Apr 10, 2019
In February 2019, the ribbon was cut on 49 new affordable apartment homes in a historic building at the site of the former St. Anthony’s hospital near Sloan’s Lake. The Sienna at Sloan’s Lake affordable housing in the Kuhlman Building is a great housing success. And it is also a great case study to answer some of the most frequent questions our office receives on affordable housing.
Q: Can the City Require Developers to Build Affordable Housing in their Projects, Instead of Paying a Fee?
A: Yes, when there is an agreement for the City to provide some additional benefit to the developer they wouldn’t have under the existing rules. For example, the City often requires a plan to build affordable housing on site when there is a request for special taxing authority (a Metro District) or City financial assistance. The Old St. Anthony’s hospital site near Sloan’s Lake, of which Sienna is a part, is a great example. The hospital moved to Lakewood and the 19-acre site was left vacant with brownfield conditions, requiring extra taxing authority and some subsidies to clean up and prepare for re-use. Sites like this are the best opportunity to accommodate housing and services for our growing city, while protecting more stable residential areas from more intense changes. Councilwoman Robin Kniech and other council members successfully called upon the City to negotiate an agreement with the developer, based on the permissions and subsidies they requested, that will provide more than 180 affordable homes, including a full range of prices from very low to moderate incomes and funding supporting homeownership (see below for more details on Area Median Incomes). Sloan’s isn’t unique, Councilwoman Kniech has successfully advocated for affordable housing in greater numbers and lower prices than the standard City policies would have required in nearly a dozen major redevelopment areas, including: the Old Gates Rubber Factory in Central Denver, the former CU Hospital in East Central Denver, development near Union Station, the former CDOT Headquarters in South East Denver, and at many other sites.
A: And yes, where there is a “Density Bonus” Adopted into the Zoning Code.
The City can also require affordable housing in exchange for more density in a few areas where more density is appropriate, such as near transit. A “density bonus” policy is in place near the 38th & Blake transit stop and on any future redevelopment of the Central Platte Valley’s Elitch’s or Pepsi Center site. For the first half of the CPV, known as River Mile, an agreement was negotiated requiring approximately 15% affordable housing with a range of bedrooms, rental and for-sale, and levels of affordability, including very low income. If full build-out is achieved, the agreement could result in as many as 800 affordable homes.
Q: Why Doesn’t the City Require All Developers to Include Affordable Housing Instead of Paying a Fee?
A: Current state law prohibits cities from requiring affordable rental housing of all new development through “inclusionary zoning” because according to the Colorado Supreme Court it is considered a form of “rent control,” which is illegal. There is an exception for voluntary agreements with developers, which is what allows Denver to negotiate for affordable housing in the examples above. This is why when Councilwoman Robin Kniech co-sponsored the 2016 creation of the housing fund, Council passed an affordable housing “linkage fee” on every square foot of development in Denver, so development is contributing to affordable housing even when the City can’t require all developers to build it. But the councilwoman made sure to write the law to allow housing to be built on site instead of paying the fee, and some communities have advocated for and won commitments from developers to build the affordable units on site instead of paying the fee.
Councilwoman Kniech is working with legislators to support a change to state law that would allow local control over rent stabilization, therefore removing any prohibition on inclusionary housing. If it passes, Denver could begin to have a serious conversation about the benefits and draw backs of using inclusionary housing instead of a fee on residential development. Pros include the creation of mixed-income buildings, rather than stand-alone buildings of just affordable apartments. Cons include the fact that inclusionary housing does not produce very low-income homes, or homes for those who need services, like folks exiting homelessness.
Q: Where is All This Affordable Housing? I Don’t See Any in My Neighborhood.
A: There aren’t typically signs on the outside of a buildings saying “low-income workers or families live here.” And those who build affordable housing have worked hard, especially over the past several decades, to build high-quality buildings that blend with neighboring communities, so you can’t tell the price of the units or the income of the residents just by looking at the building. To see the general vicinity of affordable housing being built across Denver you can look at this map. Both Denver’s housing plan and our recent doubling of the housing fund require us to work even harder to ensure new/preserved affordable housing is happening in communities throughout the city, including those with access to high quality schools and job opportunities, and along transit corridors. The Kuhlman building at Sloan’s is a great example. This affordable housing was built in a beautiful, historic building, preserving the character of the neighborhood while expanding housing for working households.
Q: What Do You Mean by “Affordable” Anyway? I Don’t Think These Prices Are Actually Affordable.
A: The 49 new homes in Sienna on Sloan’s lake are affordable to families earning less than $37,800 - 43,200 (60% of Area Median Income), depending on household size, which is a typical salary for a cement worker or nursing assistant. But these income guidelines are maximums. And following a law Councilwoman Kniech sponsored in 2018, every landlord in Denver must accept a housing voucher if a qualified applicant is using one to pay part of their rent. Which means that homes built for families at 60% of AMI could house a family exiting homelessness or working a very low-wage retail job if they also had a housing voucher.
Additionally, we work to ensure a mix of housing at a variety of levels, in large redevelopments especially. For example, the 49 apartments in Sienna are in addition to more than 111 homes that will be built for very low-income seniors between 0-30% of AMI that will be built on the site by the Denver Housing Authority.