Affordable housing activists kill their own statewide initiative

Efforts to create a permanent source for affordable housing in Colorado died Tuesday, when the Colorado Housing Investment Fund shelved plans for a citizens’ initiative that was to appear on the November ballot — halting the result of more than seven years of work by legislators and housing advocates. The proposal was pulled because the group lacked funds to wage a probable high-stakes, Realtor-led opposition campaign. 
The retraction represents a major blow to the equitable housing movement in the state.

"I have a mix of feelings right now–sadness and anger," says state Rep. John Kefalas, a Democrat from Fort Collins who has worked on the initiative and similar projects since 2001. "People are going to be regrouping and looking at strategy and timing and how to bring the issue back in the future. Honestly, it has taken me aback."

The initiative would have created a 4-cent tax on every $100 spent during a real estate transfer. Either the buyer or the seller would be responsible for paying the fee. The money — an extra $80 on a $200,000 home, for instance — would go toward an affordable housing reserve. Organizers say that there is a need for affordable housing, since Colorado ranks very low among states with a large gap between housing costs and wages.

The ballot initiative was introduced last month, and organizers had already gathered more than 20,000 of the 130,000 signatures they had hoped for in order to have enough valid signatures to appear on the ballot. The effort got a late start because the Colorado Association of Realtors attempted to railroad the initiative when the ballot language was in the approval process, says Britta Fisher, chair of the Colorado Housing Investment Fund.

"We had some opposition from the Realtors," says Fisher. "We have engaged in some dialogue with the Realtors, and we are hopeful in the future that we can find other ways of working together."

Representatives from the Colorado Association of Realtors declined to comment, saying that they had to first review a letter the Colorado Housing Investment Fund released today that explained why the initiative was dropped. 

But the Realtors’ Web site included the following statement: "Our own research reveals that there are hundreds of agencies already spending millions of dollars each year on affordable housing in our state. And there has been no statewide needs assessment that tells us additional money would be beneficial. Please help us spread the word. Before we add another cost to the purchase of a new home we should look at how we are already funding affordable housing and for solutions that will work."

Fisher says that the initiative also faced financial difficulties since it relied on paid petition circulators to gather the signatures. "It is hard to get on the ballot with anything less than $500,000. We were tantalizingly close to reaching our goal. But, the bills are too high and the time is too short. We think we should redirect our energy and resources toward a successful ballot drive another time."

The cancelled ballot initiative is the latest loss in a string of disappointments for the state’s affordable housing advocates. State Sen. Betty Boyd, a Democrat from Lakewood, introduced an affordable housing bill last session that failed. Kefalas also introduced a bill that was very similar to the ballot initiative, but he pulled it when the initiative appeared to be moving forward. And in 2005 former Gov. Bill Owens vetoed a bill to help create a funding source for affordable housing.

Because of restrictions within Colorado’s Tax Payer Bill of Rights, finding a legislative fix for affordable housing is notoriously difficult. Any tax increase must appear before voters. But voters won’t have their say on affordable housing now — at least not this year.

"There is a need for this," says Kefalas. "I think most people would agree that decent affordable housing is important, and we have to keep working at it and figure out the appropriate ways to fund it and use some public dollars to invest. [Affordable housing] is part of our infrastructure, is it not?"

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