Creating and Preserving Affordable Housing in Denver’s RiNo Art District
In 2005, Denver artists Tract Weil and Jill Hadley-Hooper formed a grassroots nonprofit organization known as the RiNo Art District, their name for the area along the South Platte River north of downtown Denver that includes the historic neighborhoods of Globeville, Elyria-Swansea, Five Points, and Cole. Weil and Hadley-Hooper sought to connect the many artists that had moved to these neighborhoods after industry left the city center. This organization, along with three other support groups, plans infrastructure improvements and community programming in the RiNo Art District. Numerous job opportunities and amenities make the district an attractive place to live and visit. The popular neighborhood is home to visual artists, designers, architects, furniture makers, and other businesses in the art and design sectors. Restaurants, breweries, jazz bars, and concert venues also line the streets. In 2016, the neighborhood became more accessible after a rail station opened in the district for the University of Colorado A Line, which connects downtown Denver to the airport. But the neighborhood’s increased popularity has led to gentrification and rising housing costs. In response, the RiNo Art District organization has been promoting initiatives to bring more affordable housing to the area. Civic leaders and private organizations share the goal of creating and preserving affordable housing in the district.
The City and Nonprofits Promote Affordable Housing
Between 2016 and 2018, the Denver city council created Denver’s first affordable housing overlay district, and during the planning process, the RiNo Art District organization advocated increased levels of affordability. Developers in this 160-acre zoning district surrounding the 38th/Blake rail station can construct projects up to 11 stories higher than the base zoning allows if they include housing units affordable to families earning incomes at or below 80 percent of the area median income (AMI). Residential developers can reserve a percentage of units for qualified residents either on the development site or at another location within the overlay district. Developers of commercial projects in the overlay district, who are already subject to a citywide affordable housing linkage fee, must pay an additional linkage fee, provide affordable housing offsite, or engage in a nonhousing-related community benefits agreement.
Among the nonprofit organizations helping to bring more affordable housing to the RiNo Art District is the Urban Land Conservancy (ULC), which operates a community land trust. ULC leases its properties to affordable housing developers for a nominal rent that virtually eliminates the need for the developers to finance land costs. The 99-year leases, which can be renewed once, ensure long-term affordability. ULC recently used this mechanism in an agreement with the Medici Consulting Group to develop Walnut Flats.
Walnut Flats Adds Affordable Housing in the RiNo Art District
In 2011, anticipating that the upcoming A Line station and future development would eventually lead to higher land values, ULC acquired a foreclosed property with help from the Denver Regional Transit-Oriented Development Fund and partnered with the Medici Group to build affordable housing on a portion of the site. While the Medici Group applied for low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs), ULC rented the land to the Colorado Village Collaborative for $1 a month. For 2 years, the collaborative operated the Beloved Community Village, consisting of 11 small houses for people experiencing homelessness. The collaborative moved the tiny houses to a nearby neighborhood in 2019, when the Medici Group and ULC broke ground on what would eventually be known as Walnut Flats. ULC sold the remainder of the site to McWhinney, which is developing FoundryLine, a mixed-use building.
Walnut Flats has 66 one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments; 10 percent are reserved for households earning up to 30 percent of AMI that have been given housing vouchers. Households earning up to 50 percent of AMI can occupy 40 percent of the units, and the remaining apartments are reserved for those earning no more than 60 percent of AMI. Common spaces in Walnut Flats include a clubhouse, coworking space, and a rooftop deck. The development is one block from the 38th/Blake rail station.
The development cost $18.8 million, almost all of which was financed through LIHTCs and a mortgage provided by the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority (table 1). The state authority also tapped its Capital Magnet Fund to provide a low-interest loan and grant. The city’s economic development department provided more than $1 million to help achieve its goal of ensuring that all Denver residents can share in the city’s success.
Table 1: Walnut Flats Financing
|Colorado Housing and Finance Authority mortgage||3,600,000|
|Colorado Housing and Finance Authority loan||600,000|
|Colorado Housing and Finance Authority grant||150,000|
|Denver Economic Development and Opportunity||1,350,000|
|Urban Land Conservancy||200,000|
Other Affordable Housing in the RiNo Art District
In addition to Walnut Flats, two developments that include below-market-rate units have been constructed in the RiNo overlay district. The 382-unit Edit at River North was required to provide 16 affordable units in exchange for a 7-story height bonus. Likewise, 2 of the 48 apartments in the Collective RiNo are affordable, allowing this building 2 additional stories above the 3-story zoning limit. Walnut Flats’ planned neighbor, FoundryLine, will include 30 affordable apartments among the development’s 348 units. The city required 15 affordable units in exchange for permission for FoundryLine to rise to 16 stories, twice the maximum building height allowed in the zoning district, and ULC agreed to lower the land price if the developer included an additional 15 units. ULC is collaborating with Shanahan Development on another affordable housing project in the RiNo Art District that will contain 49 owner-occupied units for households earning up to 80 percent of AMI. As of March 2021, seven other projects in the overlay district were planning to take advantage of the height incentive, at least three of which are commercial developments that have the option to participate in a nonhousing-related community benefits agreement.