Sitting at the long oak table in the dining room of her house in Cheesman Park, 78-year-old Joyce Thorn takes a drag from her cigarette and talks about growing up in Denver. She remembers that one of the few arguments her parents ever had was over buying a new car. Her mother wanted one, but her father had different plans for their money. “There was a charity drive,” Joyce recalls. “Pop said, ‘They need it more than we need a car,’ and sent off the charity check. I grew up with that kind of concept.”
The charitable spirit instilled in Joyce as a child is still alive and well. She owns seven rental properties around Denver, and in a city where the rent rises with the sun every morning, Joyce offers a refreshing alternative: community-oriented living at a reasonable price. “I think we’re communal animals,” she says. “There are some people who are very happy alone, and I wish them good luck, but I think it’s not necessarily a healthy life. I wouldn’t find it as much fun.”
Her flagship project is Mayfair Village, a nineteen-unit “intentional living” community in east Denver. Her other properties are a mix of multi-unit homes and small apartment complexes in the Capitol Hill area — and while they may not be communal, they certainly reflect more community spirit than do most other rentals in the area.
When Barbara Russell received an offer for a job in Aurora, she traveled from New Mexico to hunt for apartments and found high rents paired with amenities she didn’t need: swimming pools, exercise rooms, dog parks. She had read an article about co-housing that piqued her interest, so she searched the web for co-housing options in Denver and found Mayfair Village. A lucky vacancy opened up, and Russell joined the diverse community.
“I like the idea of mutual support, people looking out for each other,” Russell says. “Co-housing is basically people who have the same mindset about things and who want to live in a tighter-knit community.”
Russell’s apartment was recently revamped with a fresh coat of paint and a vinyl floor. The living room is airy and spacious, as is the bedroom. The bathroom’s small, and the oven in the narrow, galley-style kitchen looks like it’s from 1935, but it’s clean. And the price is definitely right: Russell pays several hundred dollars less than the market rate for a similar apartment elsewhere in town.
“I was at market a few years ago,” Joyce explains, “but I haven’t raised rents.” That’s because she thinks people deserve to live in decent places with rents low enough that they can save for other things. “You should be able to buy shelter and food and more than one pair of shoes,” she says.
Joyce’s motivation has never been to get wealthy, but she’s careful with her money. She’s happy driving her old van around town and smoking non-name-brand cigarettes. She hardly ever dines out, because she knows she can make the same meal for less at home. She cringes when people waste water. And it irks her that the rich line their pockets by overpricing apartments. “Money is their goal,” she says. “To me, that isn’t what it should be about. I don’t think you need a third yacht.”
Joyce may not be interested in money, but she’s been interested in co-housing since as far back as she can remember. Her ideal community is a place where diverse people can come together and share their skills, tools and ideas to better the community as a whole. She scouted communes around Denver in the 1960s for potential placea to raise her three kids, but most of them were drug-oriented and not what she was looking for. Instead, she and her husband, Bill, moved with their kids into a house in Aurora.
Joyce worked as a speech pathologist and an ESL teacher, and Bill worked at Rocky Mountain PBS. They’d always wanted to live in the city, so they started saving money and looking for houses in Denver. They bought their first property in 1972, a five-bedroom house with plenty of space and a vintage feel close to Cheesman Park. Before the family moved in, they rented it out, and Joyce learned the art of property management while she was still teaching.
After that initial purchase, the Thorns added more properties to their portfolio. Joyce’s chance to form an intentional community came when a row of ten one- and two-bedroom apartments became available in east Denver in 1991. They bought the place, and Joyce tried to convince the tenants who already lived there to agree to live more communally.
“I don’t know how many times you can say that somebody just bought up a bunch of property and told everybody who lived there that they were going to have to interact with each other,” remembers Andrea Welte, one of Mayfair’s longest residents. To Welte’s delight, the experiment has been largely successful. “I have more friendly regular relationships with almost all the neighbors who live here than I would in any other circumstance,” she says. “I share food and I share eggs, and they’re nice to my children.”
In 2005, the Thorns purchased the nine single-story homes on the other side of the lot, giving Joyce full control of an entire half-block with a large common area in the middle, a multi-purpose space with a garden where tenants hold monthly potlucks. Over the years, Mayfair Village has become what Joyce had imagined in the beginning: a place with people of all ages and backgrounds mingling and getting to know each other while their kids play together. She’s especially proud of the diversity at Mayfair.
“We need diversity,” Joyce says. “It’s easier to be an acquaintance of someone who shares everything you do, but it’s more interesting if you run into people from the other world. I think Mayfair Village is diverse. It’s evolved very well, and I’m delighted.”
Gary Jones, who’s lived at Mayfair for six years, appreciates Joyce’s caring approach. “All of a sudden I wasn’t working full-time,” he remembers. “We couldn’t pay the whole rent, and she carried us a lot. She knew we were honest people and she respected that. That makes a world of difference to me as a human being.”
But to Joyce, it’s just business as usual. “Things happen,” she says. “Somebody’s back went out and somebody got cancer. Why are you going to throw those people out? I feel the need to make available what I think is important for the world. I can’t fix Israel — but I can give people a little break if they have tough times.”
Things don’t always work out in her favor. She once accepted a nice guitar from a seemingly sincere gentleman as a security deposit. He stopped taking his medication and became a nuisance. Joyce had to kick him out. “I’m not as good a judge of character as I should be, and I believe sad stories,” she admits. “The first time I ever saw somebody look into my eyes and lie to me was one of my first tenants. But I’ve never gone hungry because of it.”
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Joyce’s empathy, work ethic and stubborn persistence were apparent early. “I always joined everything in high school, and I usually became president because I was the bossiest,” she remembers. When she graduated from East High School, she told her parents that she was going to get her bachelor’s degree at Northwestern in three years and spend what she saved on a fourth year on a plane ticket to Europe.
She had to see the world, and that’s what she did. When she was 23 years old, she got into her car and drove from Denver to Maine and back on a whim, stopping to see friends and visiting art museums along the way. “You have to keep friends in different places,” she says.
These days she’s as busy as ever, organizing the monthly potlucks (she wants to build a gazebo in the common area for those gatherings), attending as many plays and concerts as she can, and participating at city meetings on topics ranging from fracking regulations to public transportation.
Joyce still lives in the house by Cheesman Park, but it’s a very different place from where she moved with her family in the ’70s. Her kids are grown, and Bill passed away six years ago. Joyce now rents out rooms to an interesting cast of tenants, and has turned the cavernous home into an eclectic commune. One of the residents is inventing his own board game; another works as an underground DJ. Couch-surfers come and go, leaving small gifts behind. Everyone gathers around that long oak table for weekly potlucks and game nights. Joyce couldn’t be happier, but she’s not about to stop now.
“Playing bridge is okay,” she says. “But having a real impact for the good has become important to me.”