Stapleton Neighborhood Protest Gets Ugly

Model homes don't necessarily make for model neighbors.

If Forest City can't sell its newest affordable townhomes at Stapleton, it will probably start building more low-income rentals, which the company committed to as part of its agreement with Denver. According to that plan, Stapleton should have 4,000 rental units by the time it is built out in 2020; 20 percent, or around 800 of those, must be "affordable," according to federal government guidelines.

So far, there are just 484 rentals on site, and 186 of them are low-income, geared toward people making 30, 50 or 60 percent of the Area Median Income.

Stapleton's affordable rentals tend to fill up very quickly, since they target Denver's indigent. There's a two-and-a-half-year waiting list at Parkside Apartments, where many tenants rely on Social Security or a federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Rents start at $324 for a one-bedroom apartment.

While Stapleton's small number of affordable rentals has brought some economic diversity to the area, it has also elicited complaints from some of the upper-middle-class residents who live in Stapleton and see affordable housing as a threat to property values.

Last summer, as Forest City was securing a space for its third affordable project, Central Park Apartments, a group of neighbors tried to stop it. They said they'd been told that the empty lot down the street would be transformed into a park. They claimed they were misled and threatened a lawsuit. "Nobody wanted to say these people don't deserve housing," says Margot Vahrenwald, a veterinarian who lives a few homes from Central Park Apartments. "We had personal and selfish concerns, that we bought into a community and we want it to be safe for our kids. We don't know what it's going to be like. When you have something unknown, you say, 'No, not there.'"

So Forest City invited the residents to a meeting with Getabecha Mekonnen, executive director of the Northeast Denver Housing Center, a non-profit builder working on the site. "The people I met in that meeting were not against what we are about in principle," Mekonnen says. "There was a feeling and perception of 'Will it impact my value? Is it going to impact my family? Will there be crime?' My job was to convey, 'No.' Once people got past that, they knew we would build it." After the meeting, the protests died down, and the neighbors dropped their lawsuit threat when they couldn't produce documents proving what they'd been told about the park.

The affordable development hosted its grand opening last week, but some in the area still have doubts. "You don't know what you get until they live here," says Vahrenwald. "Will it be horrible in the summer? Will there be boomboxes blaring when people want to enjoy their back yards?" She's not sure how the renters will fit in with the fabric of the neighborhood. "It depends on how they are," she says. "Am I going to take brownies to the first people that come in? Probably not. I don't have time to. I see us interacting positively unless the kids are being violent and vandalizing things."

And Forest City plans to continue building affordable rentals. Some think they can't do it fast enough. Recently, a committee that advises the company on affordable housing urged Forest City to explore a new project on the community's east side.

"On paper, we have met our goals with affordable rentals," says Bill Calhoun, a committee member and pastor at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church. "In the spirit and vision of Stapleton, for everyone to live here, we have to push for more."

 
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