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COLUMN: City must address the affordable housing issue

By: JOE BARRERA
December 2, 2017 Updated: December 2, 2017 at 4:10 am
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As an urban environment, Colorado Springs rates pretty high. We are No. 11 in U.S. News and World Report's 2017 ratings for cities across the country. But there is trouble in paradise.

This makes the current Gazette series on the economic and social problems besetting the sprawling neighborhoods known as the southeast quadrant a timely one. Comprehensive scrutiny of this neglected part of our town is long overdue.

It's fair to say that successive city administrations have not paid attention to the needs of low-income neighborhoods there, and the private sector has fled the area in too many cases. It's easy to ignore the southeast because most of us live comfortable lives. You could say that we live in a middle and upper middle-class paradise in Colorado Springs. When I say "paradise" I am entirely nonironic. I use the term because I want to impress on our citizens that we are fortunate to live in Colorado Springs - except if you happen to live in the southeast side. Quality does not often extend to the southeast, even if the series makes it clear that there are good places to live and do business there.

The Gazette's analysis seems to cover most of the bases: jobs, housing, investment, infrastructure, police and fire services, schools, retail, etc. What comes across is a mixed bag. Crime, unemployment, childhood poverty, low-income status, etc., are higher than in other parts of town. There is tremendous need to find solutions for the area, which is not overwhelmingly minority, but is generally split three ways - black, white and Latino. Reading The Gazette report it's easy to get pessimistic. The bad things are bad, and they will get worse unless we act.

But if you read between the lines you see the positive aspects. The main positive thing is that we still have time to turn this area around. It is not so far down that it is untouchable like so many blighted areas in other cities. Is this because of Colorado Springs exceptionalism? Maybe, but one thing is sure - we can't ignore the problems and hope they just go away. We need to get proactive. There is the RISE coalition, an initiative funded by the El Pomar Foundation that helps the southeast grassroots to do just that - get proactive. The Council of Neighborhood Organizations (CONO) has reached out to Southeast neighborhoods and partnered with them, El Paso County Health Department staff, and El Pomar to develop RISE. This is the kind of proactive public/private sector involvement we need.

But we need much stronger local government participation. To get specific about local government, let's focus on one element in the betterment equation: affordable housing. Without affordable housing all other efforts to improve the southeast will come to naught. This is the stark reality we face. Rents are really high in Colorado Springs. It's hard for working-class people to find decent housing. If you don't have a place to live, it doesn't do much good to put your kids in day care and get into job-training, or start a new business, or work on fixing up abandoned strip malls.

The Colorado Springs Housing Authority provides low-income housing with an annual budget of around $28 million. But with a waiting list of over 1,600 people, the unmet need is huge. One part of the CSHA program, the Section 8 rent voucher program, has 800 households waiting. And these are just the ones who apply. Right now the Colorado minimum wage is $9.30 an hour. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a minimum wage worker in Colorado needs to work 75 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, $800/month. A two-bedroom is around $1,145/mo (Summer 2017 figures). Even if the average renter's wage is $17.13/hour this is still too high a share of monthly income.

For too long we have believed that if we ignore problems long enough they will just go away. Look at the stormwater mess. We're making a start, but how long did we ignore the problem? It took the threat of expensive lawsuits to rouse us. We have to fix the affordable housing problem. Let's start with subsiding the housing authority and not wait for diminishing federal money. $1.5 million each, every year from the city and the county - we can afford that. But we can't afford the alternative.

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Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

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