Here’s how Denver says Miami can keep housing affordable

As cities grow, demand for essential services like housing and transportation soar, often driving a hike in property values that forces low and middle income residents far outside the core — and out of the reach of the public transit they need.

That’s a big concern here in Miami. It’s a concern in Denver, Colo., too.

“We’ve been emerging into a high-cost housing city, so much so that millennials and working class families are struggling to find affordable housing,” said Ismael Guerrero, director of the Denver Housing Authority.

Guerrero has navigated this conundrum in some really unexpected ways, so while he was in town this week, we chatted with him about how Miami could address its own struggles.

Guerrero will join Alice Bravo, head of Miami-Dade County’s new transportation department, on Thursday evening to talk about Denver’s success and what Miami can learn from it. The panel begins at 6:00pm at the Miami Center for Architecture and Design (100 NE 1st Ave Miami, FL 33132). If you’re interested RSVP here.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. 

How are affordable housing and transportation related?

As our urban centers are developing, people are looking to live in and near places that have good access to public transport. Housing and transportation are two of the most fundamental household expenses when you’re trying to survive on an minimal or moderate income.

The extent you can save on housing or transportation to cover your bills, can help you save a little bit on a future down payment on a house. Also, given people are trying to be more environmentally conscious, less driving means less congestion and less gas used.

So there are lot’s of reasons why there’s a natural demand for people to want to live near where there’s public transit. At the same time from the affordable housing perspective, families are finding that they need to live where they can have affordable access to their jobs, school, healthcare providers, and food options.

If you’re in a low-income family, you need to be able to have a place to live where you don’t need to take two buses [to get to work] or need to put your kids on a bus and a train to get to school.

What does it look like when you treat these as intertwined issues?

It’s happened just over the last eight to 10 years. Voters approved a major increase in a new light-rail system, so we knew over the next 10-plus years that there would be rapid development at certain hubs.

We thought about how we could get ready for this proactively — and what that led to was a series of political policy moves. That meant foundations, communities, and others coming together to make sure we had new resources. Those resources include a new Denver Transit-Oriented Development Fund, so that those of us in the development community went out and strategically acquired land. We were selecting plots — areas in which we knew would be the right place to build transit-oriented affordable housing — ahead of the speculative real estate developers.

We were acquiring the land before the light-rail station would ever open, when it was affordable. And we did this at a regional level — it wasn’t just a Denver issue, the regional council and mayor’s caucus rallied around as well.

The first light-rail began in 2013, the next one starts in April and we’re already seeing that before the stations open, we have have affordable housing development happening at almost 70 to 75 percent of the new stations.

How can Miami do something like this?

It shouldn’t just be done one development at a time. We should also create an environment where you have the cities, suburbs, transit districts, funders, and the development community all really committed to making transit-oriented and equitable, diverse communities.

You need funding sources that are more patient and long-term, so that developers can go out and start assembling land strategically. It’s a long-term view.

It also takes a commitment from non-profits and foundation communities, which ignited the idea of equitable development in Denver.

It’s important to find allies across sectors — finance, community organizers, developers — early on. Some community members might be skeptical about developers coming in and displacing residents. Today community members understand that the housing authority is serious and genuinely concerned about their interest, but we had to earn that trust, and that’s why cross-sector collaboration and finding allies is really critical.

With so much investment in Miami from outside, there’s concern that many developers aren’t concerned about the long-term view. How might Miami work through this?

I think the key is creating your own opportunities — by that I mean you need local control and local capital. In general, a high-end investor may not understand or take a risk on financing affordable housing.

That’s where the public sector plays a key role. A public investment will attract private capital, so the public sector has to lead and signal to the market that it’s making investment, and the private sector will follow.

In transitioning communities there’s a need for that capital investment, mainly in streets, sidewalks, and parks. If the public sector invests and puts investment in those communities, private sector players who are proficient and experienced at building affordable and mixed income housing will enter.

What do you mean by local capital and how can Miami build it?

Two things we’ve been successful with in Denver is land control and land acquisition. Land control is critical, because where there is already publicly-owned land, you can think about how that gets disposed of or sold. When you control it, you can guide the development.

Raising local capital to go out and start acquiring land in key locations is the second step. Here, we have an Urban Land Conservancy. In the big picture a $10 million fund was not much, but boy it really helped get those early acquisitions.

The city should put early equity in revolving loan funds because on-site control is key in real estate development.

A few early model developments can then show people what can be done and how it can be done. Those early catalytic sites start coalescing people around the idea that it’s possible, building momentum.

In Miami, it seems that all too often, transit promises are delayed or unfulfilled entirely. How can we work towards transit-oriented development, when there’s no certainty on when a project might be completed?

That’s certainly a challenge. I would say start where you know something is going to happen first. When we started in Denver, we didn’t go to the farthest-out future station. We started with communities in and around the downtown area, places where you can already can bike and walk. So you start close to where things are, in places where things are already happening.

I would say with the development community — in terms of the public sector — you don’t want to be too speculative, especially with public investments. You don’t want to assume too much and draw the market too far away.

We started here with neighborhoods adjacent to the central business district because there was already a demand for activity here. The did that by demolishing houses, and sold that land to market-rate condo developers, which then subsidized affordable housing in other areas. So you have to fund development processes and build from the core out — leveraging your assets strategically and cross subsidizing.

I’ve seen a value in partnering through land sales with market-rate developers to leverage capital and attract new development into a neighborhood.

How can Miami learn from other cities like Denver as we strive to develop with housing and transportation in tandem?

We need to make sure new neighborhoods are safe and secure and that we’re creating healthy communities, with intention. Just addressing the housing need in isolation doesn’t solve all the barriers that keep our families from living self-sufficiently, both economically and socially.

At the end of the day it’s about local capital, local control, and local solutions. I’m excited to share the Denver story with the Miami community. But I think one final takeaway is that solutions are all localized, and there are some models that can be emulated but it’s going to take a local community effort to find what works in Miami.