Colorado State, Northern Colorado get creative to help employees afford rising home prices

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As the price of housing skyrockets across Northern Colorado, more people are being priced out of the homeownership and even rental markets. That’s a major concern to employers throughout the region, including its largest employers: Colorado State University and the University of Northern Colorado. 

Both institutions say it’s costing them qualified employees and straining their existing workforces. “Every month that goes by, prices go up by frightening amounts,” said Brett Anderson, special assistant to CSU Chancellor Tony Frank.

“Housing is one of the biggest barriers to bringing people in,” he said. “It’s very concerning to us.” 

Neither university can do much to bring down housing prices, which have risen to $600,000 in Fort Collins and $440,000 in Greeley for a single-family home and  $362,000 and $322,541, respectively, for a condo or townhome. 

Both have launched or hope to launch an array of programs to help employees buy or rent homes, including down payment assistance, mortgage guarantees, homeownership savings accounts and aid for renters.

It’s aid born out of necessity. 

Single-family prices increased nearly 18% last year compared to 2020 in Fort Collins, and attached dwellings  — condos and townhomes —  increased 12%.  And, they’re not likely to drop significantly, said Eric Thompson, president of Windermere Real Estate in Fort Collins. 

Cash buyers have a big advantage, and first-time buyers using FHA or Veterans Affairs loans are at a disadvantage in most cases because they often require mortgage insurance. 

“We do have success stories in helping these kinds of buyers,” Thompson said. “It just may take several offers before they win.”

Housing hampers recruitment 

In the past two years, nearly one-third of the jobs CSU has been unable to fill have been because of the high cost of housing, Anderson said during a recent housing forum sponsored by the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce and NoCo Housing Now. 

“When we get a person in, they want to take the job, they love the job, then they look at the community and their ability to live here and afford it, and we can’t fill it,” he said. “That’s a real cost to us.” 

Retaining employees is also becoming harder because of housing costs, he said. “More are having to live farther away, have longer commutes and be in places they don’t want to be.”

In order to keep employees engaged with the university and part of the community, “it’s more than worth our while to do everything we can across the board.”

Greeley’s housing prices, which until August 2018 were still under $300,000, are no longer the advantage they used to be, said Marshall Parks, UNC’s human resources director. 

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“Growth in Northern Colorado brought dramatic increases in housing prices,” Parks said. Greeley’s housing market “now looks a lot like housing in Fort Collins.” 

New faculty and staff — many of whom are just finishing their doctorates, come with a lot of student debt and have a starting salary between $50,000 and $60,000 — “have difficulty finding anything affordable in Greeley,” he said. “We’ve been struggling the last three to four years to find places for people to stay.” 

CSU is tackling the problem in part by creating two rental housing projects, one on Timberline Road and one off Ziegler Road. Both are still a couple years away at the earliest. The university hopes its homeownership programs can be implemented sooner.

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Most of these programs are in their infancy and have yet to launch, said Debbie Mayer, CSU’s housing solutions coordinator. And university President Joyce McConnell still has to sign off once they’re ready.

Here’s a broad overview of programs Mayer and CSU are investigating: 

Mortgage guaranties 

Other universities, including the University of Michigan and the University of Colorado, offer mortgage guarantee programs to employees. CSU would back the mortgage through lenders like Canvas Credit Union and assume some of the risk that the house payments would be made.

It would free borrowers who can’t come up with 20% down from having to pay mortgage insurance, which can add hundreds of dollars to monthly payments, Anderson said. “We’re trying to find ways to help folks access a mortgage that’s affordable,” Mayer said. “Waiving mortgage insurance is one way to do that.” 

Michigan and CU have had no defaults, Anderson said. “It’s been very successful, and we think it’s a good way to go.” 

CSU has preliminary guidelines of what the program would look like, and both Canvas and CSU lawyers are poring over the details. Anderson said he hopes they can get through the internal review process within six months. 

Canvas has been working with CSU since 2018, when it first signed a partnership agreement with the university, and has served 265 faculty and staff, loaning about $90 million, said Sara Ott, vice president of mortgage lending. 

The credit union offers a lower interest rate, waived lender fee and no-down-payment mortgage, Ott said. With today’s market, “it’s hard to get a home under contract” with no down payment, she said. “If you’re bidding against several offers, probably the loan with no down payment may not be the offer that wins out.

“The market has changed … we have to be nimble to serve the new market,” Ott said. “Affordability is hard. Saving for a down payment is hard.”

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Homeownership savings accounts 

By teaming with a separate nonprofit agency, Brothers Redevelopment, CSU hopes to pilot a program that would create savings accounts that could be used to start saving for a down payment. The account would be matched dollar for dollar through grants that CSU would secure, Anderson said.

Brothers Redevelopment is expanding its services in Northern Colorado and would administer the program, Anderson said. Representatives from Brothers Redevelopment did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Brothers Redevelopment also has a homebuyers’ education class that could be tied into the program. 

Help navigating the process 

With its large base of alumni and friends, CSU is reaching out to find real estate professionals who might be willing to waive their fees and help employees navigate the complicated homebuying process. 

If real estate agents for buyers and sellers were willing to waive their fees, it could save buyers a small amount on their monthly payment.  

“Many universities have partnership programs like that,” Anderson said during the NoCo Housing Now forum. “It makes a tiny dent, but if we can piggyback programs already offered in the community (like Neighbor to Neighbor), we could tie into that.” 

The university has some preliminary guidelines and has talked with a few real estate agents, Anderson said. “We just need to be thoughtful about creating guidelines and partnerships.” 

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UNC’s approach

Seven years ago, UNC became part of a city-launched program called Greeley Home Ownership Program for Employees, or G-HOPE, in an effort to help new employees come up with a down payment and help revitalize neighborhoods around campus. 

The Downtown Development Authority and city of Greeley offer between $2,500 and $6,000 at zero interest to any Greeley resident interested in buying a home within the DDA boundaries. UNC adds $1,500 to that pot for any of its full- or part-time employees. It currently has about 1,500 employees. 

The loan is forgiven if the buyer stays in the home at least five years, Parks said. Two dozen UNC employees have gone through the program, which includes buyer education, he said. Another 75 have completed the education program but have yet to close on a home. Some have probably given up looking, he said. 

Buyers need to come to the table with $1,000 of their own money, a minimal amount, but it gives them skin in the game, Parks said.

CSU is considering some kind of down payment assistance program as well, Anderson said, but with 10,000 employees systemwide, it needs more research and information on how it would work. “We want to know what the pool of resources would be needed to make it work,” Anderson said. “We don’t want to do it if we can only help one or two employees.” 

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Help for renters 

Back in the day, UNC had housing on campus for faculty. Most units were converted to student housing, but today, with a dip in enrollment caused by the pandemic, the university is trying to decide what spaces on campus could be offered as faculty or staff housing, Parks said. 

The goal is to have as many as 50 units available as faculty/staff rentals. “We’re making good progress,” Parks said. “It’s not as clear a picture as we would like, but we’re making good progress.” 

CSU, in addition to building apartments that would be deed-restricted low-income units, is also looking at how it can complement existing rental assistance programs in Fort Collins, like Neighbor to Neighbor. 

“We’re looking at if we could complement that or have a safety net for those who don’t qualify for Neighbor to Neighbor and help folks get in to stable housing.

“First month’s rent and security deposit can create barriers to stable housing,” Anderson said. Currently, CSU is looking more at an emergency fund to help renters, but he said more research is needed. 

Northern Colorado home prices by the numbers

 Here’s a look at median prices in January and February and percent change compared to the same time period last year, from lowest price to highest price:

  • Greeley: $440,000, up 23.9%
  • Wellington: $463,000, up 14.3%
  • Severance: $480,900, up 13.4%
  • Johnstown: $493,980, up 17.4%
  • Loveland: $520,000, up 28.4%
  • Berthoud: $540,015, up 17.1%
  • Windsor: $574,408, up 25.1% 
  • Fort Collins: $600,000, up 23%
  • Timnath: $740,000, up 39.1%

Pat Ferrier is a senior reporter covering business, health care and growth issues in Northern Colorado. Contact her at patferrier@coloradoan.com. Please support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a subscription today.