The City of Boulder is considering expanding its affordable housing program to communities across the county. The goal would be to shore up more housing for low-income families and provide services aimed at preventing evictions and foreclosures, in a first-of-its-kind regional partnership.
The idea is being floated as part of a plan for how to spend $63.4 million allocated to Boulder County from the U.S Treasury Department under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which Congress passed in March 2021 to help address the economic and health disparities exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The plan comes after three working groups — made up of residents, city and county officials, and leaders of local advocacy groups — were appointed earlier this year to take feedback from the public and come up with spending recommendations.
The members pitched their $44 million spending plan on May 3, 2022, to the Board of County Commissioners.
It includes major investments in childcare, grants for small businesses and a wide range of mental health services.
But the largest portion of the spending plan – $14.7 million – would go toward addressing the county’s housing crisis, creating a regional housing program that would be the first in Colorado, according to working group members.
Under the proposed plan, the City of Boulder, which has the largest affordable housing program in the county, would provide staffing to local governments to ensure compliance with a regional affordable housing program by developers and residents. It would allow its staff at the Boulder County District court to provide eviction prevention services and rental assistance to county residents.
The plan also includes expanding homeownership programs to potentially allow local governments to purchase condos or townhomes and sell them at below-market rate. Some money would also help subsidize affordable housing projects already in the works.
The lack of affordable housing in the City of Boulder is one of the reasons why more than half the city’s workers commute in from neighboring communities, according to an analysis by city staff. Even city employees who help manage the city’s housing services live outside the city, according to Kurt Firnhaber, the City of Boulder’s director of Housing and Human Services. Firnhaber is an ARPA working group member who helped come up with the plan.
There is concern that the region’s worsening housing affordability is reaching further and further, with far-reaching implications for the city’s economy.
“Our communities are very intertwined. People live in one community and work in the other,” Firnhaber told the Boulder Reporting Lab. “Many of our staff now are living beyond Erie. They’re living north of Longmont. People are going out even farther than they were a couple of years ago.”
The investment will build upon a regional affordable housing partnership that has been years in the making. In 2017, 10 local governments — Longmont, Boulder, Lafayette, and Louisville, Erie, Lyons, Nederland, Superior, Jamestown and Boulder County — signed a resolution to create the Boulder County Regional Housing Partnership. The resolution set the goal of setting aside 12% of the housing stock in Boulder County as permanently affordable to low, moderate, and middle-income households by 2035. (The most recent data, from 2017, indicates 5% of the region’s housing stock is affordable.)
All ARPA money has to be expended by the end of 2026. According to the county, about $7.6 million in ARPA money has been spent so far, mostly on paying for county staff to manage the funds and the effort to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine.
Firnhaber said if the recommendation is approved, the city will seek to enter into an agreement with the other local governments for how to pay for its work when the ARPA money runs out. Some of the money would likely come from cash-in-lieu fees developers pay into an affordable housing fund in exchange for not building deed-restricted affordable housing.
Mobile home investments
The housing money would also go toward helping residents in mobile home parks pay for repairs. And it would provide low- to no-interest forgivable loans for residents to buy the land beneath their homes from park owners, who have a history of raising rent on residents struggling to afford another place to live.
In June 2021, the Sans Souci mobile home park community purchased its park from its owners. The residents were then strapped with the cost of upgrading their wastewater treatment system, which is currently out of compliance with state water quality standards, according to Michael Peirce, Sans Souci homeowners’ association president and member of the working group.
Peirce said the residents also have to pay for a flood mitigation projects because the park is in a flood zone. The impact of these costs is higher rent, he said.
“It’s going to help us immensely if we can tap these funds. When we bought the park, we faced a very big unexpected extra costs,” Peirce told the Boulder Reporting Lab.
Peirce said the money will help other mobile home park residents, too. He cited the example of San Lazaro, a mobile home park located just outside the eastern edge of the City of Boulder and has long lacked access to clean drinking water.
“It’s not water you’d want to drink,” Peirce said. “That has been a persistent problem and the park management seems unwilling to upgrade their treatment system. So the goal is to put some money into the infrastructure so that residents will get better service.”
Staffing challenges ahead
The major investment in social and safety net services comes amid a labor shortage that could delay the rollout of such programs.
In February, Mental Health Partners, the county’s largest provider of mental health services, slashed the hours of its mental health crisis center, citing difficulties finding crisis clinicians. For similar reasons, the City of Boulder has struggled to ramp up its co-responder program, which pairs social workers with police on 911 calls involving people reporting a behavioral health crisis. (One recommendation would spend $3 million to create an 8-person mobile behavioral health response team that does not involve law enforcement.)
“What we’ve been hearing so much over the last several years is the shortage of providers,” Claire Levy, a county commissioner from Boulder, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I didn’t see anything to address that provider shortage. So I’d be interested in understanding as we try to expand access, but we don’t have the providers to serve that expanded access, whether we’re going to be able to actually fulfill the promise here.”
The county commissioners are expected to decide whether to approve the ARPA spending on a rolling basis during public meetings over the coming weeks. The agenda for weekly meetings are posted online.