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A rendering of the Coloradan in Union Station. Courtesy of the Coloradan

Are the Affordable Homes in the Coloradan Truly Affordable?

Union Station's shiny new condo development will designate 10 percent of its units—33 total—to affordable housing. Getting one, however, will be a challenge.

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There are complimentary caprese sandwiches. Dessert pastries. Chilled white wine. And the darling of the Millennial generation: fuchsia-colored cans of LaCroix sparkling water. The theme song from the movie Boyhood, “Hero” by Family of the Year, plays gently in the background:

Let me go
I don’t wanna be your hero
I don’t wanna be a big man
Just wanna fight like everyone else.

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At the front of the room, a slideshow presentation is queued up. The first slide? A picture of a rooftop swimming pool, the words “AFFORDABLE HOMES” emblazoned in gold across it. Welcome to the Coloradan.

A new condominium complex currently under construction in Denver’s Union Station neighborhood, the Coloradan will contain 334 residences. One-bedrooms have already sold for between $450,000 and $750,000, and the top-floor penthouses have gone for between $1.6 and $3 million. However, per the revised Inclusionary Housing Ordinance enacted by Denver City Council in 2014, 10 percent of the building’s units—33 total—will be dedicated to affordable housing. So far, upwards of 550 people have expressed interest in calling one of these condos “home.”

About 50 of them are gathered here on this Saturday, sitting on polished wood benches at the Coloradan’s sales office on Wewatta Street, for a presentation about what it takes to qualify. Twelve one-bedroom condos are available for $230,751, along with 21 two-bedrooms for $285,936. There will be a lottery held June 19 to determine who has a shot at purchasing one of the 33 affordable condos.

Brad Arnold, VP of Sales and Marketing, speaks into a microphone about the details of the Coloradan’s amenities (a pool, hot tub, fire pit, and “cultural concierge”), location (“directly across the street from Whole Foods”), and values. “We as Coloradans felt we wanted it to be inclusive,” he says. The only difference between the affordable units and the regular units is in the “interior finishings,” according to the shiny brochure. These will be the first affordable homes available for purchase in the Union Station neighborhood.

To qualify, a person must earn between 50 and 95 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), which for Denver means between $31,500 and $59,850 for a single person. With a down payment of 20 percent, average monthly costs to own a one-bedroom at the Coloradan would be $1,567. It would take over a decade to pay off.

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Digging slightly deeper in these numbers reveals that, for a single person earning 95 percent of the AMI, a one-bedroom at the Coloradan truly is affordable—total monthly housing costs would be just over 30 percent of that person’s income, which is the standard rule of thumb touted by financial advisors for what a person should spend on housing. However, a person earning 50 percent of the AMI would have to spend more than 60 percent of their income to live at the Coloradan—or more if they put less than 20 percent down.

But not everyone’s at the bottom end of the qualifying income bracket. Some potential buyers at the event seemed less concerned about how they’re going to scrape together 20 percent down than they are with finding loopholes around the fact that they earn too much—or soon will—to qualify. One person asked whether you could stay in the apartment if you bought it as a single person whose income fit the regulations, but later got married and your joint incomes exceeded them. (The answer was yes.) Another asked if you could buy a unit and then immediately give it to someone else. (Only if the second owner was also income verified.)

Denver’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance mandates that new developments with 30 units or more are required to designate 10 percent as affordable. Alternatively, the developer can do a “cash in lieu” payment to the city, and the city will invest the money elsewhere for affordable housing initiatives. According to Derek Woodbury, communications director for the City and County of Denver Office of Economic Development, the Ordinance and the funds it generates addresses “everything from homelessness to home-ownership, across the spectrum.” A project like the affordable units at the Coloradan, classified in city government parlance as a “high-cost structure,” is intended to “help facilitate homeownership opportunities for people of more moderate incomes, slightly below the median income,” says Woodbury.

After the presentation, the young, 20-something couple in front of me stands to leave. He’s drawn a circle around the income restrictions chart in the Coloradan’s promotional brochure. He points to it, showing his girlfriend. “In two years I won’t fit this anymore. So, that’s why it’s a good time.” The Boyhood theme revisits my mind. We whisper things. Secrets from our American dreams.

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