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In pricey Boulder, affordable housing is a path to homeownership

Boulder's affordable housing program puts homes within reach for low- to middle-income buyers in a city with a median house price of more than $1 million.

BOULDER, Colo. — The rising cost of housing in Colorado means, for many families, owning a home is simply out of reach. But in some communities, there is another option through the affordable housing market.

In Boulder, more people wait in the city’s Permanently Affordable Housing Program than there are homes actually available.

If those potential homebuyers can wait, for however long it takes, the program provides eligible buyers a chance to own a home in one of Colorado's most expensive cities.

RELATED: Priced Out: How the Denver Metro housing market got to where it is today

A new homeowner

There are new plants on the porch, paint swatches on the wall, and a much bigger kitchen ready for cooking. Hayden Dansky is beginning to settle into the home. 

“When we got this place, it was like, we're going to be able to paint our walls!” they said.

Dansky moved into a two-bedroom, one-bathroom property with their partner, Allison, and dog Ruckus, in February. For the first time, Hayden is a homeowner.

“I feel there’s some amount of relief we’re not going to get kicked out," they said. "The landlord is not just going to increase rent. We're not going to be asked to move for renovations that we have no control over. It's a little more breathing room that I did not know was possible.”

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It was only possible for this couple through Boulder’s Permanently Affordable Housing Program.

Credit: Foster Gaines
Hayden Dansky and their partner moved into their home in February.

The median price of a home in Boulder is more than $1 million, according to data from the Colorado Association of Realtors. For people whose qualify for the program, like Dansky, a property is in reach. 

That doesn’t mean it was simple.

“You have to make enough to qualify for the loan for the house," Dansky said. "But you can't make enough to go over the income limit."

The couple both work for nonprofit organizations. Prior to buying this new home, they lived in an affordable market rental property. Dansky said it took about two years to get selected for a home to purchase in the program. 

“We were putting our name into every house we qualified for, for the past year, basically,” they said, all while providing extensive personal financial information to remain in the program. 

“The part that’s hard, and it’s probably like this in the regular market too, you see a place and you’re like – we’re a yes! And it’s out of your control. You do that over and over and its draining,” Dansky said.

How it works in Boulder

The City of Boulder’s Permanently Affordable Housing Program sells homes, below-market rate, to eligible buyers with low, moderate, and middle incomes.

Boulder has about 750 homes in the program. As of mid-May 2022, the city listed eight properties available for purchase.

Eric Swanson, the city’s homeownership coordinator, said about 160 people are certified in the program and actively looking for a home.

“We’ve definitely seen demand increase over last few years as the housing and rental market changes," he said. "It’s become more expensive.”

The first step for a prospective home owner in the Permanently Affordable Homes program is to qualify, based on income and assets. For one person, the income limit is $105,360. For a household of 4 people, its $150,480.

Credit: City of Boulder
Income requirements for Boulder's Permanently Affordable Home Program

When a property becomes available, the city – not the current owner – sets the list price using a formula designed to keep the home affordable.

Swanson said there is a covenant attached to every property in this program that limits how much the price can appreciate each year, which is no more than 3% annually.

Available homes are listed on the program’s website for 30 days, a period called the marketing period. During that time, any interested buyer who's certified in the program can make an offer for the list price or lower.

The program has strict rules prohibiting issues in the traditional market like escalating bidding wars, waived inspections and appraisal gaps.

“There’s no bidding wars, there’s no, ‘I see the listing and I’ve got see [the property] tonight and get my contract in tonight by 8pm.’ We try and take some of that pressure out of it,” Swanson said.  “Having extra money, like agreeing to pay $100,000 over price, … it’s not allowed. It doesn’t happen.”

But like the traditional market, it’s not uncommon for one affordable property to have many interested buyers.

“That varies," he said. "Some will have five [applicants] that are interested – that’s kind of the low end. I’ve got one that’s coming up right now, and I think we’ve got 27 [applicants] at this point.”

RELATED: State hotline sees increase in calls from people looking for affordable housing

When the 30-day marketing period ends, the city reviews the applicants in a sort-of lottery system. There are tiers within the selection process. The city considers factors like household size, if the applicant works in the city of Boulder, and length of time in program.

“It isn’t uncommon for people to have to wait awhile," Swanson said. "It all depends on what their needs are in a home. For some people, any home will work. So they’re entering [applications] for more, and their odds are increasing in that respect, but some people have more specific needs.”

In an increasingly expensive city like Boulder, this program is an important part of the solution to the housing crisis, Swanson said.

Even with the appreciation limits, people can build equity in their home. They can budget for a set mortgage, instead of the variability of rent prices. And they can be part of homeownership in an otherwise very expensive city. 

“The city is excited to have this program because we’re able to offer things to people with lower, moderate and middle incomes to live here," Swanson said. "And that just brings a diversity of people within Boulder, which is really great."

A success story

Right now, there is a two-bed, two-bath townhome listed for sale in the program, at $332,186. Jason English owns the property and is ready to sell.

“This property was home for nine years,” he said. “I remember we were much more severely income limited at the time. My wife was in grad school, and I had just finished grad school. Our budget was pretty limited.”

In those nine years, English and his wife grew their careers, their incomes and even their family. He said it’s time for them to move on.

“While the city won't kick you out, we wanted to get a [traditional] market home and give an opportunity for people with tighter budget to be in the affordable homes program,” he said.

English said he hopes the next owners will enjoy the neighborhood his family loved, plus the close proximity to downtown Boulder and trails. He also hopes more people learn about the program and consider applying.

RELATED: New 30-year mortgage rate highest in 13 years

“It’s not obvious to always think about the [Permanently Affordable Homes] homes program, when you’re in the market for a house,” he said. “But some friends of ours had been in it, we said, ‘Oh yeah we should look into that.’ And [back then] we found out we qualified for some of the homes.”

As English and his wife prepare to sell this property, they're also celebrating their new home, which they purchased through the traditional housing market. English credits the affordable market for allowing his family to build equity and to pay an affordable price while they grew their personal financial situation.

“I would say it was totally a success story," he said. "We lived here nine years, quite a while. I’m very grateful for the program that allowed us to buy a decent house in the city of Boulder on a middle income.”

More than just a house

Credit: Foster Gaines
Hayden Dansky

After two long years of waiting, Dansky’s turn at homeownership finally arrived. They remember the day they were notified that their offer was accepted on a property.

“I was so shocked. I just froze. I couldn't breathe!” Dansky said. “I called Allison, my partner, and I was like, ‘They picked us!’ And they were like, ‘What!?’ Yeah, I couldn't breathe.”

It is more than just a house to settle into, for this couple. It’s a home.

“For me, having so much insecurity in my life in so many tangible ways for so long, to be able to breathe and rest and feel that amount of security, [it] allows my radical queer heart to say – yeah, you can have the spaciousness you need to feel OK and safe to be able to do the things you need to do in the world,” Dansky said.

“Another level of security that, yeah, I’d never imagined was possible.”

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