Confluence Q & A: The Future of Public Housing with Ismael Guerrero

As Confluence Denver wraps up its six-part series on the Denver Housing Authority, the organization’s executive director, Ismael Guerrero, discusses his agency's strategies for a rapidly-growing city.

Confluence Denver: There has been plenty of buzz over housing since we first talked in December, back when Denver made headlines for being one of the least affordable places to live in the U.S. Do you see the need for public housing rising with the local cost of living?

Ismael Guerrero: Here in Denver, as in other high-cost housing cities, even working families earning a livable wage are finding it hard to afford the rental prices our current market commands. The need for public housing continues to grow, whether it’s subsidized through the public housing program or Section 8 housing choice vouchers.

Ismael Guerrero

Are most of DHA’s units built for families?

Actually, public housing has traditionally served people at the fixed-income level, including seniors and individuals with disabilities. With subsidized housing, residents pay 30 percent of their income toward rent. As more people reach retirement age, there will be an increase in the number of seniors living on fixed incomes, unable to keep up with the rising cost of housing.

Are there any barriers to providing subsidized housing to fixed-income tenants and families?

Housing authorities are dealing with two major challenges that will likely impact public housing in the future. The first problem has to do with funding. For almost a decade now, Congress has underfunded the capital program (administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) that allows us to maintain and repair our existing housing portfolio.

How does DHA make up for lost funds?

A lot of what we’re doing is finding creative ways is to make major capital investments in our existing public housing stock, so that our buildings continue to be quality, healthy homes for residents. At Platte Valley Homes, for example, we have 65 units of public housing that need to be rehabbed. We’re going to rebuild 18 units a few blocks away, creating a property for seniors and individuals with disabilities. The remaining units will be redeveloped on-site, into higher-density housing. Ultimately, this allows us to free up land that we can sell at a profit. The proceeds will help us fund other housing projects.

As federal financial support dwindles, will DHA seek local support?

We have commitments from the Mayor’s Office and the Denver Office of Economic Development, which allow us to leverage additional dollars, and we’ve been fortunate to work closely with the city’s planning department to create neighborhood plans. We’ve also started collaborating with private partners in the community, including Comcast. By investing in technology centers in five DHA developments, Comcast gives residents access to services that wouldn’t be financially viable otherwise. Other partners .such as Catholic Charities and Youth on Record, do their own capital campaigns. We create the space for them to be in the neighborhood, so they can do tenant improvements.   

The Tapiz Apartments at Mariposa are home to senior and non-elderly disabled residents. The mural was painted by the artist Jolt who grew up in public housing. All images provided by DHA.

Services coupled with subsidized housing… that sounds similar to permanent supportive housing.

Homelessness is a big focus in Denver right now, and permanent supportive housing is something we’ve had a lot of success with locally. As a housing authority, we see our role in creating more permanent supportive housing, which is a model of providing subsidized or low-rent housing wrapped with services. This is the next step, after you get families through shelters.

You said there were two challenges. What’s the second big challenge DHA faces?

Our subsidized housing residents earn an average of $11,000 dollars annually. They pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, and that doesn’t cover our operating costs. So through HUD, the federal government subsidizes the operations of our housing units. Congress has proposed to slash the operating fund for public housing, putting our program’s long-term sustainability at risk.

North Lincoln Family Development in La Alma Lincoln Park neighborhood is a model for energy-efficient community housing.

How will DHA respond to this curveball?

Many housing authorities are converting their public housing from an operating subsidy to a contract-based rent model. We’re looking into this, but we haven’t jumped yet because it doesn’t work for every housing authority. The problem is that HUD isn’t always in sync with the market. Denver is on the extreme end of the national housing market; we wouldn’t want to lock into rents that are below fair market rate.

Ismael Guerrero with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and members of the City Council at the groundbreaking for the Ashley Apartments, a partnership delivering affordable housing at Union Station. Images provided by DHA.

Beyond financing, are there any other areas where DHA innovates?

We think the best public housing comes in the form of diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods that are well integrated. When it was built in the 1950s and 1960s, public housing was often highly concentrated, and could be very isolated. There might be 300 to 400 units of housing in one site. Concentrated poverty leads to challenges for our residents, including less access to jobs and higher crime.

The Mariposa district is a great example of a diverse, integrated neighborhood. Here, we tore down old housing, and rebuilt a new development that has not just public housing, but affordable and market rate housing, too. We’ll need to continue developing our larger family sites into new communities with diverse incomes and demographics.


Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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