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Denver affordable home builder backs out amid 'ill-informed' city policy changes

Posted at 8:15 PM, Feb 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-15 00:49:33-05

DENVER -- One of the only builders of affordable homes in Denver says bad city policy is forcing him to stop new construction.

Contact7 Investigates first uncovered the mounting concerns from affordable home buyers, sellers, realtors, lenders and builders who continue to say the city is trying to fix a problem that was never a problem.

"Most of our buyers who are under contract are having difficulty being approved," Gene Myers of Thrive Home Builders said of the city's rule changes.

What used to be a more lax approach to approving low-income buyers is now more stringent. City rules have said buyers who want to benefit from the city's affordable home program must meet income guidelines, generally between 50 and 80 percent of Denver's median income, and not exceed a monthly housing cost debt-to-income ratio of 30 percent. The latter was not strictly enforced, but since October, it has been.

In some cases, the city nixed housing contracts on buyers who were days or hours from closing.

"This may mean that I have to move from Stapleton, which is where I really want to live," buyer Sheila Cody said. She's among the people who were knocked out of the buying process even though she would have historically qualified. She said her debt-to-income ratio just barely exceeded the city's limits.

"It just seemed so unjust," she said. "I thought to myself, at first initially, I guess it is what it is -- you can't fight city hall. But then I thought, 'wait a minute, I don't want to just accept this without questioning it further and without getting some people on board to help me do that.'"

She then messaged the Contact7 Investigates team.

Contact7 profiled a number of people -- buyers and sellers -- who are now stuck because of the city's change in enforcement procedures despite having approval from actual mortgage lenders.

Justin Gorrie nearly lost the deal on his new condo in Capitol Hill the Friday before a Monday closing. It took a gift of $30,000 from his parents in Texas to keep the deal alive -- to bring his monthly housing cost debt-to-income ratio below 30 percent. Prior to the gift, he said his ratio was closer to 35 percent.

Gary Gibson is unable to sell his affordable townhouse in Stapleton due to the rule changes.

"Disaster," he said. "Utter disaster."

He and his realtor, Brian Conley, said the home has had more than 100 showings to date. All of the eager, prospective buyers come to find out they often wouldn't qualify to live in the home under the city's newly-enforced rules.

Gibson bought the home in 2016 and said his housing cost debt-to-income ratio was nearing 50 percent at the time, but the city didn't mind since he received mortgage lender approval. Mortgage lenders routinely approve loans to buyers who have housing cost debt-to-income ratios between 40 and 50 percent.

Currently, Gibson faces the prospect of paying two mortgages as he and his new wife and baby are set to close on a new home, out of the affordable housing program, this week.

"I definitely empathize with people," Chief Housing Officer Britta Fisher said in an interview with Contact7 Investigates. "It is not the intent to eliminate the program. It's our intent to strengthen it."

She's aware of the mounting concerns, but said the city's changes come in response, in part, to an audit that found numerous issues with the city's affordable home program on the whole.

"We hear loud and clear the need for more flexibility, but we also want to protect and preserve affordability," Fisher said.

Her staff at the Office of Economic Development recently approved a higher housing cost debt-to-income ratio of 35 percent. Currently, she said they're working on procedures that would require additional home counseling options for buyers who may exceed the new ratio.

"Perhaps they don't have much debt, or other factors, that would make them a good case for an exemption," Fisher said.

Previously, she offered a slightly different narrative.

"Let's not work so much on exceptions, but let's make the rules work," Fisher told Contact7 Investigates in an interview earlier in the month.

Fisher and her staff also continue to cite a 13 percent foreclosure rate on affordable homes as one of the reasons they need to enforce the rules. However, city records show the bulk of the foreclosures were years ago during the recession. In 2016, there was only one foreclosure. None have occurred in 2017 and 2018.

Myers said he's closed on 201 houses since his business entered the affordable housing program in 2007. Of those, he said only one has foreclosed.

He said the city's latest desire to be more flexible again is "progress," but said he's not yet ready to reenter the program.

"It's sad because, guess what, we need it now more than ever," Myers said.

He also said he's going to continue to challenge the city audit that spurred some of the changes.

The Contact7 Investigates Team