center in Aurora earlier this year, when David Pendery said he received a violation letter from the Whispering Pines Metropolitan District in Aurora for displaying the LGBTQ+ flag. In that case, which challenged a metro district and not a HOA, a judge sided with Pendery and ruled that the metro district cannot bar residents from flying such flags or displaying signs expressing personal views.
Ricks said she plans to continue to put forth more housing legislation in future sessions, and that during the summer she is going to be participating in conversations about housing and homelessness and do more outreach to constituents.
Jodeh also plans to make housing legislation an ongoing priority.
“Long term – my goal is for all Coloradans to be able to live in housing they can afford – meaning they do not spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs, which includes utilities,” she said. “There is so much more work that needs to be done and I fully plan to keep chipping away at our housing crisis for as long as I’m in office.”
She specifically named strengthening renter protections and increasing equity in home ownership as future goals.
The Homelessness Solution Search Continues
The newest legislative efforts to keep people housed come as Aurora lawmakers continue to quarrel over how the city could best ameliorate homelessness across the region.
Members of a city policy committee last week technically batted down a camping ban proposed by Mayor Mike Coffman that would allow staffers to clear homeless encampments if shelters had the capacity to house all of the people living there.
“I obviously think this is important,” Coffman recently told his fellow council members. “I think that it’s fair to our residents but also it’s humane.”
The city typically has about 150 shelter beds available at Comitis Crisis Center on any given day, though that total can be padded by motel vouchers given to domestic violence victims or emergency shelters opened during extremely cold weather.
There were 427 people experiencing homelessness in the city according to the last point-in-time survey conducted by outreach workers last year, though such metrics are typically seen as severe underestimates of the total population.
City officials are currently conducting a so-called “land inventory” to determine where a sanctioned campsite or village could be constructed in Aurora. The audit is expected to be completed and discussed by a panel of council members later this summer.
Under Coffman’s plan, anyone who refuses to leave an encampment after being given notice and offered alternative shelter could be cited for violating city code, which could result in jail time and fines.
That worried Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown, whose office oversees the jail serving the bulk of Aurora. Brown said he’s concerned that homeless people jailed for violating the ordinance would become ensnared in the legal system, costing the county $108 a day to keep them detained.
“I think that there’s better options for that $108 to be used to try to help,” he said. “ … I don’t want the county jail to become a depository for individuals that are experiencing homelessness.”
Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, whose officers could largely be tasked with abating camps, said she was concerned with the optics of police tearing down ad hoc structures.
“I really would be concerned about the enforcement piece as far as us looking as though we are criminalizing the fact that people are experiencing homelessness,” she said. “ … I just want to make sure that we’re used in the most minimal way.”
In the past year, the city has used both staffers and contractors to abate 29 camps by using a temporary policy tethered to pandemic-related protocols, according to city documents.
Coffman, who can still bring the proposal before the entire council per city rules, has said he plans to further discuss the measure at a public safety policy meeting later this month.
If his peers on council vote to kill the proposal, Coffman has said he may try to put the issue in front of voters via a ballot question considered in this November’s election.
— Quincy Snowdon, Kara Mason and Carina Julig contributed to the report