Hope for those in Douglas County’s housing gap

By Kiersten J. Mayer, Staff Writer

Recovering from a car accident and domestic violence, Freya Collins is now struggling with the task of finding affordable housing in Douglas County.

The Highlands Ranch resident is a make-up artist and stylist and a single mother with a teenage boy. She wants to keep her son in Douglas County schools.

Collins has been looking for housing since May. She is living in her ex-boyfriend’s house, but it’s in foreclosure.

She and her son moved into her ex-boyfriend’s big three-story house to give her time to recover from one of two automobile accidents. She needed to heal and needed a good school for her son. But after a recent violent dispute, her ex-boyfriend was arrested and charged with her attempted murder, kidnapping, child abuse and more.

Now it is vital for her son to stay in his school, she says. He’s getting great grades and he loves his friends. She doesn’t want to uproot him after all he’s been through. The teachers and the curriculum are good for him, Collins said.

There would be nothing more tragic than taking that away from him, she said.

If she can’t find an affordable place to live, her son is going to have to live with his aunt in Highlands Ranch so he would be able to stay in school.

“Which is horrible because these are the last three years I have with him before college,” she said.

For her part, Collins feels safe in Highlands Ranch. It’s quiet. When she goes to downtown Denver, she quickly gets overwhelmed.

The trouble with housing

Collins is one of many Douglas County residents who struggle to find affordable housing.

A house in Highlands Ranch will cost about $1,200 a month to rent, she said. And she has no idea when the foreclosure will be final.

“There’s absolutely no HUD housing out here,” she said. “There’s absolutely nothing in Highlands Ranch I’m going to possibly be able to afford.”

The median sale price of a house in Douglas County is about $330,000 and rentals average to $800-$900 a month for a one bedroom, said Jeff Watson, Douglas County assistant director of community services.

Douglas County’s cash in lieu of affordable housing program will allow the Douglas County Housing Partnership to build affordable rental housing where it’s needed.

The biggest need is for people and households earning 50-80 percent of the area median income.

“The intent is to try and target that group with regard to supporting affordable housing or what you could call workforce housing,” Watson said.

Not only service and retail employees, but teachers, firefighters, police officers and some hospital staff could qualify, he said.

“They’re providing an important service and can’t necessarily afford to live here at strictly market rates,” he said.

In Denver, Collins could find a 750-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment for $695 a month.

At the beginning of her search in Highlands Ranch, she was hopeful she could find something. Now she’s starting to wonder if she and her son are going to have to move into a studio apartment for $800 a month.

“Do they even have studio apartments out here?” Collins said.

Craig Maraschky, executive director of the Douglas County Housing Partnership said there is a demand for roughly 200 units of additional rental housing each year.

If there are rental apartment buildings for sale, his agency investigates a possible purchase.

“But because those [properties] have been built in the last 10 years, the cost is prohibitive,” he said. “They were built as market rate rental housing, and that’s not what we do.”

Combined with competing for existing rental units is the prospect of building new apartment units in Douglas County.

“You’re looking at costs between $160,000 and up per unit to build new rental units,” he said.

That includes cost of land, attorney services, permits, design and construction, impact fees, interest costs by lenders and consultants’ fees, he said.

“We compete for land like anybody does,” he said. “We have to pretty much pay market prices for the land.”

Another difficulty is finding land in the right place. Affordable rentals have to be where there are jobs for those who need them, in urban parts of the county like Parker and Castle Rock.

A jump start

Federal money makes up 75 percent of the $3.4 million the housing partnership has raised to provide affordable housing, to Douglas County residents who are in need, over three and a half years, including the purchase of the Oakwood Senior Housing complex in Castle Rock. The remaining 25 percent in local money comes from corporate donations, small fees from developers and contributions from Parker, Castle Rock and Douglas County for general operations.

The housing agency’s major financing mechanism is the federally funded Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program. Corporations that pay a lot of income tax can soften that blow by buying a tax credit to invest in affordable housing.

However, the program is very competitive and agencies like the Douglas County Housing Partnership have to be ready to proceed with architectural design, a contract to buy the land, Maraschky said.

“It probably takes $125,000 to get to that point,” he said.

In addition to trying to provide rentals, cash in lieu fees will be used for down payment assistance for people to buy homes.

Douglas County community development officials are proposing a program that might help alleviate the problem in the future.

Staff has worked with a number of developers who were required to build affordable housing for qualified people such as service and retail workers, Watson said.

And while that requirement hasn’t gone away, community development staff took another approach to get cash instead.

Developers will be able to pay a fee instead of building affordable housing, which goes directly to the partnership to build and keep attainable housing in Douglas County, Watson said.

Representatives for Canyons South, a development northeast of Castle Rock agreed to pay a total of $874,000 instead of building affordable housing. The first minimum payment will be $260,000 and Canyons South representatives anticipate making that payment this fall.

Being able to pay cash instead of having to build affordable units was the real bottom line for Douglas County officials and for Canyons South developers, said Don Hunt, project adviser for the Canyons South development.

It was a matter of location, the lack of transit access and the nature of the project, a golf club community.

“It’s hard to incorporate attainable housing into that sort of setting,” Hunt said.

Making cash payments instead of requiring developers to build is a long-term solution.

“It’s a tool in the box of affordable housing,” Maraschky said. “This is not an instant solution to the problem. It’s a step in the right direction, but it will provide benefits in the long run.”

Falling through the affordable housing gap

Because the house she’s living in isn’t in her name, 32-year-old Collins has no idea how long she has until the foreclosure will be complete. She has worked her whole life, but her ex-boyfriend took care of the bills and the finances.

She has her bad days, still recovering from injuries she suffered when he choked her and threw her all over the house, she said. All the physical therapy she went through for the second auto accident was undone.

She lives now on medication and is always in pain. If she doesn’t take her medication, she’s a mess. She has filed lawsuits for the car accidents, neither of which were her fault, she said.

She suffered disc injuries in her neck, which has affected her ability to use her hands. She is starting to back to work as a make-up artist and stylist, but it’s physically difficult for her, and she’s displaced and can’t be completely reliable.

She just lost her Internet service, which her son needs for school and she needs to find housing. There is no car and she won’t be able to get one until at least one of her lawsuits is settled. She has to replace all of her cosmetics.

Collins is upbeat and strong in spirit, and doesn’t seem to have fallen into a victim mentality. But she has physical limitations.

She can only stand, and use her hands, for so long. Some days she doesn’t know if she’s going to wake up because of the injuries to her neck. Sometimes her vision will go in and out. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

Collins recently qualified for Medicaid and is hoping to go back to physical therapy.

She’s been trying to work and provide a decent life for her son and has a lot of help. She understands that her state in life right now is only a temporary thing.

“My family and friends are so supportive,” she said. “My son is awesome. He’s the coolest person on earth. He goes with the flow. We have a really strong bond.”

She also has a team of doctors she sees, including a psychologist, a psychiatrist and a neurologist.

Collins was looking on the Internet by putting in her available income to find something she can afford. She has just started to go to agencies in Douglas County that can help her find a place.

She worries that the things she has collected over the years that have sentimental value to her and help her stay connected to who she is; they will either have to be sold or put into storage.

“I’m very hopeful there will be something, somewhere, by the glory of God someone, someplace, will be able to find us [something] out here,” she said.

Contact Kiersten J. Mayer at 303-663-7174 or kmayer@ccnewspapers.com.

© Colorado Community Newspapers 2007

Comments are closed.