Who's a bigger nuisance -- Douglas Bruce or Denver's property police?

HB 1404 is aimed straight at the excesses of the state's war on drugs, but the quaint notion that a property seizure might require due process is being advanced in other quarters, as well. Last month, in a case involving a north Denver bar that the city was trying to close, Denver District Judge Stephen Phillips ruled that Denver's public-nuisance law was being misapplied. At issue is the law's "strict liability" element, which allows the city to shut down a business where criminal activity has occurred, regardless of whether the owner knew of the activity. Under the terms of the current law, Phillips pointed out, the city could close down a hockey arena if a single marijuana joint was confiscated there.

Phillips's ruling, which has thrown the enforcement of the ordinance into confusion, is remarkably similar to the argument Bruce has been making for years. "I'm glad to hear of his decision, but it should have happened sooner," Bruce says. "Other people get the benefit of constitutional protection, but not me."

Douglas Bruce will never win any popularity contests. His approach to property management is bewildering, at best -- and, in the view of some neighborhood groups, positively perverse. But his brush with Denver's public-nuisance ordinance, one of the most draconian measures of its kind anywhere in the country, is a graphic example of what's wrong with the law. And it raises the specter of the kind of selective prosecution that Bruce claims the city has targeted him for all along, most notably in the 1995 trial that landed him in jail.

One of Douglas Bruce's properties, 2426 Tremont, has since been sold but remains vacant.
Anthony Camera
One of Douglas Bruce's properties, 2426 Tremont, has since been sold but remains vacant.
Nuisance slayer: Denver Assistant City Attorney Kory Nelson says the city played fair with Bruce, but "I never believe I'll convince him of anything."
Anthony Camera
Nuisance slayer: Denver Assistant City Attorney Kory Nelson says the city played fair with Bruce, but "I never believe I'll convince him of anything."

Up at the Statehouse, legislators debating the forfeiture bill heard hard-luck tale after hard-luck tale of people carrying large wads of cash or otherwise behaving suspiciously who had their money, vehicles or other property seized without ever being convicted of anything. Many lawmakers were outraged.

Where, Bruce wonders, is the outrage over what happened to him?

A few years ago, at the height of his real estate speculations in Denver, Bruce owned fifteen buildings in the city with upwards of seventy rental units. Most were unoccupied. He has since sold all but one of them, and the remaining property is listed for sale.

His strategy was to buy cheap, usually from bank holdings or government agencies, fix up the place and rent it out or unload it. But for reasons that remain in dispute -- Bruce blames city interference and his increasing difficulty in finding contractors, while his critics question his diligence -- many of the buildings remained vacant for years, deteriorating eyesores in a city hungry for affordable housing stock.

"He had shitty properties and didn't take care of them," declares one investment property entrepreneur familiar with Bruce's holdings. "In this town, there's no reason a property should just sit and fall apart. He always said he was trying to fix them up, but he wasn't that interested in selling them, in my opinion."

Bruce counters that he's made his living in property investments for the past 27 years. Most of the buildings were vacant and in disrepair when he bought them, he says, and his efforts to fix them were hamstrung by the blizzard of citations he received, sometimes within days of closing on a property.

"You can't be 'maintaining an unsafe building' if you're in the process of fixing it," he argues. "This idea that I'm a slumlord is absurd. I've never had any citation about any occupied property in Denver."

But the boarded-up properties attracted junkies and vandals who pried off the boards, sprayed graffiti, tossed trash and set fires. That, in turn, drew visits from city inspectors and complaints from neighborhood groups such as the Cole Coalition, which Bruce acidly describes as "one of these parasitic city organizations that lives off government money and goes around telling other people how to run their property."

Bruce maintains that he was a victim of the city's laissez-faire attitude toward transients. "When I had places that were broken into, sometimes my repair crews would find the people there -- winos and all these other charming people that Denver subsidizes with tax money. We would hold them for the police, and the police would not arrest them when I tried to press charges. Then they wanted to blame me because I had a place that was empty."

He says he made efforts to introduce himself to neighbors and encourage them to contact him if there were any problems. At the same time, he refers to the neighborhood groups as "pawns" used by the city to harass him. His voice dripping with sarcasm, he recalls one community meeting he attended:

"They said, 'What are your plans?' I tried to humor them, although I don't think that any local soviet -- which is what they are -- has any right to review when I'm going to water the lawn and paint the trim and so on. I tried to explain that the reason things weren't going as fast as they seemed to think they should go was that the city kept chasing me from one place to another."

Denver is hardly the only municipality to lock horns with Bruce over his vacant buildings. Four years ago, Pueblo officials tried to condemn and demolish three of his buildings, and he's also fought the powers that be in Colorado Springs. But Denver has been positively vindictive toward him, Bruce insists, an animus he attributes to his high profile as a tax reformer.

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