Coloradans living in transitional housing face difficulties finding permanent homes

When Jonita Davis finally secured a rental apartment in mid-July, her two children asked to hold the keys. The kids, 7 and 10, twirled the keys around in their fingers — tactile evidence that their six-month stay crammed into a Centennial hotel room was coming to an end.

Everybody has their own room in the family’s new three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in south metro Denver. Davis’ son has a race car bed. Her daughter plays with toys on the balcony while Davis reads. Now that she and her children are somewhere safe, Davis is only beginning to process what it means to have escaped a toxic relationship.

The whole family is taking a collective, grounding breath, she said.

Even so, fear lingers.

“It’s a mix of relief and fear,” Davis said. “Is this real? Is this permanent? Is this going to be taken away? The kids saw me stressing every week about paying for the hotel room, and it took me a minute to get them to understand that we don’t have to do that here. We’ve had so many false starts and disappointments.”

People living in transitional housing — hotels, domestic violence shelters, group home settings — often face housing barriers that can include low incomes and debt, dinged credit and poor housing track records after fleeing violence, suffering health problems and struggling with child care deficiencies or the inability to access vital documents they may have had to leave behind.

Factor in Colorado’s housing market and the odds of these vulnerable populations finding a place to call home can feel Sisyphean. The need for affordable housing is so great in Colorado, and there’s such a scarcity of options, that domestic violence survivors, single parents and other people caught in between permanent places to live are enduring years-long waitlists for subsidized housing — waits that often hinge on an annual lottery drawing to even be given the opportunity to apply for a unit.

“Because of how the housing market is here and the barriers of domestic violence, housing is nearly impossible,” said Cymone Williams, chief program officer at SafeHouse Denver, which offers emergency shelter and an extended-stay program for domestic violence survivors.

“When it’s not possible, sometimes people end up having to go to another shelter,” Williams said. “Sometimes people return home to abusers if resources aren’t able to be secured. That puts them in almost a worse situation because there’s an increased chance of violence. That’s the biggest thing we’re doing our best to avoid.”

Housing advocates warn that it’s not sustainable to connect the state’s most disenfranchised with housing in a market so hostile.

“It’s like they’re competing in a race they don’t have shoes for,” Williams said.

“The need is overwhelming right now”

Colorado is suffering from a dual housing crisis of affordability and availability, according to a 2023 report from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

The coalition found there are only 29 affordable units available in Colorado for every 100 extremely-low-income households, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defined as households earning 30% of the area’s median income. An extremely-low-income household in Denver is a household of one earning $24,650 a year or a household of four earning $35,150.

Colorado has a deficit of 114,378 homes for extremely-low-income households and 142,624 for very-low-income households, defined as a single person in Denver earning $41,050 and below, the report said. The deficit, the coalition found, is in part because of a 40% decline in home production between 2010 and 2020 compared to the previous decade.

Meanwhile, metro Denver apartment rent inflation outstripped income gains by a higher margin than in any other major city in the U.S. since 2009, a study by Clever Real Estate found. Nationally, median monthly rents increased from $817 in 2009 to $1,163 in 2021, a gain of 42%. Denver’s gain was 82%, rising from $856 a month to $1,554. And Denver wages didn’t keep pace with Denver rent, with rent outpacing income gains by a 71% margin.

The one-two punch of scarcity and cost is exemplified by the Denver Housing Authority’s subsidized housing waitlist, which is more than 30,000 people deep. The authority provides affordable housing to more than 26,000 people through its own public housing properties and a voucher system offering housing subsidies to people selected through a lottery system.

“The need is overwhelming right now,” said Joshua Crawley, the housing authority’s chief operating officer and general counsel.

The Denver Housing Authority manages 12 different waitlists for public housing, which can take anywhere from one to four years from the time someone joins the list to the time they’re asked to submit an application to qualify for a unit. How long it takes depends on the size of the unit needed — places for bigger families are typically harder to come by — and any other considerations like disability accommodations, Crawley said.

If someone manages to be randomly chosen to receive a housing voucher, which pays a federally-funded portion of the recipient’s rent based on their income, Crawley said Denver’s housing market is so expensive that people can’t find any unit they can afford with the value of their voucher.

“The rent prices right now are a major hurdle,” Crawley said.

“So hard to afford to live here now”

At Warren Village, which serves unhoused and unstably housed low-income single parents, residents are provided financial counseling so they can understand how to improve their credit and get a better shot at qualifying for a place to live, said Ashley Rimler, the Denver nonprofit’s housing and finance navigator.

During the height of the pandemic when evictions were paused and everything was so uncertain, Rimler said the usual churn of people moving up and out of public housing and affordable units was at a standstill, causing waitlists to fill up and drastically lengthen. That snowballed into even longer wait times, Rimler said.

“In a perfect world, I would want to do my job the best I can and get people housed so that my services aren’t needed anymore,” Rimler said. “In the meantime, I want people to know that the residents we serve are trying their best with the resources they have. If you’ve never had to rely on the government, you’re a lucky and privileged person because it is not easy to navigate.”

When Jada Galassini arrived to live at Warren Village in 2019, the staff advised the young mother to immediately add her name to the myriad subsidized housing waitlists available throughout the region. Housing advocates at the nonprofit know how long it can take to move up the waitlist, so they make that a top priority for new residents, who can stay at Warren Village between two and four years.

Galassini didn’t hear from local public housing providers about an available unit for three years, but once one came available, she didn’t apply after learning about a bed bug and roach problem, she said. Now 26, Galassini had her daughter when she was 18 and bounced between living with family and group homes for teen moms until she was able to go back to college and start working in the medical field.

“Originally, I was hoping to use the money I was saving to buy a one-bedroom condo for me and my daughter, but I quickly learned that was basically impossible in Denver unless you make more than $100,000,” Galassini said. “I was going to school, I was working, I was taking care of my daughter, and I’m a fifth-generation Coloradan. But it’s just so hard to afford to live here now.”

While at Warren Village, Galassini saved money and eventually connected with Habitat for Humanity and qualified for the organization’s housing assistance. Last year, Galassini bought a two-bedroom condo in southeast Denver with Habitat’s help, and the program helps keep her mortgage payments low at $1,200 a month.

“I just got so lucky with how everything worked out,” Galassini said. “I know if I didn’t have my daughter and didn’t have Habitat’s help, I couldn’t afford to live in Colorado, where my family has lived for generations. I sometimes look around my neighborhood and feel like I don’t even belong here.”

“Vicious, unfair cycle”

Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness, according to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, and the unique challenges survivors face make finding housing all the more difficult, said SafeHouse Denver’s Williams.

If a domestic violence survivor who has their name on a lease flees their abuser, their rental history can be tarnished, Williams said. Sometimes abusers will financially manipulate their victims, destroying their credit or incurring debt in the victim’s name. An abuser may forego rent payments on a unit their victim fled so an eviction appears on their rental history.

When Davis fled her toxic family situation, traversing multiple states until she reached Colorado in February, she said she had to leave behind documents like her kids’ birth certificates, which made it difficult for her to apply for government assistance programs here.

Davis and her children checked into an extended-stay hotel in Centennial while she looked for work, cared for her two children, enrolled them in school and undertook the daunting task of navigating subsidized housing programs.

“I was on all the waitlists,” Davis said. “There are so many waitlists. There are so many programs, but not enough funds. You start running in circles because this person sends you to this person who sends you back to the first person. There are too many people who need help.”

In April, Davis — a writer and journalist — landed a job as a reporter at Colorado Community Media, but she already had what felt like a full-time job trying to break down the subsidized housing bureaucracy.

Davis’s appointments with housing navigators and government agencies across metro Denver took place during normal working hours, so she often had to choose between running out on her new job or the possibility of securing a roof over her head.

The more apartments she applied for, the worse her credit score got as managers checked her score repeatedly — and the higher the rent deposits became due to her low credit score.

“It’s such a vicious, unfair cycle,” Davis said.

Davis became desensitized to sharing her traumatic backstory again and again, hoping the next re-telling would unlock the help she and her family required. She was grateful to have police reports, restraining orders and court documents to explain the housing debt clouding her record that made landlords and leasing agents worry.

Part of SafeHouse Denver’s mission is educating landlords on the rights of domestic violence survivors and explaining their residents’ circumstances to hesitant property managers, Williams said

Sometimes with the help of partnering agencies or outside funds, Williams said, SafeHouse is able to secure a resident’s housing by promising a landlord the organization will pay for the first month’s rent.

“That is the only way some people get housing, but us being a nonprofit, we can’t pay for everyone,” Williams said.

“All I want to do is just stay here”

While one nonprofit can’t do it all, a collective of agencies working together could make a difference, said Ramsey Ferguson, community partnership manager for Housing Connector.

The Denver nonprofit, which launched last year, acts as a bridge between community organizations trying to house marginalized people and property managers.

Housing Connector partners with local landlords and property managers who agree to reduce screening criteria for applicants — meaning an eviction, debt, criminal history or income-to-rent ratio can be overlooked — in exchange for the nonprofit guaranteeing the landlord three months of paid rent and up to $5,000 in damage mitigation, and acting as the point of contact between the tenant and management for any issues that may arise.

The nonprofit has its own Zillow platform showing properties that have agreed to these terms. The organization already has teamed up with more than 45 community partners across all seven metro Denver counties and is looking to grow, Ferguson said.

“We launched in Denver because we realized what a difficult place Denver is and how difficult of a housing market it is,” said Ferguson, noting Housing Connector also has a presence in Seattle and Dallas. “There are few units. Those that are affordable are rarely becoming vacant so there’s not really a place for people to go and when one comes available, it’s so competitive.”

Crawley, of the Denver Housing Authority, said he thinks the state needs to make the production of affordable housing more incentivized for interested developers. For example, Crawley said the authority has allocated up to 30% of its vouchers toward specific affordable housing properties, tying the money to units rather than the individuals living in them. This guarantees long-term affordability, Crawley said, because it provides the developers with guaranteed income based on the subsidies rather than wondering if a tenant will come through.

After months of Davis struggling to close her affordable housing deal, one of the threads she’d been pulling on finally gave via an unlikely avenue, she said.

A meeting with the publicly-funded Arapahoe/Douglas Workforce Center prompted the agency to offer Davis housing help. In order to keep her job, the workforce center said, she needed a stable place to live.

Davis found a subsidized apartment, and the workforce center covered her first month’s rent and housing deposit. The family of three is just beginning to settle into their new life.

“When we were living in the hotel, I would find any excuse for us to leave the room because we were on top of each other, and now all I want to do is just stay here,” Davis said.

After her housing ordeal, Davis believes there has to be a better way. While Davis said she was lucky to have a supportive job, she couldn’t imagine what someone might do who wasn’t able to take time off during the day to sit through long appointments at government agencies and take housing tours.

“You need a job in order to afford housing, but to get the housing, they make it really hard for you to have a job,” Davis said.

She wished there was more of a one-stop shop where aspiring tenants could take care of multiple steps at once.

Now, Davis is in therapy and hopes to begin healing from the past several months of her life.

“I’m finally in a safe place to grieve and mourn everything,” Davis said. “It’s overwhelming to be in this new place and now feel like I’m in sad girl mode, but that’s how I know I’m somewhere safe. My mind and body can begin to process.”

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