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Five invisible barriers to affordable housing 

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While there are plenty of theories about why the affordable housing shortage has gotten so critical — throughout the city, county, state and country — everyone can agree on one point: There’s not just one single reason why it’s hard to find housing you can afford nowadays. Rather, the crisis is the product of an unfortunate mix of economic and demographic realities.

Chad Wright, executive director of the Colorado Springs Housing Authority, would know. The Housing Authority doles out Section 8 rent vouchers for the metro area, operates senior housing and public housing at subsidized rents, and owns and/or manages several affordable developments.

It’s next to impossible for the Housing Authority to assist everyone who needs help paying rent. Wright says there are about 1,700 people on the voucher wait list, which only opens once a year — by lottery — for preapplications. The Independent asked him for a behind-the-scenes rundown on the biggest barriers to sufficient affordable housing in Colorado Springs.

1. The costs of construction, materials, labor and land have dramatically increased in the last several years. There is a “combination of reasons” for this increase, Wright says: “everything from a hot economy…. so you have a lot of demand for materials and labor... [to] natural disasters, Hurricane Harvey and others, that spurred a substantial amount of redevelopment in a short period of time.” Wright also points out that tariffs on Canadian lumber have raised building prices, and it’s harder to find construction labor because many people left the profession during the Great Recession.

2. Low Income Housing Tax Credits, a form of federal funding for affordable housing projects, are spread thin. “There’s not enough cap in the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program to meet the need everywhere for affordable housing,” Wright says. And since Congress passed a tax package in late 2017 that reduced corporate taxes, the value of tax credits — and their appeal to investors — has decreased. “When you’ve got a very finite resource and it’s very competitive, and that resource has seen a decline in value, that’s a negative impact to what we can do.”

3. Here’s the obvious one: People are moving to the Front Range. This is a simple matter of supply and demand, resulting in lower vacancy rates and higher rents, Wright says. Colorado Springs’ population grew around 11 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. So did Colorado’s. For comparison, the U.S. population grew by about 5.5 percent during the same time frame.

4. Landlords aren’t required to accept Section 8 vouchers — and in a hot real estate market, they can afford to say no. “We certainly have seen a trend over the last several years where it’s been... maybe more difficult than normal for voucher holders to find a unit.” He adds that a new process for determining voucher value by ZIP code, implemented last year, could ease this problem.

5. Currently, Colorado Springs doesn’t provide meaningful incentives for developers to build affordable housing. Wright was more cautious about calling this a factor. (His words: “Certainly the deeper the toolbox... the more options you have to get at a very complex issue. So, you know, if we don’t have as many tools in the box as others, then more tools would help.”) However, it’s important to note that the city doesn’t have many ways to reduce the costs for developers who build affordable housing (such as cost breaks on utilities, expedited review and fee waivers). A city task force is looking this year at possibly adding some incentives.

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