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Mayor, nonprofits plead for Colorado Springs landlords to help homeless vets

October 12, 2017 Updated: October 13, 2017 at 3:02 pm
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FILE - A homeless man gathers together his belongings to move from a homeless camp on Monday, February 13, 2017. The area is beneath the MLK Bypass on and off ramps on I-25. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Colorado Springs landlords reportedly are spurning federal housing vouchers in favor of renting to higher-paying tenants, thwarting efforts to help homeless veterans get off the streets, city officials and nonprofits say.

Mayor John Suthers, the National League of Cities and local advocates for the homeless called on landlords Thursday to accept the vouchers from veterans needing a place to live rather than taking advantage of the hot rental market.

Suthers stressed that local landlords hold the key to effectively ending veteran homelessness - a goal that has eluded the city for years.

"They're private businesses, they're there to make money and they don't have to engage in this," Suthers said. "But we're just trying to impress upon them that it's part of being a citizen of the community."

As an example, Suthers mentioned one homeless veteran who got a job while using his voucher - allowing him to pay more for rent.

"We're hoping they'll (landlords) see the long view that helping house people is in their interest as well as the community's," Suthers said.

Their message highlighted the latest in a series of meetings at the Apartment Association of Southern Colorado's offices, which seek to woo hesitant property owners.

As Colorado Springs' affordable housing crunch has worsened, rents have climbed to record territory, fed by Colorado's bustling economy and an influx of newcomers seeking cheaper housing outside the Denver Metro area.

In spring and early summer, the city's average monthly rate - not including utilities - was $986 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,523 for a three-bedroom unit.

But the VA's vouchers are capped. For someone here without an income, they are from $751 a month for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,355 a month for a three-bedroom unit. Importantly, while those rates can rise with a person's income, they must include the cost of utilities.

That's kept landlords and property owners away, acknowledged Laura Nelson, the apartment association's executive director.

The plight of veterans seeking housing is "truly sad," said Carmen Azzopardi, vice president of multifamily property services for Griffis/Blessing.

Her company was among a few touted by the association as being more open to accepting vouchers.

But Azzopardi said many landlords feel hamstrung by the program's red tape. Many also fear violating the Fair Housing Act by prioritizing veterans above others, and accepting them at reduced rates.

"How can we help, when it's almost like our hands are tied on being able to help?" Azzopardi said.

Elisha Harig-Blaine, principal housing associate of the National League of Cities, disputed that notion.

"I can definitely tell you - it does not violate fair housing," Harig-Blaine said.

Homeless advocates also stressed a willingness to work with landlords and address any issues that arise, including landlords' concerns about renting to vets with felony convictions or past evictions.

The vouchers include a caseworker for each veteran who can help them find jobs, access health care and, if need be, find addiction treatment.

"We want to help you have success," said Erika Huelskamp, who coordinates the VA's local voucher program. "We are just a phone call away. We're here for you, just as much as that veteran."

Fifteen individuals and 13 families are searching for landlords willing to accept their Department of Veterans Affairs vouchers, said Huelskamp.

That's only a fraction of the homeless veterans in need of apartments here, and an even smaller portion of the city's overall homeless community.

People who haven't served in the military also face similar problems using different vouchers, nonprofit leaders say.

The pleas come as Colorado Springs tries to join the growing list of cities that have effectively ended homelessness among veterans.

The goal is to ensure no veterans are forced to live on the streets, and that their homelessness is brief, rare and nonrecurring.

A coalition led by Rocky Mountain Human Services almost succeeded in eliminating veteran homelessness in 2015 by creating an intensely-data driven program unlike anything ever seen in the Pikes Peak region.

Volunteers found people living on the streets. The nonprofit's employees helped them apply for VA benefits and seek housing.

But two main barriers - the city's severe lack of shelter space and affordable housing - kept the coalition from meeting its goal.

One impediment has since been eased.

The opening of Springs Rescue Mission's new shelter in November 2016 helped more people find beds indoors. The facility has routinely accommodated between 260 and 300 people a night.

But the other - a dearth of affordable housing - has only worsened.

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