Colorado Springs, like many cities along the Front Range, is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Paradoxically, while the citizens of Colorado Springs want “something to be done” about the “homeless problem,” projects that attempt to address that problem — by building more houses — face concerted opposition from community members. 

In 2021 the Colorado Springs City Council denied a rezoning request for 420 market rate — not subsidized or affordable housing units — at 2424 Garden of the Gods Road, after residents raised concerns about the impact the project would have on scenic views, bighorn sheep, and fire evacuation times. In March, a proposed 56-unit apartment project in Colorado Springs’ Westside was withdrawn after residents complained about the impact of density and traffic on the historic and cultural character of the neighborhood.

Wednesday, after hours of public comment from residents in North Colorado Springs who opposed a 247-unit housing development, the Colorado Springs Planning Commission heard an appeal to a proposed 50-unit apartment complex, the Launchpad Apartments, in Colorado Springs’ Westside that would help homeless youth attain permanent supportive housing. The appeal failed after a unanimous vote from the Planning Commission, but the hearing illustrates the challenges in attempting to address the affordable housing crisis in Colorado Springs.

“We are not appealing that [affordable housing],” said former Colorado Springs City Councilor and appellant Tom Strand. “What we are appealing is the location. That’s all. You know, this whole thing about youth, permanent supportive housing, I couldn’t support it any more. I think we need youth supportive housing. We desperately need that in Colorado Springs, in El Paso County. We do not need it on 19th Street and Uintah for the reasons that we will, you know, hopefully convince you that this is the right project, but not the right place, not the right location.”

Tom Strand, appealing an affordable housing project for homeless youth.

Fellow appellant Scott Hiller, a failed Colorado Springs city council candidate who led the opposition to the 56-unit apartment project that was withdrawn in March, raised concerns about building height and density, but the appeal letter raised concerns about “homeless adults next to a nursery school” and “increased drug use and dealing, increased homeless population congregating around the property, unsavory characters interfacing with a young student population, etc.”

Joe Mangels, a co-chair with the Colorado Springs Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) who attended the Planning Commission meeting in support of launchpad, was critical of Strand’s appeal. “It’s basically just NIMBYism,” he said. “If you read the appeal, they had written out like two sentences about the geological hazard, which is, you know, apparently so important that it gets a whole two lines. Then the rest of the appeal, they just say, ‘Oh, there’s going to be unsavory characters around the building’ and ‘that like, ‘Oh, there’s just going to be so many more homeless.’ They’re ignoring the fact that these people are going to be given a home. That’s the priority here.”

Wayne Bland, the chair of the Housing Stability Committee with The Place, the youth homelessness advocacy nonprofit behind the Launchpad Apartments, described broad support from businesses near the proposed development. “Virtually every a commercial property in there, those retail stores, said, ‘We welcome them. We’ll give them discounts. We’ll give them jobs. We need people to sack groceries. We need people at Petco. We need people at the ARC,'” said Bland. “In addition to that, they volunteered to give us coupons to hand out to the youth so that they can shop there. So we’ve got tremendous buy-in.”

Maryah Lauer, a DSA member and Westside resident, also supports the project. “Every time you go there, to the King Soopers in Uintah Gardens, there are a number of unhoused people there, a number of people who are panhandling, or have set up camps essentially within that shopping center,” she noted. “They already exist. Having this development that can help mitigate it is hugely important.”

While Strand and Hiller insisted their opposition to the project was rooted in their interpretation of the Colorado Springs zoning code and the Westside Plan, Andrea Barlow, a planning principal and one of the owners of N.E.S. Inc., the firm that was retained for the failed 2424 Garden of the Gods project, challenged those claims.

“I think Mr. Strand used the word ‘disingenuous’ and commented that they had full support of the project and this appeal was not about the use,” she said. “Those last three bullet points and this last section of their appeal statement suggests otherwise. It suggests that that was a major factor in their opposition to this project. And so I believe that they are presenting a disingenuous argument to suggest that that has no bearing on the appeal.”

Shawna Kemppainen, the executive director of The Place, underscored the need for this project. “In El Paso County, it’s 185 youth on an average in any given month that are experiencing homelessness,” they said. “There’s a variety of reasons a young person might go to homelessness. Majority of the time it has to do with family conflict, lack of affordable housing, low wages, and so that they can’t get going, not having any credit. There’s a plethora of things that could push a young person into homelessness.”

A concept design for Launchpad Apartments.

Catherine Duarte, the HUD programs manager with Colorado Springs’ Community Development Division in the Planning and Community Development Department, explained the dire situation facing those seeking housing in Colorado Springs.

“For a single person, households making half of the area’s median income (AMI), which right now in 2020 is in the six figures for Colorado Springs area, is $106,000 for a family of four,” said Duarte. “For a household of one, that’s an annual income of $34,000, which is basically somebody working at Target. Median rent on the Westside, based on first quarter numbers from CHFA’s [Colorado Housing and Finance Authority] apartment survey, is over $1,400 dollars. If you’re making $34,000 in single person households, an affordable rent for you would be $948 a month. I just did a quick Zillow search. There’s one apartment at this level available in the Westside. Looking at the whole city, as of yesterday, there were 24.”

Duarte also highlighted the severe lack of housing in Colorado Springs. “We also do a lot of different types of service supports, like rental assistance,” she said. “This is one of the biggest obstacles that organizations face when we provide rental assistance is that even when they have [money], they can’t spend the money because there just aren’t units to put people in. We calculated exactly how many units that are making 50% of an AMI and below last year. My team calculated what that shortage looks like for this population, and our area lacks over 16,000 housing units for people making 50% AMI and below.”

Lauer has experienced the difficulties of Colorado Springs’ housing market firsthand. “As a Westside resident in my twenties, a lot of the people who would benefit from this are people who are in their twenties or, you know, just getting off the ground,” she said. “I know I was only able to be in stable housing because I had support from my in-laws, being able to live with them rent-free for three years. If you don’t have that support, if you’re already at risk, I just don’t see how you can possibly plan somewhere that is stable and secure and that’s ready to help you enter adulthood.”

Duarte also emphasized how housing-first options for addressing homelessness save municipalities money in the long term. “Housing these young people instead of warehousing them in shelters and passing them on from temporary housing to temporary housing saves communities money,” she said. “The National Alliance to End Homelessness cited two studies that showed that housing-first programs can save anywhere from $23,000 to $31,000 per person in the savings of those people that go into the emergency room as often not being involved in law enforcement and in decreased need for street cleanups or camp cleanups.”

Kemppainen put that financial savings into perspective for the Planning Commission. “It costs the city of Colorado Springs around $37,000 a year in emergency services if an adult lives in chronic homelessness,” they said. “The Launchpad in year one will remove 50 young people from becoming chronic homeless adults. Getting them off the street and into a safe living situation moving forward in their life. 50 youth. $37,000. My calculator said $1.8 million just in year one.”

With the appeal denied by the Colorado Springs Planning Commission, Strand and Hiller now have until June 26 to file an appeal with the Colorado Springs City Council.