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Should ending homelessness be a local and federal effort?

House lawmakers debate whether government should invest more in affordable housing
A volunteer coordinator with Manna soup kitchen works to clean up a homeless camp west of Durango in 2016. Some federal lawmakers say a greater investment in affordable housing, including rural America, could help curb homelessness.

Banks need to invest in their local communities to effectively increase affordable housing, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, said this week at a U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing.

The Financial Services Committee met to determine whether the federal government should increase spending on affordable housing options and services to reduce the national housing crisis.

Tipton questioned whether government subsidies would solve the problem and mentioned several local and state solutions currently in place in Southwest Colorado.

By lending to high-income borrowers, banks have to pledge dollars back to low- and middle-income communities, per the Community Reinvestment Act. Some of those funds can go to building affordable housing in places like Durango, which can protect families living on minimum wage from falling into homelessness.

Rising rent prices and stagnant wages contribute to homelessness across the country, including in rural areas. There is no state in America where someone can work a minimum wage job and afford a two-bedroom apartment at market price, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach report.

Tipton

Private investors are incentivized to build housing units in Southwest Colorado through tax breaks, which show the support of the local community and government in ending homelessness in a way that works for Durango, Tipton said Tuesday during a brief interview with The Durango Herald.

Michael Hendrix, director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute, urged the Financial Services Committee to “start with reforms at the local level,” such as subsidizing apartments and building housing in vacant spaces, before structuring a one-size-fits-all approach at the federal level to address the complicated issue of homelessness.

But the House of Representatives’ Financial Services Committee is considering legislation that would allow $100 billion in federal investments to go to affordable housing, including rural and Native American housing, as well as a bill that would provide over $13 billion for several federal housing programs.

The number of people without a permanent home near Denver grew to 5,755 last year, according to a report released by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, a nonprofit organization encouraging collaboration to end homelessness in the region.

But the population of those who can no longer afford a home is also increasing in rural areas like La Plata County.

Outdoor camping communities like the one at Purple Cliffs have been growing in size, though it is hard to calculate exactly how many people are homeless in the area. Some people couch surf or sleep in their cars and aren’t necessarily using community services like shelters or food pantries.

Doug Snyder, senior development director at Volunteers for America in Denver, focuses on affordable housing projects across the state of Colorado. Federal subsidy resources like the Low Income Tax Credit are the “big drivers” of senior and family affordable housing projects in the Durango area, he said.

“Congress needs to increase federal credit legislation, expand it by 50%” to make affordable housing projects successful across the country, Snyder told the Herald.

Loans from banks, along with grants, make up the other 30% of funding for their development work.

Durango is a “forward-thinking, organized” city, which makes it a good place for housing developments from Volunteers for America, Snyder said. “We want to go where we have some wind at our back.”

The hearing took place on the same day that Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., announced in a news release that Colorado is receiving $31.8 million in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, including housing and service agencies for people experiencing homelessness in Larimer and Weld counties.

Tipton said a separate discussion on rural homelessness is needed, as much of the focus has been on how to eradicate homelessness in cities and urban areas.

Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.

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