by Jenny Niemann
Denver will soon have its first-ever dedicated affordable housing fund. On September 19th, the Denver City Council authorized the Denver Fund for Affordable Housing, which will support the construction or preservation of around 6,000 affordable housing units, as well as emergency financial assistance to help families stay in their homes. Through a property taxes and developer fees, this fund will provide an estimated $150 million over 10 years and will add to Denver’s existing efforts to address Denver’s growing affordability challenges: home prices in Denver have increased over 50% in the past six years.
While 6,000 units makes a small dent in this problem, it is a significant step towards ensuring Denver remains a livable place for families of all ranges of incomes. A second initiative also just passed the City Council, allowing for density bonuses around the 38th and Blake rail station (in the form of taller buildings) if the development includes affordable housing. While many details still need to be finalized, this could prove an effective way to get many more affordable units constructed, as it has in many other cities.
This is an exciting move for our growing city, not only because this will help some of the estimated 87,000 families in Denver who are cost-burdened by housing. Affordable housing also provides dividends for the entire city over the long term by improving the health of its residents. People who are not cost-burdened by housing spend more on both nutritious food and essential health care services. Families who are in affordable housing also have lower stress levels, which helps them to avoid a number of negative health impacts including high blood pressure. On the other hand, housing stress has been associated with poor mental health, negative health behaviors like smoking, and poor overall health. Oakland found that their affordable housing crisis was leading to a public health crisis of its own, leading in increases in hypertension, asthma, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.
On a larger scale, it also means that families of all incomes can have access to some of Denver’s best neighborhoods, which promotes health through their walkable and accessible nature. The River North and Cole neighborhoods around the 38th and Blake station, where the density bonus will take effect, provide a wide variety of transportation options including rail transit, are bikeable to downtown, and are walkable to services like the Eastside Family Health Center. A city that provides affordable options in its transit-oriented neighborhoods is ensuring that the many benefits of walkable, transportation-rich neighborhoods accrue to residents from many incomes.
Affordable housing’s benefits go far beyond the borders of its walls: cities who support housing are more regionally competitive and its businesses have greater employee retention. They also save money, too: a recent study of California’s affordable housing found that providing housing for homeless individuals saves general funds—taxpayer dollars!—as demand falls for other social services. Affordable housing can also lead to lower health care expenditures by Medicaid recipients. Children that move to affordable housing in low-poverty neighborhoods even have higher incomes as adults.
The Denver Housing Authority (DHA) recognizes these benefits: it integrated health into its plans for the award-winning Mariposa District housing development, a mixed-income community with a walkable transit-oriented design, a community garden, community health classes, a healthy food care and public art. Other DHA properties help seniors and disabled residents connect to health care. A new DHA program will focus on residents who are frequent users of Medicaid services, in an effort to reduce the use of health care while providing improved quality of care. This program could result in significant cost savings for the health care system.
Affordable housing is an important piece of the puzzle that will help Denver remain an inclusive city as it grows. Denver’s new affordable housing fund will help house more people. But it’s worth remembering that these 6,000 units will improve health and create benefits far beyond cost savings for low-income households. Denver has the potential to become a stronger city overall when it makes affording housing a bit easier for its residents to obtain.
Jenny Niemann is a graduate student in the University of Colorado Denver’s dual-degree in urban planning and public health. Her graduate work involves alternative transportation and healthy food systems and how the benefits of these sustainable city services can be accessed by households of all incomes. A native of the suburbs of Washington, DC, Jenny enjoys exploring Colorado’s growing cities and mountains by bicycle.