Priced Out: Affordable housing out of reach for Summit County’s low-income immigrants
May 31, 2018
After nearly two decades in Summit County, Norma Quezada thought she would be a homeowner by now, but her hopes have been dashed repeatedly by poor credit and rising home prices.
"It's very frustrating," Quezada said, with her daughter translating in the kitchen of her small Wildernest apartment. "I've tried many times."
Rent prices have soared as well, and Quezada has been forced to move at least five times since leaving Mexico for Summit County 20 years ago. In 2016, the latest time she and her family of four were told to pack up, she had just one month's notice.
"We were scrambling because it was just such a surprise," Quezada said. "Out of nowhere we just get a call saying the owner is deciding to sell the apartment, so we didn't really know where to start looking."
Quezada's experience is hardly unusual for Summit County's Hispanic and Latino immigrant community, whose members work vital resort-market jobs but earn some of the area's lowest incomes.
Local governments, recognizing that Summit's soaring housing prices threaten to push out workers and dampen growth, have pushed to build more affordable housing using a tax fund approved by voters in 2016.
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But so far, the hundreds of units coming online are reserved for people earning at or near the area median income, putting them out of reach for people like Quezada, who makes around $40,000 a year working a kitchen job in Silverthorne.
Local officials are now discussing ways to close the gap between low- and middle-income housing, which has disproportionately impacted immigrants.
"I think there's been a flight pattern of these people getting pushed further and further out of Summit," said Karen Santric, a Dillon immigration attorney who said her clients are being increasingly priced out.
Voters approved Ballot Question 5A by a wide margin in November 2016, authorizing a sales tax increase that funds affordable-housing construction. Each jurisdiction manages its own revenue from the fund, which started flowing in 2017.
The lion's share of housing being built or planned with the money, however, has been set aside for earners making between 80 and 120 percent of the area median income, or AMI. For 2018, that translates to between $58,000 and $87,000 per year for two person households.
Home prices for phase 2 of the Blue 52 affordable-housing complex in Breckenridge, for instance, range from $255,000 to $515,000. The average price is more than $371,000, priced for people earning between 80 and 130 percent AMI.
"I think just coincidentally we ended up with a lot of units that are 80 to 120 percent AMI but not a lot of for-sale units on that lower end of the spectrum," said Tamara Drangstveit, executive director of the nonprofit Family and Intercultural Resource Center.
The lack of units for residents earning below 80 percent AMI hits the immigrant community hardest, forcing families into overcrowded apartments or to far-flung locales in neighboring counties. Unable to afford deed-restricted homes, they are exposed to ever-rising rents.
Marta Jain, who works at the front desk of Santric's firm, Elevation Law, has seen her rent double in the past three years at the two-bedroom apartment she shares with two of her sons and husband. They are now paying $1,800 a month plus utilities.
"It was different before because we could save money for other things, could send money to family in Mexico," she said. "Now we can't do that, because who knows? Next year the rent could double again or go up by a few hundred."
Neither Jain nor Quezada have social security numbers. That's a hurdle, but not necessarily a barrier, to buying a home or finding a place with reasonable rent. The main issue is runaway prices.
"The problem is just the income and the rising rents, the prices going up, getting higher every year because all of the new people coming in and trying to stay here to live and work," Quezada said.
Local workers who spend upward of 60 percent of their income on rent are unlikely to be able to save much at all for a home, much less major expenses that can destabilize vulnerable families.
"You cannot save money for anything because you live to pay the rent, which is super expensive here," said Karina Zuñiga, a FIRC family support counselor. "We are talking around for two bedrooms, the cheapest you can find is like $1500, and that's if you're lucky. When you have to pay that and the monthly expenses, you don't have enough money to save."
Building affordable housing is not economical, which is why governments must step in to either provide developers with incentives to add deed-restricted units to projects or build them themselves. Thus far, jurisdictions have been wary of spending tax dollars on projects that will lose money.
"That's why you haven't seen these lower AMI units coming right out of the gate," explained Jason Dietz, executive director of the Summit Combined Housing Authority. "They're a lot harder to finance. They take a lot more money and there's much larger loss."
Dietz said that as 5A money continues to roll in through 2026, when the 0.6 percent sales tax is set to expire, jurisdictions will likely be more willing to put up the large subsidies required to build lower AMI units.
But with rental units, the numbers are even trickier. While developers can recoup investments on for-sale units in a couple of years, rentals can take decades to get in the black. They are rarely built.
"We've missed that 40 to 80 percent AMI rental market," Drangstveit said.
One of the few low-income rental developments in Summit County, Villa Sierra Madre in Silverthorne, was built by a branch of Denver's Catholic Charities and provides units at as low as 40 percent AMI. But it has not kept pace with demand.
"With the waiting list, it would take years," said Quezada.
Scaling up Summit County's low-income housing could take years, too. The housing authority plans to make the issue a top agenda item at its housing summit in June, which will bring local governments and civic groups together to discuss solutions.
"The jurisdictions are doing a lot of really good stuff, and there are a lot of good developments going on in that 80 to 120 percent AMI price point," Dietz said. "As a community, we need to look at that lower AMI price point as well and what we can do to get more of that product into the ground."