Monica Gallegos didnâ€™t plan to miss work for two months, but then she received the diagnosis: The pounding headache she thought was a migraine had been caused by a brain aneurysm behind her eye, and she needed surgery.
That was early June.
When Gallegos returned home a month later to the Westwood apartment she shares with two teenage sons, the rent was already overdue. No paycheck was in sight, and she would have to wait a few weeks for clearance to return to her job as a dental assistant.
â€śEverything hit me at once,â€ťÂ said Gallegos, 43. â€śIâ€™m single, and I didnâ€™t have any help. â€¦ I honestly thought I was going to be homeless.â€ť
She made it through the crisis with help from a new city program that has provided short-term assistance to hundreds of Denver residents who were temporarily at risk of losing their homes over rent or utility bills. The program has been among the most visible efforts of Denverâ€™s 10-year, $150 million affordable housing fundÂ since its launch at the start of 2017.
After Gallegos contacted Brothers Redevelopment, one of two nonprofits carrying out the assistance program, it covered her $1,165 rent for July. With that stress gone, sheâ€™s now back at work.
On Monday, the City Council is poised to approve an expansion that will double the cityâ€™s $15 million annual commitment to the housing fund, in part by raising the cityâ€™s special retail marijuana tax by 2 percentage points. The city, working through the Denver Housing Authority, also plans an upfront $105 million surge in funding by issuing bonds that will pay for large DHA redevelopment projects and land purchases across the city for future private and public projects.
Even as city officials prepare to expand the fund, itâ€™s too soon to fully assess the performance of the original plan. But it has been used already to set a raft of project subsidies and new programs in motion.
InformationÂ requested by The Denver Post shows thatÂ the city so far has spent or committed nearly $24 million from the fund, which draws on property taxes, new development impact fees and city budget transfers. The bulk is going toward loans and other subsidies for housing projects that, when finished, will provide more than 1,000 new apartments and for-sale homes to low- and middle-income people. Some projects are now under construction.
Gallegos and other people helped by the assistance program offer tangible accounts of its impact.
â€śIâ€™ve never asked for a handout,â€ť Gallegos said, â€śbut they were very kind and just very eager to help.â€ť
Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post
The building that housed the former El Diablo Restaurant, at 101 Broadway in Denver, as shown when it went up for bankruptcy auction in December 2015. A developer that plans to renovate the building, also formerly the First Avenue Hotel, is set to receive a city loan and tax financing help.
Before the fundâ€™s expansion, it had been projected to produce or preserveÂ about 6,000 income-qualified housing units over the next decade. Thatâ€™s about four times what city officials thought would have been possible otherwise.
But in the last year, Mayor Michael Hancockâ€™s administration has responded to pressure from council members and housing advocatesÂ to ramp up the effort. They argued that the funding plan wasnâ€™t nearly sufficient enough, given the scope of Denverâ€™s continuing population boom and the resulting housing affordability crisis.
So the expansion will boost and accelerate the program â€” especially in the first five years when officials expect to set in motion DHA and private projects that will result in 6,244 apartments, homes or other housing units.
But nobody portrays the new plan as a full solution.
The cityâ€™s latest estimate is that Denver has 92,000 households that are considered â€ścost burdened.â€ť That means they are paying more than 30 percent of their monthly incomes toward rent, a mortgage or other housing-related costs.
â€śIn doubling this fund, weâ€™re not done,â€ť Councilman Albus Brooks said during the councilâ€™s Aug. 20 meeting. â€śItâ€™s going to take the private sector, itâ€™s going to take government, itâ€™s going to take nonprofits and itâ€™s going to take the community to grow this.â€ť
For his part, Hancock points to economic forces beyond the cityâ€™s control â€” as well as the limited resources it can muster â€” in defending his administrationâ€™s approach.
â€śI think sometimes itâ€™s lost on people that the evolution of the cityâ€™s engagement on housing has been underway only about six years,â€ť he said. â€śSix years on this journey may seem like a long time, but to get to this point where weâ€™re even outpacing the state on our investments speaks volumes about the people of Denver.â€ť
The cityâ€™s efforts so far have focused on three areas: housing project subsidies, investments in existing buildings to keep affordability covenants from expiring, and programs to aid renters and homeowners. Here is a look at how Denver is using the housing fund so far.
Before the housing fundâ€™s creation, the city drew mostly on traditional federal and other outside funding sources to subsidize the building or preservation of thousands of homes. But the new fund already has amped up the results, at least in terms of funded projects.
The first 18 months have seen subsidies or commitments made from the fund for eight projects that will result in the development of 1,071 new units. Those include a DHA senior housing apartment project near Sloanâ€™s Lake, a private developerâ€™s apartment complex in far northeast Denver, another developerâ€™s plans to spruce up the vacant First Avenue Hotel on Broadway in central Denver andÂ Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denverâ€™s upcoming plan to build 32 for-sale duplex homes in Elyria-Swansea.
Some projects are getting city loans, while others are set to receive performance-based (or forgivable) loans that will turn into grants so long as the developers deliver their projects as promised. A couple still need council approval.
â€śWe would not have been able to acquire the property at 43rd and Elizabeth without this forgivable loan from the city,â€ť Heather Lafferty, Habitatâ€™s CEO, said about $1.8 million in city aid to buy vacant land from DHA at 43rd Avenue and Elizabeth Street.
Homebuyers there will be limited to households making up to 80 percent of the metro areaâ€™s median income, or about $72,000 for a family of four. Some of the rental projects will limit tenants toÂ lower-income brackets.
Among Denverâ€™s existing apartments and homes with income-qualification restrictions, more than 1,800 â€” or 8 percent â€” have restrictions or covenants that are due to expire in the next five years or so. The risk that those will be bought and converted to market-rate propertiesÂ is among the cityâ€™s chief housing challenges.
The city has used its new fund to help finance private purchases of two older buildings that will extend restrictions on 279 apartments for decades. The city has pledged $2.6 million toward Jonathan Rose Companiesâ€™ $31 million purchase of the Juanita Nolasco Apartments in west Denver, and it has agreed to provide nearly $1.4 million toward Gorman & Co.â€™s $8.2 million purchase and planned renovation of Capitol Hillâ€™s Colburn Hotel, which long has housed homeless people.
So far, the cityâ€™s least costly program has helped the most people. Denver spent $865,000 to launch the Temporary Rental and Utility AssistanceÂ program â€” the one that aided Gallegos â€” last fall. The first phase aided 486 low-income households with rent assistance, averaging $1,200 apiece, and others with utility bill payment help. TheÂ second $1 million phaseÂ is expected to help about 800 households through the end of the year, said Britta Fisher, Denverâ€™s chief housing officer.
The city also tapped $900,000 from the fund to help pay for a $3.8 million joint city/state home-improvement program to shield families living near Interstate 70 from noise and dust during a four-year highway project.
And soon, the city plans to launch aÂ pilot program that will â€śbuy downâ€ť the rents on market-rate apartments for 125 low- and middle-income households, making them more affordable.
Later this year, as the local housing fund expands, Denver will solicit ideas for other new programs.
â€śThe important thing is to do whatâ€™s working well â€” where we see results â€” and to keep innovating,â€ť Fisher said.