For Barajas, it's a mansion compared to the motel room he and his kids shared on West Colfax. Out of work with a physical disability after 20 years at an ice company, it was the best he could do at the time.
"At least we were together," Barajas said. “There are a lot of people out there who were a lot worse off than us. That's what kept us going. At least we had each other. Some people don't even have that."
But living at the motel was not easy.
"There was suffering and sadness all around us. It was just bad. There might have been drug activity going on. We kept to ourselves. I think people saw that we were a tight-knit family and that we treated everyone with humility, so people let us be," Barajas said.
They survived. And after four years, they were given the opportunity to thrive.
Barajas got a life-changing acceptance letter from Metro West Housing Solutions (MWHS) that said his household qualifies for the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, commonly known as Section 8. Names are chosen in a lottery system. Some people might wait years for their name to come up. Barajas waited about four years for a voucher.
What Is the HCV Program?
The Barajas family is one of 2.2 million households nationwide that qualify for the HCV program. It is a rental assistance program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, providing around $20 billion in federal funding.
HCV households pay 30 percent of their income toward rent. The voucher pays the rest of those costs, up to a limit set by the housing agency.
MWHS has 1,400 vouchers that it administers. MWHS has achieved a High Performing rating from HUD for the past six years for consistently meeting or exceeding standards.
More Elderly, Working Poor
Because affordable housing is becoming so scare in many American cities, the allotted number of vouchers at most housing authorities tends to only scratch the surface of the need for this program. Nationwide, it is estimated that just 25 percent of families that need HCV rental assistance receive it.
Tillie Wright, Assisted Housing Administrator, has dedicated her entire career to helping individuals and families who need rental assistance. She has been with MWHS for 26 years. Over the years, she's noticed that there are more working poor, elderly and people with disabilities applying for rental assistance.
"The majority of our clients who are able to work are working," she said. "They just aren’t making enough money to cover rent. I see that getting worse and worse."
The average yearly income of an HCV household at MWHS is $19,379 — not nearly enough to afford a market rate Lakewood apartment, with average monthly rents at $1,238 for a one-bedroom, $1,479 for a two-bedroom and $1,823 for a three-bedroom.
The Affordability Standard
HUD defines cost-burdened families as those who spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. A recent Harvard analysis found that half of renter households in the Denver-Lakewood-Aurora area are considered burdened. It also found that a quarter of households are considered severely burdened and are spending half of their monthly income or more on rent.
"Based on incomes not keeping up with rent, there are more and more people that need a little extra help to prevent them from becoming homeless," Wright said.
Wright said receiving a voucher can help families find their bearings and create a stronger future. It means being able to afford living in a safer part of town. It means access to better schools. It means not having to choose between rent and medical costs or food. It means being able to save money and build an emergency fund.
"I think we've all heard that most people are one paycheck away from being homeless. Medical costs could put you in a situation where you can't afford your rent. An emergency situation could put you in a situation where you can't afford your rent. It can happen to anyone," she said.
Partnering With Landlords
Barajas said that his landlord is one of the best parts about living in his new rental home.
"Our landlord is a really good guy. Anything we need fixed, he'll fix it. He is someone that I would like to invite over for a barbecue," Barajas said.
Waiting for a voucher can often be half the battle. Finding a landlord who will accept HCV is another challenge. Landlords are not required to accept rental assistance. Those who have not worked with the program before may have some perceptions or misinformation about it, Wright said. But there are a number of benefits of this program for landlords.
"We have a lot of landlords that have stuck with MWHS for a long time. They may choose our client because they know we're going to be covering a portion of the rent. They don't have to depend on a tenant without a voucher making the rent by themselves," Wright said.
But perhaps the most fantastic benefit of the HCV program is the impact of a stable home on children. Almost half of HCV recipient households nationwide have children in the home. Children who live in safe, decent and stable housing get better grades and have less behavioral and developmental problems.
Barajas can attest to the value of a stable home.
"The kids have opened up. They have more space and privacy. We live peacefully and don't have any problems," Barajas said. "I'm wiping the tears away now telling my story, but I am going to walk out of here happy with the home that I have to go home to."
Megan Schmidt is a staff writer for Metro West Housing Solutions.