Viña Apartments Raises Rent for Income-Restricted Housing

By Sara Martin

Residents who were promised low-income housing at the Viña Apartments, which opened less than a year ago in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, recently faced a rent increase or an alternative eviction notice.

Columbia Ventures, the management company for the Viña Apartments, issued two rent increases at the beginning of the year — the first one was a 5% increase in January, and a second increase two weeks later in February more than doubled the total hike to 12%.

Now, tenants of the complex are encountering housing insecurity and say that utilities are not being equitably charged per household, among other grievances.

“We were threatened with eviction if we did not sign another lease in December,” said Jessica Neckien, a resident of Viña Apartments, in a recent meeting with other tenants.

Neckien, who moved into the complex last year, said the management company has intimidated residents with demands and evictions if they did not comply.

“About two weeks later, I received a notice stating that they made a mistake and the rent increase would be 12% or more,” Neckien said.

Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, left, listens to tenants’ recent complaints regarding a substantial increase in rent, utility bills and other alleged problems at the Viña Apartments. Photo by Sara Martin

The Viña Apartments opened on May 4, 2022, at 48th Avenue and Vine Street wth 150 rental units ranging from studios to three-bedroom options. Half of the units were marketed to those earning between 30% and 50% of the area median income, which in 2022 was between $22,050 and $36,700 for a single person.

Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who represents District 9, attended the tenant’s meeting to listen to problems that her constituents are facing.

“Our office passed a bill two years ago to provide an attorney to anybody facing an eviction for free, and it doesn’t have to be just an eviction on paper that they’re telling you that you’re evicted,” she said. “Not having hot water, accessibility issues like not being able to get up and down on the elevator, or you have dialysis — that makes it impossible for you to live here. That counts as a functional eviction and so we can get people plugged in with attorneys.”

The bill, adopted in 2021, established an ordinance that provides free legal services and representation for low- to moderate-income individuals experiencing eviction. Residents also cited concern over the lack of Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.

The apartment’s main elevator is often out of service, according to some tenants. A few individuals who use wheelchairs and mobility aids attended the recent meeting due to this persistent issue and other problems with accessible push buttons to open main access doors.

“We strive to repair issues as soon as we are made aware of them, though some repairs are subject to persistent supply chain delays and require more time than in the past,” wrote Diana Stoian, Columbia Venture’s vice president of investments in an email to The G.E.S. Gazette. “The ADA button was repaired multiple times before the decision was made to replace the mechanism completely. The parts had to be ordered and it took a while for them to be delivered, but the problem has been fixed. Both elevators are in compliances with ADA standards and sizes, are fully functional and have passed the city’s inspection (recently).”

Tenants at the meeting said that there have been discrepancies over electrical billing. One woman, who had moved into the apartment complex in the middle of December, claimed she received an electrical bill that was over $250 for a two-week stay.

Matt Lepitski, right, a resident of the Viña Apartments, shares frustrations about rent increases with Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca. Photo by Sara Martin

“There’s a panel in the apartment, but we have not been able to verify the submeter,” said Matt Lepitski, another resident at Viña Apartments.

Residents said that they had searched their own apartments and the complex to find electrical submetering — which measures energy usage per unit — but have not been successful in locating any.

“They’re not going to show it to us. I believe they’re taking it floor by floor, and I’m breaking (the billing) down that way. I’ve checked up and down, and I haven’t found one,” said Neckien.

Stoian with Columbia Ventures said that all utilities are being equitably charged per unit’s use. “Electricity is the only utility charged to residents.

Charges are in accordance with each unit’s consumption, as indicated by each unit’s electrical submeter,” she said.

“All other expenses are paid by the property and not charged to residents.” Columbia Ventures’ planned lease renewal rates are legally compliant with rent limits set by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which are based on the Denver Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA).

“We absolutely understand that the impacts of inflation are affecting both residents and landlords,” Stoian said. “Our property, Viña Apartments, experienced an extraordinary amount of operating cost inflation over the course of 2022. To provide a few examples, insurance is 40% higher and utilities are 34% higher than they were in the original financial projections, while the interest rate has almost doubled. If the property cannot remain financially viable then the very existence of this affordable housing community is jeopardized.”

According to the tenants of the Viña Apartments, these are not the only issues that they have faced in the last year. Addressing security issues at night with people who are homeless sleeping in the lobby, bugs in the apartments, inadequate sewage seals in sinks, an alleged singular water filter for the building, no access to hot water and the management company losing copies of signed leases are all other concerns voiced by tenants.

Stoian said that Columbia Ventures has faced staffing challenges over the last few months and has worked to address concerns. Columbia Ventures is transitioning the property to a new management company with a new site staff at Viña Apartments.

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