By Shawn Chitnis

DENVER (CBS4) – Denver city leaders launched a new program they say is unlike any other in the country to try and help families find affordable options for housing in the competitive renter market. The program uses vouchers supported in part by employers and apartment complexes.

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“They have decent jobs and wages however the high cost of housing here in Denver now makes a lot of the market rate rents just out of reach,” said Ismael Guerrero, Executive Director of the Denver Housing Authority (DHA). “This program is going to help alleviate that by subsidizing a portion of their rent.”

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Ismael Guerrero (credit: CBS)

The target income bracket pays between 50 to 80 percent of their monthly income on rent. The program hopes to bring that down to about 35 percent of their paycheck by covering the difference.

The Denver City Council approved the LIVE Denver, or Lower Income Voucher Equity Program, on Monday overwhelmingly in a 11-1 vote. One council member was absent, and Councilman Kevin Flynn was the only “No” vote.

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He says he supports programs that help families pay for the cost of rent, but wonders if this is the right approach.

“If apartment units are vacant and new, in this hot market, that means the rents are too high,” said Flynn.

LIVE Denver will work with property owners to identify units that are available in complexes that are five years old or newer, including new construction. For the first two years, there will be 125 vouchers that target an income range including more than 52,000 people.

Any individual who makes between $25,200 – $50,350 or a family of four that earns $35,960 – $71,900 will qualify for the program. Leaders say it will cover a group of people that range between 40 to 80 percent of the area median income.

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“I think this is one of the only programs in the country that is focused on employees and people that are working,” said Guerrero. “It’s also making the employer part of the solution because they’re contributing to the rent subsidy as well.”

Employers are providing some of the funding for LIVE Denver and those companies will refer their own employees as candidates for the program. Flynn worries that businesses should reallocate that funding to make a more meaningful impact on their staff.

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Kevin Flynn (credit: CBS)

“Maybe that money would be better put to use paying their workforce a higher wage so they could go out and find their own apartments without having to have a subsidy,” he said.

Guerrero emphasizes that this is a pilot program for a small group of people. It will be a good test for the city to see what can work in this market. He hopes that people will find a way to improve their own situation with education and new job opportunities, raising their overall income.

“We’re going to see how two years of housing stability can really benefit a family that is working, but really struggling with the high cost of housing,” he said. “Property owners, landlords are making their decisions about rent and rental rates based on what’s happening in the larger marketplace.”

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Flynn acknowledges that even without this program, property owners could choose to keep units vacant, but believes the prices needs to trend in the right direction without the city trying to affect it.

“We’re delaying those natural market forces by interfering,” he said. “If we don’t let that play out, rents will never come down.”

But everyone agrees that in a city with a long-term challenge, this short-term solution will provide important data from a new approach to an old issue.

“The stagnation in incomes happening around the country is a problem, wages are not keeping up with the cost of housing for renters and homeowners.”

People can learn more about supporting the program or submit their information to let organizers know they’re interested in participating when it begins: www.livedenver.org

Shawn Chitnis reports weeknights for CBS4 News at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Email him story ideas at smchitnis@cbs.com and connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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