Home sweet subsidy 

After purging a waiting list that went back at least five years, the Housing Authority of the City of Colorado Springs reopened it in August 2010. In one month, 3,820 people applied. Today, the number is pushing 8,000.

You can't blame the backlog on small inventory; the authority is the biggest player in the local rental market, owning 1,487 housing units, ranging from apartments to single-family homes, valued at more than $90 million. It also owns the $2.8 million Senior Center complex at 1514 N. Hancock Ave., which it took over from the city last year. The agency has increased its inventory by 26 percent in five years.

But those units — and, in fact, the 6,719 total units it oversees, through various programs — still aren't enough to handle people who are low-income, disabled and/or elderly. Authority executive director Gene Montoya says the agency could "easily" fill another 3,000 units with needy people.

And it's not going to happen, at least not anytime soon.

"The amounts of funds available to create affordable housing are scarce and competitive," says Montoya. One program that provides tax credits to private developers who set aside a portion of their complexes for affordable housing funded nine out of 35 applications in Colorado this year, he notes. Only one of those was in Colorado Springs, an assisted living center near the Sunbird restaurant.

"If you wanted someone to develop affordable housing without any incentive, it can't be done," he says. "It's a losing proposition."

Going independent

Colorado Springs' housing authority is the second-largest public housing authority, behind Denver, in a six-state region that includes Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Utah and Colorado.

And it's growing. The agency recently branched out to encompass Manitou Springs and El Paso County, which will achieve efficiencies by turning over their programs to the authority. "The administrative savings for doing that is significant," Montoya says.

On Dec. 24, the authority becomes independent of city government, though its board still will be appointed by Colorado Springs City Council. The change means the authority will be immune from city policies, such as purchasing and human resources rules.

But it will still be plenty reliant on the federal government, the source of $21.4 million of its $40 million annual budget. About $17 million of that is in the form of Section 8 vouchers, used by renters to pay rent to private landlords whose properties must meet federal housing standards.

Though applicants earning below 80 percent of the area's median income can qualify, the Housing Authority targets families making 30 percent or less. That would be only $21,750 for a family of four, or $15,250 for a single person. (Median income for a family of four here is $72,500.) In the program, they pay rent based on income; in some cases, it's possible to live rent-free if you have limited income, or none at all.

The Housing Authority, named by HUD as a "high performer," also has a home-ownership program in which it has helped about 920 families make down payments to buy. But its most recent partnership involved teaming with a private contractor to build 421 units at the Air Force Academy, due for completion within a month or two. Tax credits obtained through the authority enable the contractor to charge less-than-market rents to military members and base employees, who must qualify under income limits.

Long wait

When it comes down to it, the Housing Authority's main challenge is simple: The need for affordable housing is great, and turnover small — about 21 units per month.

Though several apartment complexes are under construction in response to vacancy rates driven down by foreclosures and returning troops, few are affordable projects, Montoya says. The only new project the authority is involved with is a 100-unit elderly complex, Pikes Peak Senior Apartments, at 907 E. Colorado Ave.

A healthy rental market actually creates problems for voucher recipients, because vouchers carry a dollar limit, and families are having a harder time finding places under the limit, Montoya says. That has led the authority to extend the normal 90-day rental search period to 150 days. "Things are tightening up," he says.

Housing Authority board chair Terry Zebarth, a professional conservator and former banker, says the authority would love to snap up foreclosed homes, expected to exceed 3,500 this year in El Paso County.

"You'd think it would be a natural, but the money's not there," Zebarth says. "Just trying to maintain is difficult."

Moreover, Montoya says the authority isn't interested in dominating neighborhoods with rentals. "That would change the character of the neighborhoods," he says, "and that's not what we intend to do."

While Montoya insists that "our housing isn't a way of life," but geared toward temporary assistance, Zebarth says he has a "gut feeling" the average stay of three years is getting longer, due to the stagnant economy.



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