Roseanna Frechette, a poet and spoken-word artist, has lived in Denver since 1976, and most of that time she's considered the city a choice, affordable place to set up shop. In recent years, the city's art scene has exploded, a phenomenon she welcomes. But development has also exploded. And now, says Frechette, artists – who have long depended on the city's affordability – are being priced out.
"The whole time I've lived here, I've never seen it be so fertile and fruitful and good – really, really solid and thriving – and all of a sudden, we're going to be taken out by astronomical rent," she says.
Last year, after a romantic breakup, she found herself – like so many other artists –struggling to be able to afford to stay in Denver. She issued herself an ultimatum that many in the arts community have expressed: “I don't want to be here if I don't have a bohemian, independent art culture I can be a part of.”
So she put out a call to artists and organized a group, Denver Artists for Rent Control, to meet and start fighting for policies that would limit how much landlords could raise rent.
The first months of DARCO were characterized by the participants' naive enthusiasm. The team that rallied had big ambitions – to stop predatory development and gentrification from steamrolling the arts community – and little in the way of political know-how or ties with other longstanding housing advocates.
After a few months of attempts at herding artists to advocate for themselves, the group's energy dwindled, and Frechette took time to build a more coherent strategy and dig into what it would take to change things. She studied Colorado and Denver housing policy and learned that when it comes to rent control, city governments have no say; the state constitution bans municipalities from passing such policies. Even if councilmembers or Mayor Michael Hancock wanted to set limits on how high landlords could jack up the rent, it would be impossible to put into city law because of the state prohibition.
Still, Frechette wants to see the mayor lend a louder voice to the plight of the city's artists and find ways to keep them from being forced to move, and she wants the governor to work toward striking the constitution's rent-control ban from state law.
On March 5, DARCO regrouped for a plan-of-action rally with its members, and on April 29, it's hosting its first rally for the public at large. The event is less of a protest and more of an arts-and-culture mini-festival, running from 2 to 8 p.m. at Mutiny Information Cafe, and will include spoken word, live bands (Television Generation, Sparkle Jetts, Ludlow and Black Market Translation), a film screening by Westword MasterMind Kim Shively, and visual art by Frank Kwiatkowski. Allied groups like Colorado Homes for All, Denver Homeless Out Loud and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless will table amid the art activists' festivities.
"We called it a rally because we are rallying the forces to connect with one another in a celebration of solidarity," says Frechette.
The entire event will be a kick-off to a massive letter-writing campaign to Governor John Hickenlooper and Mayor Michael Hancock, sending them a message that arts matter – a message both officials often preach themselves.
Jenna Espinoza, a spokeswoman for Hancock, says the administration is addressing affordable housing for artists as part of the larger effort to secure affordable housing for all, by rolling out a $150 million ten-year plan. "Through Arts & Venues and the Office of Economic Development, the City is coordinating with a national organization, ArtSpace, that helps define, develop and fund housing specifically for artists in communities like ours. This project is still in the beginning stages," she says.
As for rent control, the administration does not take a stand, Espinoza says: "Rent control is prohibited in the state due to a Colorado Supreme Court decision made in 2000. Denver abides by that decision."
Asked about Hickenlooper's stance on rent control, a spokesperson cited the constitutional ban and left it at that. The governor's office has initiated Space to Create, a statewide program also in collaboration with the nonprofit developer ArtSpace, aimed at bringing housing for artists to rural areas. The project is described on the website of Colorado Creative Industries, the state's arts agency:
Space to Create Colorado is the first state driven initiative for affordable housing for artists and creative sector workers in the nation. Our mission is to develop affordable housing and work space, including commercial space, for artists and arts organizations and to position Colorado as the nation’s leader in artist led community transformation in rural communities. Space to Create will facilitate the development of nine projects in eight regions in Colorado’s rural, small town and mountain communities. This effort is led by the Colorado Office of Economic Development’s Colorado Creative Industries, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, the Boettcher Foundation, Artspace and History Colorado.
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But Frechette says urban artists need help, too, and it's not like they're asking for much: just an affordable roof over their heads and a place to work. If the state could lift the ban on rent control, she adds, DARCO could pressure Denver City Council to fight for the policy, and artists would have another mechanism in place to protect themselves from what she calls the "irresponsible, uncontrolled growth and development."
"We are not trying to be rich people," Frechette says. "We are trying to provide for our culture in the way artists do."
The free DARCO Plan-of-Action rally will take place from 2 to 8 p.m., Saturday, April 29, at Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 South Broadway. For more information, go to the DARCO Facebook page.