By Dan England
Cheri Witt-Brown recalls a mother recently who came into her office sobbing. She had a mobile home she rented for $1,300 a month. Her pipes had burst and her landlord wouldn’t take care of it, and so she was without heat and worried about her children living behind those thin walls.
“I mean, the rent was $1,300 a month,” Witt-Brown says, “and that’s not a decent two-bedroom.”
This is a story you might hear on most days if you hung around the Weld Food Bank, or a United Way office, or with Witt-Brown, the executive director of the Greeley-Weld Habitat for Humanity. It’s the kind of story local charities have told for years along the Front Range. Housing prices have squeezed out those living in poverty for decades in many areas of Colorado.
But these stories aren’t just for those in poverty any longer. $1,300? That was a mortgage years ago, even as late as 2008, when the housing bubble popped and blew up the economy with it. The woman wasn’t destitute.
“She was just desperate,” Witt-Brown says, “and we are seeing a bit more desperation now. We’ve seen more families walking through our doors [than ever before] in our history.”
The housing boom is catching up to those straddling the line between a middle-class wage and poverty. These families now include nursing assistants, EMTs and factory workers, Witt-Brown says.
These were the families who couldn’t afford a Disney Cruise but maybe had cars, even more than one, and more importantly, a decent place to live, maybe even own.
“They slide into poverty,” Witt-Brown says of those with their heads just above the surface of middle-class wages, “because housing costs are way more than 50 percent of what they make.”
Last year, in fact, housing prices were predicted to rise 5-7 percent and instead skyrocketed. Nationwide, they rose by more than 16 percent, says Matthew Gardner, the chief economist for Windermere Real Estate in Fort Collins. Gardner is the main source of a housing market report Windermere hosts every year. Locally they rose even higher: Greeley was almost 20 percent, according to Realtor.com.
“This pace of appreciation has never been seen before,” Gardner says in a year-end report released in late November and posted on Windermere’s website. “In fact, the closest was back in 2005—when the housing bubble was inflating rapidly—but even then, prices only rose by 12 percent.”
Gardner believes the market will chill out, but that’s what he said last year. This year, he’s predicting a robust but more modest 7 percent increase. The market simply can’t sustain itself with double-digit increases every year, he says. Or can it?
Regardless, housing charities are concerned, to the point where at least one, Habitat for Humanity, is adding to its tried-and-true mission of putting lower-income earners into homes earned through sweat equity. Now Witt-Brown and Habitat are partnering with private builders to construct apartments and get as many people into affordable housing as possible.
“We are building communities now instead of just houses,” Witt-Brown says. “Frankly, it’s the only way we are making a dent.”
A short supply
Here’s a simple, partial explanation of the 2008 housing bubble and why prices rose so high a couple years before the bubble burst: The market made it easy for anyone to buy a home, and the ensuing demand made prices go up, as supply and demand always does. This explanation is basic, even more so than the one in the movie “The Big Short,” which tried to break down the economy’s crash in terms so simple that Margot Robbie explained sub-prime mortgages in a bubble bath.
This time prices are high once again, partly because of supply and demand. Easy, right? Well, no. The problem is much tougher to solve.
Yes, it’s true that there isn’t enough inventory to handle the demand for a home, and that is (partly) because of the 2008 crash, says Benjamin Snow, director of the department of economic health and housing for the City of Greeley.
“We’ve had a short supply since the Great Recession,” Snow says, using the term many use for the economic devastation the housing bubble caused in 2008. “We haven’t made up all the ground we lost with the recession.”
Builders, in other words, weren’t building for years after the crash, either because they couldn’t secure financing from wary banks burned by the housing collapse or buyers couldn’t afford to purchase anything (or both). And yet Northern Colorado continued to grow in bunches. Where were those people going to live?
As oil and gas workers streamed into Greeley, the city cried out for multi-family housing, and finally, years later, the market is catching up. Greeley even recently changed its development code to allow builders more flexibility in what they build. One of the many changes was allowing smaller lots, so more homes can be built, even if they are smaller and without much of a yard, Snow says.
Developers are answering the call with thousands of new units all across Northern Colorado, many of them apartments or duplexes.
“The permit activity is phenomenal and still really strong,” Snow says. “Windsor and Severance and Johnstown are seeing a similar line. There’s a lot of new permit activity, and that tells me the market is still soaking it all up. The only way to fix pricing is to increase supply.”
Snow hears from some that too many units are being built, but he’s not too concerned about that yet. What does concern him is the fact that apartments don’t necessarily curb the demand for single-family housing, and renting, he says, doesn’t build the long-term wealth that investing in a home can bring (can you imagine the return on a home bought 40 years ago in Denver)?
“It does address a housing shortage but not the wealth shortage,” Snow says. “But I’ll take that for the time being, and I do trust the market will figure it out. I have told developers about the many units being built here—and I do share those concerns I hear—and if they still want to spend $20 million, well, God Bless America.”
As more housing slowly rises across Northern Colorado, prices should balance out, but it will still take a while, Gardner says. He thinks it will take until at least 2023. He doesn’t worry about the housing bubble bursting again—it’s harder to qualify for a mortgage now—but like everyone, he does worry about affordability.
“It would be silly to say that there aren’t any issues in the housing market,” he says. “The biggest of which is the housing affordability, and this will have a significant impact on the millennial generation who are continuing to get older…and I wonder how hard it will be for many of them to be able to afford to buy their first home because most really do want to become homeowners.”
A change in philosophy
Neighbor to Neighbor has provided housing stability services for more than 50 years in Larimer County. In the last decade, the organization helped a much wider disparity of income levels with homeownership education, says Kelly Evans, the executive director. The organization typically has roughly 500 people enroll in classes or programs, and this year they’ve had more than 1,200.
Homebuyers are looking for any deals, if they can be called that, and cities such as Loveland, Wellington, Greeley and Severance are benefiting, although homes are expensive there, too. In 2016, more than 33 percent of homes purchased with Neighbor to Neighbor were in Larimer County. Today, less than 25 percent are in more expensive Larimer County. About twice as many of the homeowners the organization helps purchase homes in Greeley than Fort Collins.
It’s easy to see why: Homes in Fort Collins are nearly $500,000, according to Realtor.com’s median listing price. In Loveland they are $470,000. Greeley’s $400,000 seems like a bargain. In Evans, they are even less, at $370,000. Some smaller communities have actually surpassed Fort Collins: Windsor, for example, is $575,000.
Housing remains a problem, regardless of renting or buying, Evans says. Neighbor to Neighbor also acts as an affordable landlord.
“Our waiting list for those properties are years long now,” she says. “People renting are spending more of their income directly on rent.”
That long-term problem led Habitat to get creative. The first experiment was with the Mission Springs community in Evans. Habitat and the City of Evans sought out money from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, which invested $3 million in federal money from the Flood of 2013. The development of 95 units of townhomes, cottages, duplexes and single-family homes by Commonwealth Companies, one of the country’s largest multi-family builders, and Habitat’s volunteers and staff helped replace some of the affordable housing washed out by the flood, Witt-Brown says. A few mobile home parks were devastated in the area. Commonwealth built 68 of the townhomes and cottages.
Habitat hopes to repeat that model with Hope Springs, another co-developed community, this one in Greeley. The site includes 174 Habitat home sites and more than 300 high-quality but affordable apartments, a city park, a childcare center and walking distance to schools, grocery stores and mass transit. It will be one of the largest affordable housing planned communities in the West, Witt-Brown says. Habitat continues to work with the city on the project to work out details and designs and hopes to start construction by late next year.
Witt-Brown still believes in Habitat’s core mission of building homes, and therefore wealth, through volunteers and the lower-income homeowners who put in hundreds of hours of so-called sweat equity and probably couldn’t otherwise afford a home. They then pay a mortgage, and those homeowners build wealth as their home rises in value. They can eventually sell and move into a larger home. That’s what the 174 Habitat home sites are for.
But the model doesn’t quickly solve an affordable housing crisis. It’s not designed to do so.
“I believe in that model so strongly,” Witt-Brown says. “I’ve been here six years and we’ve had one foreclosure in 36 years. We believe in it. But we are taking this affordable housing problem seriously. Really, Hope Springs was everyone coming to the table and saying what kind of community we need to develop. By partnering with private sector builders, we are bringing a scale to this that we couldn’t do on our own.”
The Habitat model builds, at most, a few homes a year. Hey, it’s volunteers building them, not private construction companies.
“We didn’t want to just build five homes a year,” Witt-Brown says. “I knew we weren’t even going to scratch the surface. We were seeing families in unsafe conditions, and we needed to get them out. We can help more of those people immediately.”
Habitat’s waitlist of 450 families, in other words, could all be helped by this one development, once it’s all built. That may include a mother with broken pipes, no heat in her mobile home and the despair of wondering how she will keep her children warm through yet another cold winter.