KEYSTONE — Topics from the lasting effects of Colorado’s redlining policies to the changing legislation around mobile home parks were touched on through the lens of stable housing being the foundation of healthy communities, at a symposium held this week tackling the state’s housing crisis and its effect on public health.
The Colorado Health Foundation organized the symposium, held in Keystone, titled “the Intersection of Housing, Health, and Inequity,” bringing together government agencies and advocates from throughout the state.
“A safe place to call home is a hallmark of a healthy life,” Colorado Health Foundation Board Chair Janet Houser said in an opening address.
Colorado is the 14th highest state in the country as far as the portion of the population that is cost-burdened by housing. A household is cost-burdened when more than 30 percent of income is spent on housing costs.
In Pitkin County, 37.18 percent of households are cost-burdened. Households that are cost-burdened see a direct correlation with their ability to maintain their health, as they are not able to spend as much money on nutritious food or health care. The stress of living in transitory situations also has an impact on mental and emotional health, as well as youth development and education.
The Greater Roaring Fork Housing Study completed this spring showed that locally, households that make between $42,000 and $58,800 a year are spending the highest percent of their income on housing. On average, the valley’s cost-burdened population pays about $320 a month more on housing than they would if they were under the 30 percent threshold, which amounts to $54 million dollars annually that is not being spent on food, health care or local businesses.
Census data also show that within Pitkin County, 34.65 percent of residents live in what is categorized as suboptimal housing. This can mean residences where there is not a complete kitchen, plumbing or where there are multiple unrelated residents per bedroom. Those who live in suboptimal housing are more likely to suffer from chronic illness or communicable diseases.
During the 2018-19 session of the Colorado General Assembly, lawmakers passed several new bills that will open up funds for local governments to spend on affordable housing. One bill will add $5 million to the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority’s affordable housing tax credit program.
Aspen Housing Partners, the developer behind three new local affordable rental projects set to open next year, is using the affordable housing tax credit program to fund the projects. The recently completed Roaring Fork Apartments affordable housing complex in Basalt also used the credit program.
A bill sponsored by regional state representatives Dylan Roberts and Perry Will transfers almost $1 billion into an affordable housing grant fund over the next four years. Local communities will be able to apply for projects that are most appropriate to them. Elected officials hope this fund will help rural communities and smaller housing projects, as the affordable housing tax credit program has a minimum unit requirement that is in the range of some of Aspen’s biggest housing complexes.
The Colorado Division of Housing is also working on gathering more data to support rural areas. Connor Everson, policy analyst for the division, said that Colorado is now the sixth most expensive state in the country in terms of the cost of rent. And particularly in ski areas, homes that are being sold are not bought by locals.
“In the rural resort region, the income of folks buying homes is 2.5 times higher than the existing population,” said Everson.
He said his data actually paints a rosier picture than reality because he uses mortgage costs to calculate his statistics, but the highest-end homes sold in places like Pitkin County are often bought with cash.
Division of Housing officials shared some efforts throughout the state that help address the health needs of Coloradans. Senior living facilities are being built by the Green House Project which splits its inventory between low-income and free market rates. There are growing subsidies for increasing energy efficiency in low-income homes and trailers, which helps save on utility costs.
Dawn Melgares, executive director at San Luis Valley Housing Coalition, said she sees rural clients unplugging their refrigerators at night to help save money, or sacrificing turning on lights in their house so they can run oxygen machines. Her office has been able to work with Xcel Energy to build solar panels hooked up to Tesla-built battery packs that will allow rural homes to power devices for days.
Thomas Davidson is a Summit County commissioner. The county is almost 80 percent Forest Land and he said that new federal laws have changed regulations for developing certain types of Forest Service land. Summit County just purchased 40 acres for housing development and Davidson acknowledged that it was controversial to trade open land for workforce housing, just as it is in Pitkin County. Davidson said that in his mind, creating homes for locals is the priority.
“Housing is fundamental to a real town where people live, work, play and raise families,” he said.