In DHA(Denver Housing Authority) redevelopments, modern design elements harbor sleek, mixed-income villages, resulting in public housing that's affordable and forward-thinking.

Welcome to the new era of public housing, circa 2017, in a city experiencing its greatest economic expansion in a hundred years. The new residences are handsome, efficient, neighborhood-friendly and designed to ensure everybody benefits from the boom. 

And they are driven by one basic question: “How do we further expand the pathways for individuals who have yet to benefit from Denver’s growth and prosperity?,” asks Ismael Guerrero, DHA’s executive director.

For DHA, the answer has been to rethink what’s possible with low-income developments, and that has been a big job for a sizable government agency.

“Denver Housing Authority is the largest provider of affordable housing in this state, through its traditional housing program as well as its housing voucher program,” explains Erik Soliván, executive director of Denver’s new Office of Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE).

Guerrero breaks that down into actual numbers. “The majority of our portfolio is public housing, and because we also administer 6,800 housing choice vouchers, we serve almost 12,000 households with affordable and subsidized housing annually.”

DHA owns and manages 5,500 housing units that are spread all over the city, in the form of mid-rises, row homes and dispersed properties — the latter of which account for over 1,000 DHA units, and could be anything from single-family homes to duplexes.

“We have quite a variety of housing to meet different needs and desires,” Guerrero says.

His organization services Denver’s lowest-income households, including seniors on fixed-incomes, tenants collecting disability, single-parent families and the underemployed.

Most of DHA’s leasees earn less than $12,000 per year, and the organization’s hand-me-down assets aren’t exactly fancy. “We have some of the oldest housing stock in the city,” Guerrero explains.

It’s this conundrum – What to do with old housing and low-income tenants? – that informs DHA’s unique approach to public housing.  

As a property manager, DHA does its part to keep its buildings and the surrounding grounds clean and intact. In fact, DHA has been a leader in property management for decades, repeatedly raking in high assessment scores from the federal office of Housing and Urban Development.

But what does a housing authority do with its really withered units — the ones needing more than fresh paint and a few nails?

“We take the most blighted properties and redevelop them, replacing them with new communities,” says Guerrero.

DHA found a way to make its redevelopments financially feasible, by turning rundown projects into thriving — and mixed-income — housing communities.

The mixed-income label means the developments are a mash-up of rental rates and open to a socio-economically diverse group of tenants. “Silos of low-income housing aren’t creating opportunities for those living there to grow and prosper economically,” Soliván explains.

“One thing is clear,” he continues. “Mixed-income communities create pathways for low-income individuals to access better housing, health, jobs and education. It creates a much more inclusive Denver.”

Each of the 523 Mariposa Redevelopment housing units looks the same inside, with modern finishes and the requisite amenities: microwave and dishwasher, laundry — even affordable high-speed internet, provided by Comcast through its Internet Essentials package, a broadband accessibility program that’s had Comcast wiring public housing since 2015.  

Rents fall into three categories, based on resdidents' incomes: subsidized, affordable and market rate. For subsidized housing, tenants are required to pay 30 percent of their income in rent. “If you have zero income, you’d pay zero rent — but we require a minimum of $50 in rent a month,” Guerrero says, noting that HUD provides DHA with subsidies.

Affordable, or below-market rates. are available for other tenants falling within a certain income level: anywhere from $20,000 to $45,000 annually.

In each of the five Mariposa buildings, low-income tenants paying $50 a month live alongside tenants paying the going rate for the neighbborhood, up to $1,700 for three-bedroom apartments. Residents share everything, parking, community rooms, a playground and community garden, and an on-site fitness center, too.  

The key to drawing a range of tenants is location – (Mariposa is near both the 10th and Osage light rail station and the Santa Fe Arts District) – and “great design,” Soliván adds. “If you have great housing design, you can’t see the difference between a lower income individual and a higher income individual,” he says.

Mariposa taps into mixed-incomes and also mixed-uses, with ground-level retail space for organizations like Catholic Charities, Youth on Record, Osage Café and The Bike Depot, a nonprofit community bike shop, as well as seasonal farmers markets put on by Denver Botanic Gardens.

Construction wrapped up earlier this year, in August, and all housing units are currently filled. “That’s one measure of success for us,” Guerrero says, noting that, yes, Mariposa’s residents – students, families, artists and working professionals – do indeed “live happily together” despite their income differences.  

The idea for mixed-income redevelopments started with the Curtis Park housing development, completed back in 1998.

Today, 135 subsidized units are accompanied by 99 affordable housing units and 94 market rate units. “Since we completed redevelopment, the whole neighborhood has improved. There have been new investments, and property values are up,” Guerrero points out.

“By removing blighted housing,” he adds, “We’ve been a catalyst for the new investment.”

“It’s not just about the housing. It’s about the neighborhood,” Guerrero continues.

“We think the best communities are the ones that are diverse and inclusive,” he adds, noting that mixed-income housing developments stand to be more vibrant and more sustainable.

The Park Avenue/Benedict Park Place Redevelopment in Five Points (completed a few years ago) is another DHA success story, where 250 public housing units were replaced with over 800 units of mixed-income housing. “We also added playgrounds and a dog park and introduced a street grid, reconnecting housing to the Uptown neighborhood, so pedestrians would have a better walking experience,” says Guerrero.

For its mixed-income redevelopments, DHA received $25 to $30 million federal dollars per project, through HUD’s “Choice Neighborhoods” program.

“They’re very competitive grants,” says Guerrero. And the fact that DHA continually lands them — well, that’s a testament in itself to the organization’s prowess.

With Mariposa wrapped up, DHA has its sites set, next, on the Sun Valley neighborhood, where it will work with CHFA and the city of Denver to develop a fourth mixed-income community.

Read more about new public housing and check out more project photos courtesy of DHA at Confluence Denver

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