Voter-approved aid could lift struggling Boulderites

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Friday, Dec. 18, 2020

Boulder voters rarely turn down a tax. Rarely do those taxes have the potential to make as big an impact in the lives of lower-income residents as two measures passed this November.

Sometime in the next year, the city will have programs for utility and rental/eviction assistance. Details are still being worked out, but nonprofit and government providers are cautiously optimistic that they will be a salve to households who will likely take years to recover from COVID’s economic devastation.

What, exactly, did voters pass?

Aid was not the main aim of either ballot issue; support was merely part of the package.

Utility assistance is but one of the things the extended and repurposed Utility Occupation Tax will pay for. Initially a muni-funding mechanism, the UOT will now pay for emissions-reduction projects and programs in the city, back under an Xcel Energy franchise. The roughly $2 million/year tax will be collected through 2025.

Rental assistance was a last-minute add to No Eviction Without Representation, the main goal of which is to provide legal representation to renters facing the loss of their homes.

How much money will be funneled into each program is still unknown. NEWR will collect roughly $1.9 million the first year, but what portion of that will be spent on lawyers and what on rent isn’t set in stone.

How the UOT will be divided is likewise TBD.

“The UOT funding hasn’t yet been identified yet,” wrote spokesperson Emily Sandoval in response to emailed questions. “We’re aiming to develop a budget IP (information packet) with more defined expenditures in March.”

A city council check-in on NEWR’s implementation is scheduled for Jan. 26.

High rent, high unemployment

Utility and rent top the list of needs for low-income families, according to El Centro Amistad and Emergency Family Assistance Association, with rental assistance the biggest request for help “by far, by far, by far,” said EFAA Executive Director Julie Van Domelen.

Since March, we’ve done $1.8 million,” in direct financial assistance, Van Domelen said, “and 90% of that is rent.”

That’s in part because of how expensive it is to live in Boulder, said Jorge De Santiago, Amistad’s executive director. This year, “the largest (utility) bill we saw was $400,” he said. Rent payments, on the other hand, are “at least $1,000 a month.”

Amistad still gave some $15,000 to more than 170 families for utility bills this year. The nonprofit serves the local Latinx community, which has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. 

The financial impact has been outsized as well, De Santiago said. “A lot of families lost their jobs. Just yesterday, we received four phone calls from families who are not working: (Their workplaces) reduced staff.”

Half of businesses surveyed by the city of Boulder in October reported that they had cut wages, hours or positions. Unemployment in the county that month was 5%.

‘On the edge’

Job loss has also been an issue for older adults, according to Christine Vogel, manager of the Boulder County Area Agency on Aging. Part-time jobs are common among this demographic, but many lost work due to the economy or because they couldn’t risk exposing themselves to coronavirus.

Some 4,500 older adults in Boulder County live below the poverty line, but “there are a lot more folks who are struggling,” said Lindsay Parsons, aging policy advocate and planner.

“Folks who were doing alright but are now on the edge,” Vogel explained. “That can be said for a large portion of our population.”

Food became a significant challenge for seniors as they tried to remain home as much as possible, Vogel said, but utility and rent remained top needs as well. AAA distributed $7,000 in utility assistance and $98,000 in housing assistance.

That is well above what the agency would typically give; about $20,000 each year, according to Vogel. EFAA, too, reported massive increases in demand, distributing nearly twice as much direct financial assistance in nine months as it would in a regular year.

“It’s apples and oranges” to pre-pandemic conditions, Vogel said.

A long recovery, a short runway

Boulder’s new aid programs will outlast COVID-19; funding won’t always need to be this high. But even with the promise of a vaccine and an eventual end of the pandemic, recovery for low-income individuals and families may take much longer.

Forty-two percent of businesses surveyed by the city believe the staffing changes they’ve made this year will become permanent. Forty-one percent of companies with employees working from home expect that to continue post-pandemic; nearly one-third of Boulder workers are employed in these industries, creating major implications for restaurants and retailers dependent on the city’s 64,900 in-commuters.

Forecasters at the University of Colorado expect that the state won’t recover lost jobs until 2023, the Denver Post reported. Low-wage workers can’t hold out that long, experts say.

“People have run through their reserves, people have run through their assets,” Van Domelen said. “Life doesn’t stop happening. The recovery is going to be deeper, longer and harder than what people think.”

Clients are months behind on their bills, De Santiago said, racking up late fees. The estimated 159 Latinx residents who have been hospitalized with COVID will face significant new expenses.

We’re not talking about a couple thousand dollars,” he said. “One woman (in her early 60s) got out of the hospital, (her) husband died. She just got a hospital bill (for) $45,000.”

Great need has been met with greater giving, Van Domelen said. Many Boulderites kept their jobs; nationally, top earners saw their wealth increase.

Federal funding helped patch gaps as well. A second stimulus is in the works, but how much it will provide — and to whom — is yet to be seen.

Some day, though, all that extra help will be gone. The deep inequities thrown onto center stage by the pandemic, however, will remain.

“This will give us an opportunity to see exactly where we need to work on,” De Santiago said. “We have to study and learn from it and actually make those changes.

“The need is going to be there, always.”

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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