After her ex-partner broke her jaw and went to jail, Luz Rodriguez struggled to pay rent while raising three boys on her own.
She got help from the Brighton Housing Authority, not only through a housing voucher but also money for gas, clothes for the kids and enrollment in a weekly tutoring program so the boys could get help with their homework.
The holistic approach that helped Rodriguez piece her life together after her safety and financial security were shattered by domestic violence represents a new model in the work to solve Colorado’s housing crisis.
“Education, health, transportation — all are connected with people’s ability to maintain housing,” said Debra Bristol, executive director of the Brighton Housing Authority. “We’re not just providing a subsidy; we’re saying education and health play just as much of a role in making sure that somebody’s housing is secure.”
The new approach, accomplished through the housing authority’s partnerships with law enforcement agencies and various nonprofits, grew out of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The tutoring program, held weekly at one of the housing authority’s apartment buildings, began as a place for kids to connect during the days of virtual school. The domestic violence program started as a way to help women find temporary housing in hotels during a year of high stress and isolation that led to escalating levels of in-home abuse nationwide.
Both programs were initiated with grant funds that have long since run out. But the housing authority has kept them going anyway. The tutoring program is now built into the annual budget of the housing authority, which also has a program to help teenagers get college scholarships and internships. And the authority is working to create a permanent source of funding for the domestic violence program, possibly by creating a housing voucher specifically for victims of domestic violence.
It’s a change happening at housing authorities across Colorado, where the work is no longer only about managing Section 8 vouchers from the federal Housing and Urban Development department. As the state grapples with a housing crisis, public authorities are ramping up efforts not only to build units at a new pace, but tackling other problems that contribute to housing instability.
In Denver, for example, the housing authority funded a grocery store in one of its buildings in the neighborhood of Sun Valley, which had been a food desert. Decatur Fresh, stocked with produce, tortillas and samosa wrappers, opened a year ago and offers free, healthy snacks to hungry kids on weekends.
The efforts come alongside voter approval of Proposition 123 last month, expected to set aside about $300 million each year for local housing authorities and nonprofits statewide to create affordable housing. To qualify, local governments must commit to increasing affordable housing by at least 3% each year.
The point of all of it is to create long-term change that breaks the cycle of homelessness and housing insecurity.
“If you’re able to have stable housing, and food security, then your focus can be more on education,” Bristol said. “You’re looking to the future. When a child has the ability to see what is possible, it is an experience that I think helps from that multi-generational aspect.”
The emergency domestic violence housing program started with a $65,000 federal grant awarded to the housing authority by Adams County. The need was so high, the authority blew through the money in just six weeks. “It was ridiculous,” Bristol recalled. “We had a couple jurisdictions reach out to us and ask, ‘Are you guys going to be able to continue this?’ and we said, ‘We’re out of resources. We can’t.’”
Local nonprofits were pleading with the authority to keep the program running, feeling at a loss to help the large number of domestic violence victims asking for help. Nearly all of the referrals came from victims’ advocates at local law enforcement agencies or the Adams County District Attorney’s Office.
The housing authority asked for more grant funding, cobbling together about $90,500 more from Adams County and $70,500 from the city of Thornton. “They were hearing these very complex, traumatic stories,” Bristol said. “And the nonprofits were reaching out to us, saying, is there anything we can do? But we didn’t have resources specifically for that.”
About 50 people were housed through the domestic violence emergency hotel voucher program this year, from anywhere from one night to two weeks.
Now, the housing authority is working with the district attorney’s office, which received $2 million in federal funds to focus on domestic violence. Both the DA’s office and the housing authority have representatives on a local domestic violence task force. The goal is to move people who used two-week emergency hotel vouchers into longer-term housing funded through a rental assistance program, in which the amount of the rent subsidy depends on the tenant’s income.
Housing would last for 12 to 24 months, said Diana Sanchez, services manager for the housing authority. “During that time frame, you could work with the individuals to determine whether or not they can become stable on their own,” she said.
Money for children’s tutoring ran out about a year ago. Now the program, operated by a volunteer husband-and-wife team, is part of a $30,000 budget line item at the authority that includes other education services, including an internship program that helps high school students get jobs with local businesses.
The public housing authority, meanwhile, is also busy with the mainstay of its work — creating affordable housing.
Housing prices in Brighton, a small town of about 40,000 that sits on the edge of rural and urban, have shot up like everywhere else in the Denver area. In response, Brighton and Adams County leaders have increased efforts and funding to provide affordable housing for the influx of newcomers to the north-metro community, many of whom commute to jobs in Denver or other suburbs. Housing is more affordable in Brighton than in some other Denver suburbs, but even at $350,000 for an entry-level home, prices are out of reach for many, Bristol said.
Within the past 15 years, the housing authority has grown its portfolio from about a dozen housing units and a senior housing complex to 445 apartments.
The authority in September opened up a waitlist for Section 8 vouchers, allowing people to sign up for about 251 vouchers that would help pay for rental housing in the private market. More than 1,300 people applied, a record for Brighton.
The names go into a lottery pool, and the authority will hold drawings throughout 2023. Those selected can use the vouchers to subsidize their rent for one-, two- or three-bedroom apartments in Adams County.
Adams Point, in north-central Brighton, could create up to 120 new housing units for families if a plan to transfer the county-owned land to the housing authority goes through. And a $2 million redevelopment of a duplex complex on a quiet neighborhood block on Fifth Avenue in Brighton is expected to add 13 units, available beginning in mid-2023. Construction is slated to begin next month.
The duplexes, originally built as HUD public housing, have been sitting vacant since 2017, stalled in part by the cost of redevelopment. Each has a full, unfinished basement, which the housing authority will use to turn the duplexes into housing for large families. One will have three bedrooms in the basement, plus two more upstairs. Other units will have three or four bedrooms.
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The finishing touch, the authority hopes, will be a playground on the grassy space in the center of the U-shaped complex. The authority plans to apply for a grant to pay for it.
The emergency responses that kickstarted new programs during the pandemic likely have changed how the authority will operate from now on, Bristol said.
It was the federal grant money provided to local governments to help them recover from the pandemic that pushed the Brighton Housing Authority into the service industry. The goal now is to sustain that branch of its work by keeping case managers on staff whose job is to find out what clients need and where to get it.
The authority now has three employees in its services department, which links clients to dozens of nonprofits offering everything from haircuts to dental work to home-delivered meals.
“Every story is unique,” Bristol said. “One might be struggling with a health issue. Or an automobile issue. We’re not the experts in all of that. We’re the coordination piece.”
It was a law enforcement victims’ advocate who first connected Rodriguez to the Brighton Housing Authority. Rodriguez, who has trouble pronouncing some words because of the injury to her jaw, is a 60-year-old grandmother who adopted her three grandsons.
They were cramped in a tiny apartment when her ex-husband was arrested, and she quickly struggled to keep up with the rent, utilities and food. The housing authority set her up with vouchers to pay for gas and money to buy food, and began helping her apply for housing assistance. Rodriguez wanted to move because they were so crowded, but more than that, because she feared her ex might return.
Now, Rodriguez and her grandsons live in a Brighton Housing Authority complex called Windmill Ranch, which includes four, three-story buildings. The 96 units at the complex are two- and three-bedrooms. On Tuesdays, she drives the boys to after-school tutoring at another Brighton Housing Authority property, Hughes Station, where they eat fresh produce and yogurt and get help with math problems and essays.
“People like me and my boys need a lot of help,” Rodriguez said. “I believe I owe my life to them for helping me out. I feel safe and comfortable now, thank God.”