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Welcome to the Real World

The further these students get from the classroom, the more they learn.

Maybe it's the political message of Johnny Cash's Man in Black blaring from a back room that keeps blood pumping through the veins of the college students answering phones and pecking at their keyboards inside the Westside Outreach Center. Maybe it's the sharp chill in the building, where the furnace pipes rattle and clank but refuse to let out any heat. Or maybe it's the energy of Tony Robinson that has these University of Colorado at Denver students bent on saving the world -- or at least an old Denver neighborhood.

Robinson, a 35-year-old assistant professor of political science at UCD, created the Westside Outreach Center as a way to get his students out of sterile lecture halls and into the world. As part of the Urban Citizen class taught by Robinson and professor Jerry Jacks, these students are trying to protect affordable housing for people who live in La Alma/Lincoln Park and other low-income Denver neighborhoods. Instead of taking tests and writing research papers, they are discussing solutions to urban poverty in the very community that they're studying; classes are held right at the outreach center, at 1033 Santa Fe Drive, or next door at NEWSED, a nonprofit community development corporation.

With breathless excitement, Robinson leads a tour of the skeletal office, pointing out the workspace of Kristin Mathes, the graduate student in charge of the campaign, then heads up a narrow stairway into a dark attic stocked with computer monitors -- the future site of a resource center for women on welfare. The office is so empty it looks like the group is just getting settled, but the students moved in a year ago.

A little to the left: Tony Robinson decided to be a professor when he realized a socialist could never be president.
A little to the left: Tony Robinson decided to be a professor when he realized a socialist could never be president.
Making a difference 101: The UCD students who work and volunteer at the Westside Outreach Center.
Anthony Camera
Making a difference 101: The UCD students who work and volunteer at the Westside Outreach Center.

The Urban Citizen is the type of class that's known on college campuses as "service learning" -- a sometimes controversial method of teaching that has been around for more than thirty years at universities across the nation. The theory behind it is that students should have an opportunity to apply the skills they learn in school to the world outside -- and to give back to the community in the process. At most colleges where service learning classes are offered, students are involved in such projects as repairing homes for elderly residents, organizing neighborhood festivals and conducting toy drives.

But Robinson wants more from his students; he's pushing them to be political advocates for the poor. "Some people believe that service learning should be restricted to providing direct services, like working in a soup kitchen or cleaning streets," he says. "But I believe service learning should include political advocacy -- organizing and agitation. Some people say that's not the role of a scholar, that a scholar should remain neutral and just teach. But I don't buy that."

Since he moved to Colorado five years ago and noticed the increasing gentrification of Denver's poor neighborhoods, Robinson made preserving their character -- and their affordability -- his mission. La Alma/Lincoln Park -- which is bounded by Speer Boulevard, Colfax Avenue, I-25 and Sixth Avenue -- caught his attention in particular, since the majority of its residents make less than $10,000 a year and only 15 percent of them own their homes. So two years ago, Robinson and his students went door-to-door polling residents in the neighborhood about their concerns.

"We found that the most common complaint was rental conditions. Homes were in disrepair, and rental prices were going up," he says. The following semester, students in the Urban Citizen class organized a renters'-rights conference. Approximately fifty renters showed up and told the city officials in attendance that their biggest concern is the threat of losing Section 8 housing.

In 1974, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development amended Section 8 of the 1937 U.S. Housing Act to create subsidies for private property owners who agreed to house low-income renters. Throughout the seventies, HUD signed twenty-year contracts with landlords nationwide; under the program, tenants put no more than 30 percent of their income toward rent. HUD pays the difference and now caps its monthly contribution at about $600. Landlords who signed on with HUD were given the option of renewing their contracts on an annual basis at the end of the twenty years or renting out their units at market rate.

In the last two years, 400 expired Section 8 contracts were not renewed in Denver, including 175 in La Alma/Lincoln Park; in the next five years, contracts for the remaining 5,000 Section 8 units in Denver are set to expire. Tenants are worried that their landlords will choose the more lucrative option of renting out at market rates and that they'll be forced to find housing elsewhere. That could be a difficult task, since the vacancy rate for metro-area apartments is the lowest it's been in five years, at 3.7 percent. And as the vacancy rate goes down, rents increase. The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the six-county metro area, for example, is at an all-time high of $751; in the city and county of Denver, the average monthly rent for the same size unit is more than $875, according to the Apartment Association of Metro Denver.

"We didn't know anything about this Section 8 issue until the tenants told us about it. It kept coming up at each renters' meeting. We were not setting the agenda in this case," Robinson says. "We were assisting with it."

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