The Boulder Shelter for the Homeless is buying properties to rent out to people other landlords won't. Credit: John Herrick

The city’s largest homeless shelter, the nonprofit Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, is planning to purchase up to 10 housing units to rent to unhoused people. The program is intended to help fill the housing gap for people for whom it has struggled to find landlords. 

The nonprofit, which runs the 160-bed shelter in North Boulder, helps homeless individuals get vouchers to cover some of the costs of renting a home. It also helps them apply for a lease. The organization said it has found it particularly difficult to find landlords willing to rent to people with certain criminal records. 

“For those individuals who find it very difficult to secure a landlord, the shelter will endeavor to become a low-level landlord of last resort,” Spencer Downing, the interim director of the shelter, told Boulder Reporting Lab. 

The project is not meant to drastically change the mission of the shelter. 

“The shelter, the board and the staff are not interested in moving into development or becoming a major owner of properties,” Downing said.

The new program is a response to a persistent challenge in which common symptoms of homelessness — eviction history, drug addiction, criminal charges — often preclude people from finding a home. 

Like other landlords, Boulder Housing Partners, the city’s largest recipient of the city’s affordable housing dollars, prohibits renting to people who have criminal records with recent convictions for evictions, drugs or violence or who are listed in the Sex Offender Registry, according to its eligibility criteria for affordable rentals. Due to property damage concerns, few landlords, if any, will lease to someone known to use methamphetamine.

To support the shelter’s property acquisition, the City of Boulder is planning to spend about $2 million over the next two years, according to Kurt Firnhaber, the director of Housing and Human Services. 

In addition to helping the shelter buy properties, Firnhaber said the city is investing roughly $1.5 million to buy a Boulder property for a “recovery” home, primarily for people who are addicted to methamphetamine and transitioning out of incarceration. In December 2021, the city and county received a $900,000 grant from the Department of Justice for the project that aims to serve 207 people over three years. The program is expected to be up and running by the end of the year, according to city officials. 

Such property investments are a pillar of the city’s strategy for addressing homelessness. According to a presentation from city staff to the Boulder City Council on Sept. 1, 2022, the city expects to spend about $8 million on homelessness in 2022. That is more than double the $3.6 million it spent in 2021. Most of that money is for buying properties or building housing. 

Efforts to find housing for people with criminal records and drug addiction are part of an ongoing evolution of the city and county’s “housing first” program, which was launched in 2017. The philosophy behind the program is to focus on ending a person’s homelessness by first getting them into a home, rather than first addressing issues of mental health, drug addiction and employment. It also comes at the expense of beefing up emergency sheltering services.

Since the county launched the program, it has placed about 738 people directly into homes, according to a city-managed data dashboard. Other people are reported as having “exited homelessness” through other means, such as receiving a bus ticket to go live with family. 

City officials estimate about 70% to 80% of the people housed through the county’s program have remained housed. 

“[The program] has likely housed more individuals than the system has the capacity to fully support,” states a memo on homelessness that city staff presented to the Boulder City Council on Sept. 1, 2022. 

As the program grows, city officials say they are seeing more emergency service calls to affordable housing sites and increased conflict with residents.

“As the system moves to housing the most challenging people…program participants will require enhanced behavior health services, substance use disorder treatment, counseling and community connections,” the memo states. 

This is one reason why the city is also planning to create a new program that offers peer support, in which people who have experienced living without a home help each other. Firnhaber said the city plans to contract with Focus Reentry, which helps people transition out of incarceration, and Feet Forward, a nonprofit that already provides peer support at the Boulder Bandshell on Tuesday afternoons, to operate the program. He said the city plans to use $1.5 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money to create it. 

The decision to increase city investments in helping the hardest people to house — and those who need the most support — has stoked some discussion between city staff and the Boulder City Council about tradeoffs and where to spend public money on homelessness. 

‘A real balancing act’ 

More Boulder County families, including children, are sleeping in hotels because they cannot afford homes, according to the memo. 

Firnhaber said the city is investing significantly less in family homelessness, about $700,000 per year, than it is people deemed as having a “high vulnerability,” such as a drug addiction, mental illness or older age. 

“I would hate to see a woman with a child who is escaping an abusive spouse not be adequately prioritized,” wrote Councilmember Mark Wallach in an email to his colleagues and city officials ahead of the city council meeting on Thursday. 

Firnhaber said in an interview that the city will have to decide how it wants to spend its resources. 

“That’s a real balancing act,” he said. “The challenge I have is one of the main causes of adult homelessness is child homelessness. It is important that we don’t lose track of those investments and the impact that those families are having in our expensive community.”

John Herrick

John Herrick reports on housing, climate, health and local government for Boulder Reporting Lab. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness.

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