During this year’s primary race, I attended a gubernatorial forum at the historic Shorter Community AME Church. The housing issues Colorado faces became clear as the audience peppered the candidates with questions about the dwindling stock of affordable housing, and the unfortunate combination of ballooning costs and stagnating wages across the state. The primary has since come and gone, but as the state refocuses its attention on the general election, I still have questions about how we will handle housing access in the coming years, because access to housing is inextricably connected to health outcomes and a higher quality of life. Center for Health Progress doesn’t endorse individual candidates, but any solution must increase the availability of affordable housing options and prevent displacement of current residents.
The rapid influx of new Coloradans has not been met with a rapid addition of new housing options. The pressure on the supply has led to increasing home prices that outpace the national rate. Colorado residents, old and new, are increasingly deciding to rent instead of buy, with over half of all renters considered financially overburdened by the cost of housing and a third spending half of their income on housing. There are federal programs that provide affordable housing for people experiencing poverty, but access to those vouchers is competitive and the supply is far less than the demand. Being equitable doesn’t mean being opposed to growth, but it does mean that the public and private sectors need to coordinate efforts to manage that growth in smart ways. If we don’t, we risk the health of all Coloradans.
Health insurance is one way we could fill housing gaps. Health First Colorado, our state Medicaid program, covers many of the same people that are eligible for affordable housing assistance. And, state Medicaid programs have the flexibility to cover certain housing-related services and supports for those enrolled. It is well established that housing instability and homelessness lead to poorer health, as well as higher health care spending, due to increased use of emergency services for preventable conditions. So, it makes sense both financially and for Coloradans’ health that we look for ways to cover housing. There are already examples of both private and public investment in housing as a social determinant of health; our next governor and incoming state legislature could support this effort by seeking a 1115 waiver to allow Colorado to use Medicaid funds to connect low-income and special needs populations to housing services and programs with on-site support.
Our housing laws have left Colorado with limited options for protecting residents from displacement. Unlike states with historically high-cost cities, Colorado bans local rent control and caps residential property taxes, which limits funding sources for affordable housing. There are several ways our state and local governments can adapt to these restrictions. One would be to partner with nonprofits to fund innovative new housing models, such as land trusts, where a family owns the home and the community owns the land it’s built on, or a co-op, where several families collectively own multiple homes or apartments. Others would be creating a dedicated and robust funding stream for affordable housing, increasing funding for legal representation in cases of eviction for low-income renters, and supporting existing businesses in areas vulnerable to displacement.
Balanced investment across all neighborhoods will allow all Coloradans to participate fully in the revitalization of the state. And after we solve the affordable housing crisis, that will free up candidates to debate the laundry list of other issues facing our great state!