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A proposed change to Section 8 looks to desegregate neighborhoods 

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click to enlarge The current value of the city's Section 8 vouchers. - DATA FROM COLORADO SPRINGS HOUSING AUTHORITY; DESIGN BY DUSTIN GLATZ
  • Data from Colorado Springs Housing Authority; design by Dustin Glatz
  • The current value of the city's Section 8 vouchers.

In October 2014, the city of Colorado Springs and El Paso County released their "Affordable Housing Needs Assessment," which pointed to some disturbing trends.

"Minorities have disproportionately high poverty rates," the report noted. "In El Paso County, there were 75,363 persons living below the poverty line. Most of these people were living in Colorado Springs. Within Colorado Springs, most people living below the poverty line were concentrated in three contiguous areas. The largest area was in Southeastern Colorado Springs."

In other words, the Springs, to some degree, is economically segregated. And that leads to racial segregation.

The report notes that one government program likely isn't helping. Known as Section 8, administered through the Colorado Springs Housing Authority, the popular program provides needy households with rent vouchers. But Section 8 bases its assistance on Fair Market Rent, a figure reached by complex calculations, based on rents in an entire metropolitan area.

The upshot: Fair Market Rent may not be enough to rent a home except in the cheapest neighborhoods, like the southeast. For instance, the Section 8 subsidy for a two-bedroom home in Colorado Springs is $907. But, according to a second-quarter 2016 report, the median rent in the Colorado Springs Metro Area is $976.42. A two-bedroom, two-bath apartment had a median rent of $1,160.61. And with the city's vacancy rate at 5 percent, rents are unlikely to dip.

The effect of the disparity between voucher amounts and actual rent is clear. An average two-bedroom apartment in the northwest cost $1,215.63. The same apartment in the southeast cost $1,008.70.

But all this could change. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers Section 8, has proposed a rule change that would base Fair Market Rents on ZIP codes in some cities (including the Springs) rather than entire metro areas. The idea is to make it possible for Section 8 households to afford to live in pricier neighborhoods, integrating cities and giving families access to better schools. HUD used Dallas as an example, saying a voucher for a one-bedroom unit could range from $550 to $1,090 depending on the area.

The proposal, in a public-comment period, would take a while to implement if approved, but Chad Wright, executive director of the Springs Housing Authority, says the discussion is coming at a good time for the Springs, where renters are being squeezed more than ever.

"Rents here have been increasing pretty rapidly in the last 12 to 24 months," he says.

HUD vouchers don't always keep up with rising rents, he adds, hoping for a system that more accurately reflects the cost of housing. But, he says, he has questions about the proposal. He wonders if increasing the value of vouchers might decrease the number available to the Authority, meaning fewer people could get assistance. Second, he wonders if the new system might put more pressure on his underfunded staff.

"Will this add a lot of new and arcane rules and regulations we have to follow?" he asks.

Some community leaders, however, say the rule could be a good thing. Rosemary Harris Lytle, regional president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, says she's lived in the southeast for 20 years. She likes the diverse neighborhood, says she's always found it to be safe, and wishes there were more efforts to help the area thrive rather than simply help people escape it.

Lytle also thinks the Springs is more integrated than people think — largely due to higher salaries in the military, which is very diverse. That said, she says the rule change sounds like a good idea based on feedback she hears.

"If that rule change happens, it would impact something that I hear people talking about all the time and that is: How they can live where they want and desire to live for their children and their children's education?" she says.

She adds, "I see it [the rule change] as very critically important for us in El Paso County."

Aimee Cox, community development manager for the city, says the problem isn't just the Section 8 program; it's the local state of affordable housing.

Indeed, the 2014 Needs Assessment found an estimated gap of 24,513 affordably priced units — expected to grow over five years. Since much affordable housing is concentrated in the southeast, she says people can't choose where they want to live. But, she says, even with incentives available, the city has struggled to get developers to build affordable housing.

Likewise, DeAnne McCann, the county's economic development manager, says apartment projects are complicated and very hard to pay for.

"It's brain damage for them to get these things developed," she says, "and you add an affordable component to it and it's really complex."

McCann estimates 12 or 13 affordable complexes have gone up over the past 20 years, and a few projects are being planned in various areas, including the northeast. The county can offer some federal dollars and tax credits to make those projects more feasible, but, she says, as the city grows, affordable housing isn't keeping up. And she doesn't see that changing.

"I don't know that there's a real solution," she says. "We just do what we can to make something available."

A change to Section 8 rules might help, but it won't fix the problem entirely because the Springs Housing Authority only has about 2,290 vouchers — not even close to enough to meet the need. The current Springs Section 8 wait list numbers 2,181 people and isn't open for additions.

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