Fort Lewis College alumna Jenn Lopez (English, ‘95), president and founder of Project Moxie, is tackling the current housing crisis head-on. She’s fusing her breadth of experience with support from private, state, and federal stakeholders to develop a three-pronged affordable housing strategy for the FLC community.
Lopez is working on the second prong of the strategy, which includes the development of a rental property for faculty and staff as well as apartments for students. “FLC is leading that conversation on how institutions can meet the needs of their community. We want to work with community developers and employers to develop a new pilot model for below-market housing,” Lopez said.
Lopez’s focus on housing began when she was a student at FLC. “I was a senior at FLC, and a lot of my passion for affordable housing had to do with the beautiful job the Sociology & Human Services Department did in helping me to understand economic systems, policy, and activism,” Lopez said. “That department gave me the vision to do my work.”
Seeing Lopez’s dedication to housing issues, Jim Fitzgerald, a former Sociology professor, encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree in community planning from the University of New Mexico. “I didn’t even know what that was at the time, but I went and checked it out,” Lopez chuckled. Lopez enrolled as a graduate student in that program two years later. “Many people think it’s about land use, but the courses focus more on social change and public policy. This whole world of policy, community development, and real estate can impact people’s lives.”
After receiving her master’s degree, Lopez worked for the Regional Housing Alliance of La Plata County as its executive director and later as former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper’s first cabinet-level director of homeless initiatives.
“My job was to try and figure out a way to solve homelessness,” Lopez recalled. “The idea was that we could be more creative and outside the box but tie innovation to government policies and attempt to institutionalize what we were doing.”
To that end, Lopez worked to create Colorado’s first Permanent Supportive Housing initiative — which included reprioritizing significant state resources and the creation of the first-ever Permanent Supportive Housing Toolkit. The initiative, implemented in 2015, has since constructed 1,300 new PSH units in Colorado that provide housing and critical services designed to prevent residents from lapsing into homelessness. Inspired by her impact on state policy and homeless communities, Lopez left the position in 2017 to found Project Moxie.
In her role as Project Moxie’s president, Lopez applies that same outside-the-box thinking to the housing issues in the Southwest and beyond. Lopez and her team at Project Moxie recently prepared a 3-Year Workforce Housing Strategy with Cappelli Consulting. The strategy includes plans to support FLC’s “efforts to develop below-market rental housing… in the next 18 to 24 months.” This “buydown program” will leverage funding from both the private sector and government institutions to build a set number of below-market rental units for FLC.
As an alumna, Lopez possesses unique insights into the needs of her alma mater. “She has an affinity for FLC, and it’s been nice having someone who understands the institution,” said Steve Schwartz, vice president of Finance & Administration. Because of that understanding, FLC leadership entered into a contract with Project Moxie to assess demand and develop long-term strategies for housing.
“I have a ton of respect for Jenn and her crew,” Schwartz said. “She can vet opportunities for FLC, find and potentially stack critical capital for development, and be our eyes and ears in the community. Having a person of that ability, with that kind of background and connections to boot, has been fantastic.”
Lopez’s cognizance of the myriad of housing issues comes at a critical time for the FLC community. “If we don’t figure out housing, we’ll become a bedroom community resort town,” Lopez observed. “We’re worried about staff and faculty on the one hand, but it’s also the students who make this town…People will lose interest in being here.”
"It makes economic sense for them to care, and it’s our job to bridge the space between community needs and for-profit resources… I think my challenge to them is, are you ready? Are you prepared to go big?"
Lopez is resisting this trend in mountain communities. In partnership with FLC, she hopes to demonstrate the viability of their pilot faculty housing program. With her insights, FLC will become the regional example of how organizations could respond to the housing demand. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what employers in this region can do,” she noted. “It makes economic sense for them to care, and it’s our job to bridge the space between community needs and for-profit resources… I think my challenge to them is, are you ready? Are you prepared to go big?” FLC, it seems, is one of the first institutions to answer that call.