As an advocate for aging Coloradans, Jim Collins literally has a seat at the dinner table with residents who need aid from social programs, helping them fill out applications for assistance.
This type of one-on-one advocacy has given Collins, the mayor of Las Animas and director of the Lower Arkansas Valley Area Agency on Aging, an intimate understanding of economic needs in rural Colorado. So he understands that efficiently getting rent relief to residents in financial distress during the COVID-19 pandemic requires local expertise.
“The cost of doing business in rural Colorado is different than the cost of doing business on the Front Range,” Collins said, explaining that delivering services to a population spread over a large geographic area is a different economic proposition than serving a densely populated urban area.
“But we don't get the same amount of concern, it seems a lot of times, as people that are closer … to the Capitol, if you will. It's so obvious; it's in your face. And at the same time, it's also numerically more feasible to serve a million people than it is to serve 1,000 people.”
And by key measures, need for rent relief in Colorado is still high. On Jan. 29, the Department of Local Affairs announced it received requests for rent assistance totaling $42 million last month through the state’s Emergency Housing Assistance Program for renters and Property Owner Preservation program for landlords.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Housing Pulse survey collected between Jan. 6 and Jan. 18, nearly 20% of Colorado renters who responded said they had slight or no confidence in their ability to pay the next month’s rent.
Dawn Melgares, executive director of the San Luis Valley Housing Coalition, said a study in process of the city of Alamosa and the San Luis Valley shows 50% of renters are spending more than 30% of their income on rent. She said she believes studies of housing stability such as the Housing Pulse survey should also look at whether people are sacrificing other basic needs in order to pay their rent on time.
"We're in a sellers' and landlords' market, where housing is scarce for those with lower incomes. And in order to stay housed, they have no choice but to pay more than what's affordable," Melgares said. She said it's important to "not just [ask] a household if they're paying that 30%, but also [ask] landlords if they can afford to bring their rent down to help lower income households without a rent subsidy."
But Colorado's remote areas have unique needs accessing rent relief funds, even though the edges of the state are home to some of Colorado's poorest regions: For example, each of the San Luis Valley's six counties has a poverty rate above the state's, which hovers around 10%.
Advocates and government leaders in rural areas say local organizations stepping up are key for administering the program and getting word out to residents about accessing the relief -- the EHAP program requires organizations such as nonprofits, housing authorities or homeless shelters to act as middlemen for managing and distributing funds -- but little aid flowing to an area doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t have a capable service provider.
In rural southern Colorado, local leaders have had to take the lead in making it known to DOLA that there are local organizations capable and willing to administer the EHAP program.
Mayor Kirk Crespin of Lamar said when the EHAP program first rolled out, it was administered in the area solely by Brothers Redevelopment, a Denver-based nonprofit organization.
DOLA has also since partnered with Southeast Colorado Enterprise Development based in Lamar, and Crespin said having a local organization that’s keyed in to the area’s needs and has connections to spread awareness about the rent assistance programs has been crucial for increasing access to funds.
“That organization is very tied in with the elected officials in our area … That gives [the executive director] an outlet to speak to public officials to be able to distribute the information to community members,” Crespin said. “Not only that, but it gives more of a local presence so that people can go into her office and work with her directly to apply for these funds."
The executive director of Southeast Colorado Enterprise Development couldn’t be reached for an interview for this story.
Crespin credited Collins with leading the effort to make it known to DOLA and Brothers Redevelopment that local organizations such as SECED are available to administer the EHAP program. Collins said he got in touch with Brothers Redevelopment when he first learned about the EHAP program last year and asked them, "How do I help you help the people in my region?"
He met with contacts at SECED and Total Concept Housing based in Fowler, and they agreed to manage EHAP funds for the area.
He said Brothers Redevelopment has also been able to serve as a backup source of EHAP funds if SECED or Total Concept Housing run out of funds to distribute before the state disburses the next round.
“It's not like they're not working in the region. It's just that they're not in the region,” Collins said. “And more importantly, people don't know that they're available without somebody coaching them. And that's the beauty of having guys ... on the ground. They can say, ‘This is where you go to.’”
Alison George, the state’s housing director for the Division of Housing in the Department of Local Affairs, said DOLA partnered with 35 agencies around the state in 2020 to administer the EHAP program. She said DOLA has built up its Rolodex of partner organizations by reaching out to those that have provided emergency rental assistance in the past to find out what their capacity for managing EHAP funds could be.
“We have made adjustments. You know, we didn't start out with 35 agencies. We looked at a particular region that didn't seem to be served quite as well, so we reached out to another one of our partner organizations and said, ‘It's an emergency; what capacity do you have to be able to do this? And so we've made adjustments throughout the year, and we continue to do that.”
Melgares said because of the need to get EHAP funds to renters quickly, it’s been key for organizations acting as middlemen to already have experience administering housing programs.
La Puente, which provides a network of crisis services throughout the San Luis Valley such as homeless shelters and food pantries, has been serving as an EHAP partner for the region.
“They have some of the normal vouchers, even though it's a small number. So they had had some experience in what the reporting would look like, that sort of thing,” Melgares said. She added the SLVHC hasn’t applied to be a distributor of housing vouchers because with a staff of three, her organization just doesn’t have the capacity to take it on.
La Puente's outreach director could not be reached for an interview.
But the pandemic has flattened geographic distances for doing business because of so much happening remotely, and that includes collaborations between organizations providing rent relief. Collins said he believes the new rhythm of meeting remotely has made it easier for different organizations to communicate with each other and share resources.
“It used to be … there [were] a million miles from here to Denver. That's kind of been erased with the ability to constantly webinar with each other. As bad as COVID is, the best thing it ever did was force us all to work together as teams.”
Comments are open to Gazette subscribers only