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Affordable housing or double dipping?


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The state of affordable housing in Colorado Springs depends on your definition of affordable.

In its 2002 annual report, the city's Housing Authority boasted the addition of "376 units of new, affordable rental housing."

These units can be found at Westmeadow Peaks near Fort Carson and Winfield Apartments in Stetson Hills in northeastern Colorado Springs. The one-, two- and three-bedroom units are the result of a partnership between the Housing Authority and private developers in Denver and Portland, Ore.

Federal agencies have long assisted in helping low-income tenants, most often using Section 8 vouchers where tenants pay 30 percent of their income as rent and the government reimburses the rest to the landlord. Currently, there are more than 2,000 Section 8 tenants living in Colorado Springs, said Gary Huppert, assistant executive director of the Colorado Springs Housing Authority.

However in recent years, funding for new low-income housing has dried up from the largest contributor, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Meanwhile, another source of federal funding has emerged in the form of public-private partnerships.

"Most of the tax break comes back in the low rents," Huppert said.

A spokesman for Lennar Affordable Communities of Portland, which built the Winfield Apartments last June, said it received a 4 percent federal tax credit.

What has raised the eyebrows of housing advocates are the rents themselves. At Winfield Apartments, the least expensive unit is a two-bedroom that rents for $664 per month; at Westmeadow Peaks, one-bedrooms start at $592 and go up to $815 for a three-bedroom dwelling. The costs, critics say, are anything but affordable.

"The big complaint we have is that we open these apartments, but it's not a substitute for building real affordable places," said Cyndy Kulp of the Springs-based Housing Advocacy Coalition.

"They [developers] already have a federal tax credit and they get people in there with Section 8 vouchers -- it's sort of like double dipping. It seems like it's more of a subsidy for the banks and the mortgage companies than anything else."

Managers at Westmeadow Peaks confirmed that they accept Section 8 Vouchers, but would not disclose the number of Section 8 tenants. According to a spokesman for the Winfield Apartments, nearly 35 percent of their 160 units are filled by Section 8 tenants.

HUD, meanwhile, defines affordable housing as that which costs no more than 30 percent of a tenant's household income.

Kim Schaffer of the National Low Income Housing Association, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, said "low income" is considered as the population earning between 30 percent and 80 percent of the median income level. The median income in the Springs is $44,264 and, according to the Colorado Division of Housing, the average rent for the Colorado Springs metropolitan area is $637.

By Schaffer's estimate, a minimum-wage earner in the Springs could afford a rent of $268, while a qualifying moderate-income tenant earning 30 percent of median income could afford to pay $426.

"If you're working in a low-wage job, and you earn minimum wage or seven to eight dollars an hour, $592 a month is not going to be affordable," she said.

The Housing Authority's Huppert concedes that the new housing isn't exactly low income. "To live in these places you're going to have to a reasonably good job, but not enough to buy a house," he said.

-- John Dicker


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