By: Catie Cheshire, firstname.lastname@example.org, May 3, 2023
In January 2021, David Nisivoccia took over as chief executive officer of the Denver Housing Authority.
His office overlooks the Auraria campus in downtown Denver, and after moving here from Texas — where he ran the San Antonio Housing Authority — Nisivoccia would drive around the campus wondering why there was no partnership between the Auraria schools and the DHA.
Two years later, that’s no longer the case.
The DHA, the University of Colorado Denver and Metropolitan State University announced a partnership on April 27 to promote workforce and housing solutions for residents, employees and students in the downtown area.
“Through the arc of my career dealing with clients and residents with, typically, average incomes anywhere between $10,000 and $20,000, understanding the challenges — or the lack of opportunity — they had and how they overcome those challenges, education and housing have always been the key components that unlocked that door for people to have better lives for themselves and their children,” Nisivoccia says.
By uniting Denver’s housing authority with some of the city’s public universities, he hopes to make it easier for people to walk through that door.
The universities will share educational opportunities for low-income residents served by the DHA, which could allow them to start or finish earning college degrees. At the same time, the partners will collaborate on how to create better access to workforce and job-training programs for students and residents. They will also expand affordable housing near the universities and develop internship opportunities.
While running the San Antonio Housing Authority, Nisivoccia learned that a network of community colleges was dedicating a parking lot to homeless students who could park their cars there at night and sleep in them while a security guard kept watch.
“I said, ‘I can help,’” he remembers. “So we designed a program.”
The program mainly offered financial support for those students. The partnership in Denver will go much deeper, but the idea is the same: Housing insecurity impacts universities, and there are ways those institutions and housing authorities can work together to help decrease it.
“We’ve really had a chance to see all of the wonderful ways that [DHA is] blending their planned communities, incorporating workforce developments with their housing,” says Anthony Graves, managing director of partnerships and innovation at CU Denver. “We had a chance to host them at CU Denver to talk to them about the needs of our students and, really, students across the Auraria campus that may be facing housing insecurity.”
Graves notes that stress over life’s necessities, like housing, can negatively impact student success, so CU Denver wants to do what it can to make sure those necessities are covered.
Nisivoccia had his own experience being homeless in college: saving money by couch surfing instead of living in the dorms, or sleeping in his car and showering at the YMCA.
“I don’t want to over-glorify my experience, because it definitely isn’t what some people experience,” he says. “But I just thought I could help from my experience, understanding a little bit of the mentality and what it takes, and the added pressure and struggle.”
At the time, he didn’t realize he was homeless. He says many people in college don’t recognize their homelessness because it can look vastly different depending on the situation.
Graves says the partnership might even be able to identify and understand those situations better with the help of research programs at CU Denver.
According to Nisivoccia, there are employees at both universities and at the DHA earning $50,000 or less annually — a salary that he says can make it hard to afford a place to live in Denver. The universities and DHA could partner to build affordable housing nearby for that workforce, too. Living closer to work would also allow those employees to save money on commuting.
“In anybody’s personal budget, transportation is usually the second-highest expense,” Nisivoccia says. “How can we make it affordable for people to live and work in the same area and improve their lives?”
The Auraria campus is at the heart of downtown Denver that will look drastically different in the next decade, with Kroenke Sports and Entertainment planning a redevelopment of the parking lots around Ball Arena, the River Mile project taking root nearby, and DHA’s own redevelopment in Sun Valley.
“We want to be a player in those,” Nisivoccia says. “We want to be the affordable-housing developer and be part of the discussion and equation of how we deliver that affordable housing.”
By including the universities in the planning process, more stakeholders can benefit.
For example, CU Denver wants to create an “innovation district” of mixed-use development that helps create intellectual property and discovers solutions to problems. Affordable housing must be part of such a district, Graves insists.
“We wanted to, as an early priority for the district, set our sights on meaningful relationships to tackle things like affordable housing,” he says. “As we facilitate the growth of downtown Denver, we want to ensure that we have inclusive growth.”
The university, in turn, can open new educational opportunities and career pathways to others in the city, particularly DHA residents who could benefit from micro-degree programs and scholarships — or who need just a few credits to finish their degree.
The DHA has social enterprises, such as the Decatur Fresh grocery store in Sun Valley, where employees are trained on how to run a store and neighbors benefit from fresh groceries at an affordable price point. Putting an enterprise like that on the Auraria campus could be mutually beneficial, Nisivoccia suggests.
There would certainly be more potential for such an arrangement with the new partnership. Additionally, the DHA could offer paid internships for students at CU Denver and MSU.
In the future, other schools will join the partnership, including the Community College of Denver — also at Auraria — and Emily Griffith Technical College, at 18th and Lincoln.
Nisivoccia hopes that eventually, the partnership can facilitate scholarship opportunities for students facing housing insecurity at these schools, so that “people have both sides of the equation,” he says. “They have the housing aspects, but then they have the financial support.”
MSU did not return a request for comment, but in a press release announcing the partnership, Thomas Ragland — the school’s associate dean for student accountability and care — expressed his excitement for the alliance.
“I am so thankful for our neighbors across Auraria,” Graves says. “We are all united in our purpose to open the doors of opportunity for students across Auraria, and I applaud the Denver Housing Authority for working with us to solidify this early partnership so that we can make a positive impact on the students, faculty, and staff of this community.”
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