The rental housing market in Fort Collins, Colo., is among the tightest in the country. According to a recent report from RealtyTrac, Fort Collins ranked second nationwide among cities with the lowest residential vacancy rates. The good news? The city of Fort Collins has made an intrinsic commitment to social and economic sustainability and earned a reputation for finding innovative solutions to meeting the needs of residents and businesses.

Shifting Perspective

As the city of Fort Collins continues to grapple with rapid growth and struggles to meet housing demands, developers have new challenges to face as well. To manage accelerated growth while maintaining the city’s small-town feel, developers are looking to new trends in affordable housing—an area of much debate.

The term affordable housing is often used to describe housing for low-wage earners or housing that is subsidized by the city, state, or federal government. Fort Collins has 2,400 units that have been made permanently affordable through these means.

“The challenge we’ve seen develop in Fort Collins requires a broader definition of affordable housing, one that is attainable to most residents,” said Kari Feld, project manager at Palace Construction. “The city considers housing to be affordable if it utilizes less than 30% of monthly household income.

Without housing that’s attainable for lower-to middle-income earners, the community risks outpricing all but the affluent.”  

The median household income in Fort Collins is $78,200.  

With the strategic objective to improve access to a broad range of quality housing that is safe, accessible and affordable for all, Housing Catalyst (formerly the Fort Collins Housing Authority) established “Villages,” a growing portfolio of affordable multifamily housing projects, two of which have been spearheaded by the Palace Construction team. Villages was initially developed to extend the capabilities of Housing Catalyst beyond the scope of federal programs and has continued to grow over the last 35 years.

The Villages

 In 2015, Palace Construction teamed up with design firm Aller Lingle Massey to complete a $5.7-million renovation to the Village on Plum, an affordable-housing complex for families at 30% to 50% of the area’s median income. The multifamily affordable housing project for Housing Catalyst has eight buildings with a total of 96 units. The project embraces a focus on community.

“Affordable housing should be beautiful and contribute to the community in a meaningful way,” said Feld. “That’s exactly what we aimed to achieve with Village on Plum. By incorporating community amenities like a garden, outdoor exercise equipment and spaces for residents to congregate, we were able to truly meet our goal in bringing people together.”

Renovations will begin in mid-2017 at the Village on Shields. The property is comprised of 285 apartment homes across three apartment communities. It also includes a large community space with a clubhouse and pool. Housing Catalyst purchased the property several years ago and has been planning a major renovation to upgrade the interiors and replace aging structures and systems across the three apartment communities.

Components and Challenges

All of the Villages projects share similar components that contribute to their success in creating a sense of neighborhood pride. They are located in prime areas throughout Fort Collins, within walking distance to many community resources and feature easy access to public transportation.

The properties are well maintained and are all operated with a commitment to green practices, with sustainability and energy efficiency in mind. With locations close to schools, shopping and community parks, the Villages offer a quality family lifestyle.

While the Villages and other projects backed by Housing Catalyst have alleviated much of the city’s need for affordable housing, there are still obstacles that developers face when it comes to new builds and renovation of existing sites. One key hurdle to overcome is the perception that affordable housing subtracts more than it adds to a community.

“The high caliber of the construction and renovation of the Villages housing developments demonstrates that affordable housing can be beautiful and high quality,” said Kim Iwanski, manager of Communications and Organizational Excellence at Housing Catalyst. “Long-time Fort Collins residents don’t distinguish Villages properties from other housing developments, and that’s how we gauge our success in changing the perception of affordable housing.”

Fort Collins Feels the Crunch

As Fort Collins faces a fast-growing community, the local incomes being paid have not kept pace with rising housing costs. The median sale price for a single-family home is more than $360,000. Because of the high prices, more people are renting than ever before, causing a tight rental market with high prices as well. Without more affordable-housing options, the people who work in Fort Collins will no longer be able to afford to live there.

That’s where Housing Catalyst steps in. It reinvents how people access, experience and perceive affordable housing. The leaders believe that housing is the catalyst for building strong communities. To manage Fort Collins’ explosive growth and maintain the city’s small-town feel, Housing Catalyst and its partners have worked to establish communities like the Villages, which maintain high design standards that fit well within the neighborhoods and surrounding developments.

One of the main goals in doing so is to create spaces that bring people together and encourage neighbors to interact with one another through outside community gathering spaces, clubhouses and green areas.

As Fort Collins feels the housing crunch, community members, businesses and organizations like Housing Catalyst have joined together to combat the severe shortage of affordable housing and help ensure Fort Collins residents are not displaced by rising housing prices.

Housing Catalyst offers rentals to people earning 60% or less of the area median income, or $46,780 for a family of four. It is currently developing 168 apartments and townhomes in Village on Redwood and Village on Horsetooth, expected to open within the next two years.

Garth Geer is firm principal and commercial division manager at Palace Construction, where he oversees all of the firm’s commercial project managers.