Daily Camera – By John Bear
Since the beginning of the year, Boulder County resident Sigrid Swan, 73, has driven to Fort Collins to find a cheap room when the temperatures plummeted near zero, almost fallen victim to a Craigslist housing scam and slept in her car inside a Boulder parking garage.
“I got shooed away one night,” Swan said. “I found a way to tuck myself away so they wouldn’t notice. I had to turn the car on every couple of hours, so I was sitting up all night, which isn’t great for my legs.”
On Friday, a woman who works for a senior housing share program hooked Swan up with a voucher for a room at an old hotel on Colfax Avenue in Denver that has been retrofitted for emergency housing.
“I remember the ugly sign,” she said.
Swan sold her Gunbarrel condo in 2014 and put everything into storage, the idea being that she would get some needed surgery on her shoulders and then find a rental.
But it hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
“There’s nothing available” that she can afford, she said.
Swan moved in with a woman in a nearby condo, but the condo’s owner decided to sell, so the two had to move out. She later found a roommate, but the roommate asked her to move out at the end of the year.
Swan lost her job in 2013 and lives on Social Security and a couple of small annuities — about $1,200 a month. That’s not enough to rent a place in Boulder County, and she doesn’t want to move elsewhere, because she’d have to switch insurance, which she says would be too hard for her.
“I’m not up for that,” she said. “I’d have to find all new doctors.”
Swan likely not alone
Swan is likely not alone in her plight as rent has increased steadily in Boulder County for the past several years, and some people living on fixed incomes might find themselves priced out of their homes if landlords decide to raise rents to keep up with the market.
The average rent in Boulder is $1,721 a month and $1,295 a month in Longmont. The average in the rest of the county is $1,532 a month.
Michelle Waite, senior services manager at the Longmont Senior Center, said multiple people reached out to the center last year; she recalls about 20 people in a similar predicament over the summer. Some were living out of their cars as they looked for housing.
“Some people were able to do self-advocacy with landlords to try and keep rent at what it was,” she said. “Some people have done a good job with self-advocacy. Some landlords really listened to that.”
Waite added that seniors planning to move to the area have been advised to secure housing before coming rather that just showing up and hoping something is available.
Isabel McDevitt, executive director of Bridge House — an organization that provides services to the homeless people — said the high rent in Boulder County will affect not only people like Swan who live on fixed incomes, but also people working in entry level jobs that don’t pay much.
“There are a lot of people who are priced out of the market,” McDevitt said. “When their lease comes up for renewal, many people get dinged with a significant rent increase, and if they are on a fixed income or entry level job, it’s impossible to keep up.”
Boulder County and the municipalities within offer affordable housing for seniors and families, but long wait lists exist on many of the properties — sometimes several years — and new construction is often met with resistance by people in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“There is opposition to affordable housing,” said Jim Williams, with Boulder County Housing and Human Services, adding that residents in established neighborhoods aren’t always keen on having high density residential buildings come to the area.
“There is a misunderstanding about what it’s for and who it serves,” Williams said. “The more we can come together with communities and neighborhoods and the more we can make them understand, the better.”
He said that about 40,000 people living in Boulder County spend more than half of their income on rent, and as the population in the county begins to age, the number of people struggling to keep up with rent will grow along with it.
Adults 60 years and older represent the fastest growing demographic in Boulder County, 19 percent, but that group likely will increase to 26 percent of the population by 2040.
People 85 years old and older will increase 232 percent over the next 24 years, according to Boulder County Community Services.
Getting people the help
A network of government and nonprofit services exists for people on the cusp of or actually homeless, but they are difficult to navigate, and Robin Bohannon, Boulder County Community Services director, said that earning the trust of people who are part of “vulnerable populations” can be a challenge.
People also have to want the help, she said.
“We are actually working with a 64-year-old woman right now who is living in her car,” Bohannon said. “Based on our initial evaluation of her, she is someone who would qualify for assisted living. But she doesn’t want it.”
She said other roadblocks to housing solutions in Boulder County exist, including restrictive zoning rules that prohibit housing groups of seniors in co-op style housing.
Bohannon added that seniors are often perfectly fine renters who pay their rent on time, but because the housing shortage essentially creates a landlord’s market, they might be out on the street because they can’t afford a rent increase or a landlord might decide to not take Section 8 vouchers.
“We are seeing evictions related to nothing more than the market,” she said. “That’s a human tragedy.”