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Cities looking for new solution to housing crisis

Posted at 6:59 PM, Nov 15, 2019

The word home can mean a lot of different things, but it also usually means a safe space where you can go and rest your head.

“May 20, 2010 was my move in date,” said Lisa Saenz who lives in the Denver neighborhood of Sun Valley. It's affordable housing run by the Denver housing authority.

It's been Saenz’s home for a long time.

When Saenz first moved here, she says it wasn’t such a great place to live.

“It was a lot of nonsense by the neighbors and kind of a lot of crime. I was kind of scared to come outside and leave. I used to keep the kids inside,” said Saenz.

But she says things have really changed since, and Sun Valley feels more like a community.

“My neighbors are my family, I didn’t have one, I still don’t have one. I’m like the last survivor besides my two kids,” said Saenz.

Ismael Guerrero who runs the Denver Housing Authority says for a long time, it was tough to get people to talk about the need for public housing.

“Public housing, affordable housing overall, for many years has not been the highest priority politically as a policy,” said Guerrero.

And if you ask Saenz, that stigma is real.

“I remember once my son’s friend from middle school knew that we lived here. He was invited his friend to spend the night, but once his mom knew he lived here, he wasn’t allowed to come over and it kind of made my son feel bad," Saenz said.

But Guerrero is trying to change the narrative around public housing, and he’s trying to make Sun Valley, look more like this.

The Mariposa community is just 10 minutes away, but looks totally different. Guerrero says it’s an example of public housing in the 21st century. It’s what people who work in public housing call a mixed income community. A blend of market rate apartments and homes mixed in with low income units.

“What I get really excited about is not just the housing we provide, but I think the quality of life we can bring out residents, especially in our newer communities,” said Guerrero.

And the transformation has already started in Sun Valley. Construction has started on new mixed income units in the neighborhood. DHA’s plan says all of the low income units will be replaced and the area will add market rate units as well.

“Going from maybe 350 total units of housing in that neighborhood today probably to over 500 units over the next five years,” said Guerrero.

Lisa says she's not worried about being pushed out of the new neighborhood.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing, and no they’re not making us leave. We leave if we don’t want to live here... I think all anywhere you go there’s going to be change, not just Sun Valley," said Saenz.

She's right. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, America needs at least 7 million more affordable homes than what's currently available. And cities all over are looking for solutions.

“There’s more political will I think locally and at the state levels now because mayors and council members and commissioners are having to deal with residents across a wider income spectrum who are saying hey, I can’t work and live in my own neighborhood, in my own community and we need to do something about that,” said Guerrero

There are a lot of creative solutions out there from the tiny home fad to providing a tax credit to renters or even having tech giants do their fair share and donate hundreds of millions of dollars to affordable housing programs like Amazon and Microsoft have pledged to do.

But one solution is in every report and study. Build more homes. More affordable homes.

Because when people have a safe affordable place to live, their house becomes a home, and their neighborhood becomes a community.

“That really has an impact in terms of youth doing better in school, our families across the board having healthier food options, healthier transportation options, and our seniors being able to age in place in a healthy way that lets them live independently for much longer,” said Guerrero.

“Some of these people that live here, they love me and they tell me that. They appreciate me and I appreciate them,” said Saenz.