When Chris Laney moved into his new three-bedroom home last summer, he felt like he’d won the lottery. After more than a decade of chasing the cheapest rent across the metro area, the Littleton bartender finally has a house to call his own.
“I almost feel guilty that I have it,” said Laney, 49.
Laney is one of a handful of residents who have secured housing through a subsidized program aimed at helping lower- and middle-income people live where they work. But as cities and towns contend with historically high home costs and a lack of supply, residents like Laney have struggled to live in their communities.
“I’ve always felt like I was just passing through instead of living somewhere, putting down roots,” said Laney. He has worked at Jake’s Brew Bar in Littleton since 2012.
“This is where I want to be,” Laney said. “My friends and family are Jake’s.”
In numerous counties, residents — spanning a range of employment from the service industry to teaching — have faced the brunt of what many officials are calling a housing crisis.
The median price of a single-family home in the metro area has roughly tripled since 2010, according to an August 2022 report by the Colorado Association of Realtors. Back in 2010, the median price was about $200,000.
And wages have not kept up with home costs. Between 2000 and 2019, median rents rose at a faster rate than household incomes “in every Colorado county and city with 50,000+ residents,” according to a November 2021 report from Denver-based consulting firm Root Policy Research. The report also said that, as of June 2021, Colorado’s overall housing inventory was 13% of what is needed for a functioning sales market.
“Quite honestly, we just don’t have enough housing, whether it’s affordable or otherwise,” said Kelly Milliman, city council member for Littleton’s District 4 and a member of the city’s housing task force. “It’s really vitally important to the overall health of our community going forward.”
The sentiment is similar for leaders in the neighboring cities of Englewood and Sheridan. There, officials said affordable home options used to be more common.
“For the people that can afford it, they have lots of choices in the metro area,” said Brad Power, Englewood’s director of community development. “But we’re starting to see more gaps with people who are on the other side of the income spectrum.”
Devin Granberry, city manager for Sheridan, said higher home costs have driven workers out of what he described as a historically blue-collar area.
“It leads to a very transient pipeline of citizenry and workforce,” he said. “There’s no sense of belonging, there’s no sense of ownership, and all of those are negative impacts on a community, the well-being of a community.”
Searching for a home
After leaving the house he owned near Houston, Texas, more than a decade ago, Laney knew buying a home in Denver would be a near-impossible feat.
He was making good money at a medical diagnostics company and had been able to purchase a brand-new home in a Houston suburb for less than $150,000. But his mental health was suffering and he knew he needed a change. With friends living in Colorado at the time, Laney decided to move more than 1,000 miles north to Denver.
With his fresh start came the opportunity to dive into a longtime passion: wine. He took classes to become a sommelier — a trained wine professional. He sold wine to businesses across the metro area, worked part-time at a cozy wine bar and restaurant in the heart of Littleton’s historic downtown, and eventually landed a full-time job at Jake’s.
Laney settled on wherever he could find the most affordable apartment — something hovering around $1,000 per month, in places around Denver. The ones he found in Littleton were too run-down. As rents around the region rose, Laney moved five times in six years.
“During this whole process I knew I wanted a house,” Laney said. “I wanted something that was my own, and it’s hard to build a home in an apartment, especially when you keep moving.”
Laney’s experiences came as Littleton residents expressed less confidence that their city was affordable. From 2012 to 2022, residents who cited affordable cost of living as a reason for living in Littleton declined from 30% to 14%, according to biennial city-issued surveys of hundreds of residents. Over those same years, residents who said affordable housing and rental rates were a reason for living in the city went from 20% to 9%.
Laney said he worked, saved and kept his spending habits to a minimum during those years, staying laser-focused on his ultimate prize. Credit-card debt from college “really destroyed a lot of opportunities,” he said, but he kept “working, working, working.”
Even though Laney estimates he was making about $48,000 yearly, he says he was far short of what he needed for a down payment on even the least expensive of homes in Littleton.
He wasn’t alone. A 2020 analysis from Denver-based contractor Root Policy showed that individuals who earned $29,000 to $95,000 yearly in the metro area could not afford the average price of a home, which was nearly $420,000 that year.
“It’s a pretty serious situation,” said Corey Reitz, executive director of Littleton’s housing authority, South Metro Housing Options. “The list of folks who can’t continue to live here continues to grow.”
That list, according to Root’s analysis, includes workers in health care, education, construction, food service and more.
Essential workers risk being priced out
Staffers at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood say the housing problem also affects them. They blame the shortage of essential hospital workers they’re contending with, in part, on the cost of housing.
“Absolutely the rising cost of housing here in Colorado is a topic,” said Dena Schmaedecke, the hospital’s vice president of human resources. “Colleagues are often bringing up those stresses.”
That housing-cost factor has caused hospital leaders to offer a $10,000 housing stipend to incentivize new employees, Schmaedecke said.
In Brighton, northeast of Denver, Michael Clow, chief human resources officer for 27J Schools, said the cost of housing has impacted the district’s ability to maintain and support staff.
“We hear from candidates and from our new hires that the cost of housing and their ability to find housing is a real problem,” Clow said. “ We recently had two math teachers (husband and wife) join us. They were excited to live their dream and move to Colorado. After just one year and realizing they could not afford to raise a family here, they moved back to their home state.”
Clow said the crisis has restricted the district’s pool of applicants graduating with teaching degrees, creating intense competition for staff and teachers.
“The cost of housing is becoming a serious obstacle for us to maintain service levels and serve our mission,” he said.
Farther north, in Fort Lupton, the Weld R-8 School District has faced similar pressures. Superintendent Alan Kaylor said the annual salary for a first-year teacher in the district is about $41,000.
Kaylor bought his home in 1995 for $72,000. He said a home across the street from his was recently listed at $685,000. The price of that house across the street rose more than four times faster than the pace of inflation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator.
“How can any family afford that?” he asked. “Something has to give. After a while, you have to wonder how long people will tolerate living on teachers’ wages.”
Even for some residents making a larger income, housing remains elusive.
West of Denver, in Evergreen, husband and wife Bill and Charm Connelly bring in a combined six-figure salary.
Bill Connelly is an insurance agent and blackjack dealer for a Black Hawk casino. Charm is the front-house general manager for Cactus Jack’s, a bar and restaurant in Evergreen. The two rent a three-bedroom home and are struggling to save for a house. Even downsizing to something smaller, they said, would likely increase their spending by roughly $400 a month. The two currently pay $2,200 per month on rent.
“I feel like a failure. I finally get a good full-time job making great money, and eight years ago, 10 years ago, we could easily have gotten something,” Bill Connelly said.
“Between the two of us, I see what we make,” Charm said. “We are making decent money, but I want to be able to save money and not blow it all on rent.”
For Adam Galbraith, a Cactus Jack’s bartender, the only way to keep his rent affordable is to live with others.
“The only reason I’m able to save money is because it’s a 1,100-square-foot place and we crammed four people in it,” Galbraith said, adding monthly rent is about $1,500. “If you’ve got roommates, that’s the only way you're going to save money.”
A housing 'limbo'
Near the end of 2019, Laney, the Littleton bartender, was beginning to feel more confident about reaching his goal for a down payment. He’d paid off his car and credit-card debt and said he “worked hard to keep it that way.”
His savings account was beginning to bulk up. Then came COVID-19.
Years of careful saving and unyielding restraint on spending evaporated in months. Laney was forced to drain his savings account during the beginning of the pandemic amid lockdowns. He received nothing from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, though he would gain $3,200 from stimulus checks in the months to come. Still, he was hanging on.
It was “the community around Jake’s, our regulars, who kept us alive,” Laney said.
“I was there every single day, for damn near a year,” he said, with the bar able to do curbside orders even as its indoors remained shuttered.
Before the pandemic, Laney estimates he brought in about $4,000 each month before taxes. By the end of the month, after paying for rent, utilities, groceries and gas, he would be left with just $200 to $300, which usually went into his savings.
Living that way was “terrifying,” said Laney, who always felt he could be on the edge of losing his housing should he have a bad month. The pandemic only exacerbated the uncertainty.
As his savings depleted, Laney’s dream of owning a home never seemed further away.
But his resolve didn’t waver and he used what federal relief he had to rebuild his savings because, as he put it, “I had a goal: I wanted a house. When I came out of the tunnel I knew what I wanted.”
By 2021, he started looking again. A townhome might come up on the market — far from perfect, but within Laney’s means — and he would ready himself to put down an offer. It never was enough.
“Someone comes in and puts 20k cash on the offer, or 30k or 40k,” Laney said. “I went through about a year and a half of that and I knew in my head I was not going to be able to get a house.”
A real-estate agent who came into his bar told Laney to apply for a $300,000 bank loan. He had good credit, the agent told him, and would be a shoo-in for the money.
“Three hundred thousand dollars does not get you a townhome,” Laney thought to himself.
He was frustrated. More than frustrated. He felt depressed.
“I’d done everything right, everything I was supposed to do and it still didn’t matter,” he said. “I’m just stuck, like the hundreds of thousands of other people, in limbo.”
Laney’s luck began to turn near the end of 2021 when he heard there were about to be dozens of single-family homes for sale in Littleton for less than $300,000. He thought it was too good to be true.
‘We can’t all win the lottery’
That year, South Metro Housing Options, which manages affordable properties throughout Littleton, sold 59 of its single-family homes to Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver, which pledged to renovate the units and sell them at a below-market price.
Laney’s hourly wage had slightly increased since the pandemic from $8 to $10, though 90% of his income still came from tips, he said. Still, Laney believed he met the financial requirements for a Habitat home, which would only sell to people who earn no more than 80% of the area’s median income.
But when Laney applied to be on a waitlist at the beginning of 2022, he was quickly denied. He was told his income, roughly $56,000 when he applied, exceeded the cap by less than $1,000.
Laney said he was actually making less than that, about $54,000, but because Habitat counted his “unrealized interest gains,” such as money held in stocks, Laney was over the threshold.
Habitat was also only looking at the income of recent months, Laney said, rather than his income over the past year. This made it look like he made more than he did because his month-to-month income would fluctuate dramatically based on tips.
He applied again and was denied again, this time for making just $300 more than the cut-off. But, a slow month at work turned out to be a good thing. His income dipped just enough that by the third time he applied he made it on the waitlist.
That did not come with the guarantee of a home. Laney was in a line of people just like him and demand far outweighed supply. Number 10 was his position. Who knew how many more were behind him, he thought.
Then it happened. Laney was made an offer, a 1,275-square-foot detached home near Ketring Park in central Littleton valued at $285,000, roughly a third of what similar properties sold for.
“I can’t even express how happy I was,” Laney said. “I’ve been living and serving this community for 10 years and I want to live here.”
Still, the program has some drawbacks compared to traditional homeownership. Laney cannot build as much equity as many of his neighbors because he does not own the property the home sits on. Instead, it is owned by something called a land trust — a collection of entities.
“The beauty of the land trust is it removes the cost of the land from the equation from the cost of the home,” said Kate Hilberg, director of real estate development for Habitat for Humanity. “It allows the homeowners to pay on that mortgage for that home and improvements to that home but not the land.”
Land trusts are crucial tools organizations like Habitat use to lock in the affordability of homes even as property values rise elsewhere. The owners of these units will see some equity from their homes, Hilberg said, about 2% each year. But it won’t be enough to match the likes of homeowners who have used their growing property values to build decades of generational wealth.
“A lot of families use this as a starter home option and they do gain enough equity and stability to turn that into a down payment on a home in the open market,” Hilberg said of homes under land trusts.
But fathoming a concept like equity is a luxury for those who still can’t buy a house on the market, Laney said.
While he’s thankful for what Habitat did for him, he fears the few dozen homes it manages in Littleton can only go so far to meet the demand of hundreds, if not thousands, of residents who have struggled as he has.
“There isn’t enough income-based housing for people … the people who live and work in this community can’t afford a house,” Laney said. “We can’t all win the lottery.”
Colorado Community Reporters Andrew Fraieli, Steve Smith, Tayler Shaw and Ellis Arnold contributed reporting to this story.