Times-Call – By Alex Burness
Lisa Searchinger, executive director of Longmont’s Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement, likes to say she longs for the day when her organization goes out of business.
But the winter sheltering, year-round food and other resources provided by HOPE, now in its 10th year, are more needed than ever. In 2016, Searchinger and her staff served 1,500 different people — a 50-percent increase from 2015.
Service organizations across the county are in a similar crunch, as individuals and families increasingly find themselves a crisis away from homelessness; the Boulder area’s housing market is the fourth-tightest in the country, according to a recent report, and more than 30,000 rental units and homes previously affordable to low, moderate and middle earners have been lost to price inflation in the last 12 years.
“If there were more housing stock, we would hopefully see lower numbers,” Searchinger said.
“And we have experienced with our clients that they have everything that they need to get into housing” — vouchers, case management, among other things – “but there is a lack of affordable housing. There is a lack of supportive housing.”
Recently a HOPE staffer went every day with a man who fell homeless and lost his toes to frostbite to an apartment building where he qualified for housing.
“It takes that kind of extra level of assistance on behalf of our clients to get into housing,” Searchinger said.
The existing need and scarcity explain why the housing goals associated with Boulder’s newly approved Long-Term Homelessness Strategy are, in the estimation of city officials, both ambitious and insufficient.
Over the next three years, the document states, a total of 180 new units of housing should be created between the city and Boulder County for the benefit of both high-needs homeless individuals and low-income or non-chronically homeless people in need of “rapid rehousing.”
Kurt Firnhaber, the city’s housing director, acknowledged the goals are a “stretch.”
But, clearly, achievement of those targets would still leave a massive amount of need, as assessments of regional homelessness suggest that even during the dead of winter — the down season for transient travel to the area — about 600 people are unhoused in Boulder County.
In Boulder and Longmont, the issue is highly visible, primarily with single homeless adults in the two cities’ respective downtowns. The majority of the homeless services in the county, and the only overnight shelters, are in those two cities.
Out in the eastern county, family and youth homelessness is more common and less visible.
Julie Van Domelen, who directs Boulder County’s Emergency Family Assistance Association, sees this every day.
“With the rising home prices, families who’ve always had an apartment or an ability to make ends meet are suddenly, with a 20-percent rent increase, finding themselves homeless overnight,” she said.
“It’s getting more and more difficult for people to transition from those short-term arrangements to permanent housing because it’s hard to find to something you can afford.”
Last week, city officials wondered aloud whether neighboring communities in the county might do more in the way of creating housing for low-income and homeless people, since much of that burden has historically fallen to Boulder and Longmont.
Mayor Suzanne Jones went as far as to suggest that the county commissioners may want to examine options to “compel participation” from cities like Erie, Lafayette, Louisville and Superior.
“Other communities aside from Longmont need to begin to take an active role in providing housing. Not shelters, but housing,” Boulder Councilwoman Mary Young said Friday. “It would be great if the other municipalities said, ‘OK we’re going to commit some money to this issue.”
Added Firnhaber, “I agree with them that all of the communities need to start providing both resources for affordable housing as well as opportunities like land.”
‘Easy to talk about it’
Conversations about regional cooperation on the issue are already well underway.
The topic has been front-of-mind for the Consortium of Cities, which convenes all municipal governments in the county for collaboration on countywide issues.
In March the consortium received a draft version of a commissioned housing study that recommended creating or acquiring between 9,000 and 16,000 new housing units affordable to low- and middle-income people by 2035.
A regional summit on the issue is being held in September in Longmont.
“If the Boulder City Council has questions and concerns about how east county handles some of the burden,” Lafayette Mayor Christine Berg said, “I think that needs to be a larger conversation countywide. Perhaps there are some ways that the to could assist, ut the challenge is there’s very little land left to develop.”
Lafayette, for one, plans to dedicate 24 acres of land for low-income housing. But the scarcity and price of developable land means that for all the Consortium has talked about working together on the problem, many questions remain about who’s going to pay for new housing for homeless, low-income and middle-income residents — and where it’ll all be sited.
“It’s very easy to talk about it when you’re sitting in a room with other elected officials and there’s nothing real on the table,” said Mark Ruzzin, senior policy analyst for Boulder County, which chairs the consortium. “This issue probably portends some tough conversations in the future.”
Ruzzin, who advises the county commissioners, says no discussions have taken place about using leverage to “compel” any particular government into giving money or land to the cause.
But if regional goals and those just approved by Boulder around homelessness are to be realized, the leadership will have to come from somewhere, Ruzzin said. And it may be on the voters to provide.
“There are any number of land use or policy approaches we can take, but we most certainly will need some funding,” he added. “Maybe that’s a way for all the communities to come together: to support a tax measure for affordable housing.
“That’s one where all the jurisdictions, one would hope, would support. And that doesn’t require one jurisdiction forcing another to bend to its will.”