Growing Pains: Denver residents can’t ‘afford to live where they work’

City officials look for solutions to help residents find — and stay — in their homes

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Deanie Labriola is a woman who counts her blessings.

A month ago she moved into her new apartment in Arvada. Her living room has a few chairs, as well as a dining table. Her dog and cat keep her company.

“There’s still a lot more things that I need,” she said, “but I have a lot more than I had.”

After spending 20 years as a homeless woman in Denver, Labriola, 58, is proud of the space she now calls her own. She found the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless after participating in one of the organization’s Fort Lyons program eight years ago. It was a drug rehabilitation program that also helped with chronic homelessness. Now, Labriola works with a case manager to help with a housing voucher, medical needs and classes at the Community College of Denver.

Labriola’s journey to her home was a long one.

The waiting list for housing through the coalition is about two or three years. The first apartment she lived in was on Colfax Avenue, which presented a challenge to Labriola who had committed to staying sober, but was now within direct reach of drugs and alcohol on the street. She transferred to an apartment in Aurora for a short time before finding her current place in her hometown of Arvada.

The quiet neighborhood is close to the light rail so Labriola can get to class. There’s a “sense of peace” that she loves. There’s also a park behind her house where she can walk her dog. She’s trying to walk up to two miles a day. After working with the coalition, her goal, she said, is to better herself.

“The harder I work, the harder they seem to work for me,” Labriola said. “I think I have a responsibility now to put my best foot forward.”

Vulnerable populations

Over the past several years, Denver has continued to grow — from almost 600,000 in 2010 to an estimated 716,000 this year, according to U.S. Census Bureau records. Developers have tried to keep up with housing demand. But costs of apartments and houses had already started to climb. The new apartment stock coming into Denver is largely for luxury renters, which makes it difficult for those with lower and middle incomes to live in the city.

And the 2018 Point in Time survey, conducted by the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative, counted about 5,600 homeless people living in the Front Range.

Britta Fisher, chief housing officer with the Office of Economic Development in Denver, has been in her role for just over a year. Mayor Michael B. Hancock hired her after he began to change the function of the Office of Economic Development to focus on affordable housing. So far, Fisher said the city has started on 1,603 affordable units in the city this year, with another 458 breaking ground within the next year.

“Our construction pipeline is robust,” Fisher said. “We’ll be adding to that throughout the year.”

While Fisher said they are trying to spread those affordable units throughout Denver, city staff are also trying to pay attention to where vulnerable populations are living and where the most need exists. Unfortunately, those areas aren’t hard to find, she said. “It’s not hard to find need for affordable housing in Denver.”

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Denver is $1,072 according to Apartment List. That’s up from $917 in May 2014. House prices are not much better. In May, the average house in the metro area sold for more than $555,000, according to the Denver Metro Association of Realtors. In May 2013, the average price a house sold for just over $308,000.

Keeping a home

For many in Denver, the issue is not only finding housing, but staying in it. And the city has been working on a number of ideas to help residents do that, Fisher said.

Various assistance programs exist, such as Rent and Utility Assistance, as well as the Temporary Mortgage Assistance program. The city also expanded the preservation ordinance on how long units must remain affordable to 60 years from 20 years.

Labriola said that if a person has lived on the street for a number of years, he or she may not have the skill sets to do laundry or cook in a kitchen. They also might not have some of the basic supplies people think of when they move into a home, such as dishware. Some housing is also not close to stores or bus routes.

These setbacks, along with addiction problems, may turn people back to the streets. Labriola estimated that about 50% of the people she went to rehab with are on the streets again.

“I don’t know what can be done to change it,” she said. “A lot of people get housing, but lose it.”

For some of Denver’s most vulnerable populations — such as the homeless — staying in housing is crucial.

Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which among its many projects also works on programming to keep people in homes.

“In Denver,” she said, “people can’t really afford to live where they work.”

She advocates for more housing options for the whole income spectrum because housing, she said, is often not a one-size-fits-all solution. Families and couples have different needs than a single person. Families with children are often invisible in the homeless population, Alderman said. Many parents will try and find accommodations for their children to keep them safe. Being homeless as a child is something that impacts their development greatly, she added. Children are in constant survival mode when living on the streets.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” Alderman said. “That uncertainty just sort of carries with them for the rest of their lives.”

A new path in life

Labriola knows firsthand that it can be difficult to live as a woman on the street.

When she first moved to Denver in the early ‘90s, she started working as a cocktail waitress. But once she became addicted to drugs she turned to prostitution to make money, she said. Eventually, eight years ago she was given a choice, she said: serve a year-long prostitution sentence in jail or join a community program.

“I did good for a month or two and then I’d relapse,” she said. “People don’t realize how fast you can fall.”

After spending 20 months in the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless’ Fort Lyon program, Labriola is slowly getting back on her feet. This year, she will have been off of drugs for four years and off of alcohol for one.

She decided to go to school for human services because she knows exactly what it’s like to go hungry. At one time, she was living on $179 a month. Even when she had little to give, Labriola said she was giving what she could so people could brush their teeth or buy a meal. Now, she wants to explore doing that as her job.

“I think women need some more support,” she said. “I think that’s what I’d like to do.”

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