This Old Housing Project
As soon as Charmaine Barros enters her daughter's vacant East Village apartment, in the shadows of downtown Denver, the smell of decay overwhelms her. She futilely opens the windows and the patio door leading to the second-floor balcony.
Her daughter moved from the federally subsidized apartment a month ago, though the unit is still in her name. Barros has the key and has offered to show a reporter a typical East Village residence. But the electric bill hasn't been paid, so there's no power, which explains the smell of rotting food coming from the refrigerator. The freezer compartment contains mold-covered fruit, some kind of brown terror dripping from the inside of the door, and maggots.
Over the next forty minutes, Barros and two others try to squeeze the fridge through the patio door. As the General Electric is tilted up and down and up again, its juices spill on the carpet, drawing flies by the dozen.
Barros hurries home to fetch a screwdriver. With it, she removes the handles on the refrigerator doors. Then she wrenches the doors off of their hinges, and the appliance is finally shoved out of the apartment. The next-door neighbors wince. A woman arriving by car can smell the fridge even before she steps out, fifty feet away. In the apartment below, Thomasita Perez wonders if someone has died.
The next day Barros returns to the apartment, pulls out a closet door and places it on the balcony to hide the fridge from view. She mixes up a batch of ammonia and water, throws it in the appliance of death, then sweeps it out with a broom. The apartment is bombarded with sprays and the carpet thoroughly Rug Doctored.
Watching Barros, flashlight in hand, empty another container of black water into the toilet, it's clear that's she's used to the tough jobs. She's seen worse than this. When she used to work for the Denver Housing Authority, it was her job to straighten up apartments after families had been evicted. Angry evictees were known to trash a place -- maybe stuff dead birds or squirrels into the freezer. One family dragged in a horse trough, filled it with water and then dumped in food and clothing. Barros discovered it three months later.
Barros revs up her big, aggressive, bring-it-on smile when things gets difficult. And things are difficult now -- not only in her daughter's apartment, but throughout one of the last ungentrified neighborhoods in the heart of the city.
East Village is surrounded by the renaissance of central Denver, which is pushing out of downtown with lofts and townhouses and condos, restaurants and stores. For twenty years before the turnaround, when no one wanted to live here, East Village provided homes to low-income Denver residents. But earlier this year, the owner of the property, Beverly Hills-based Casden Properties, opted not to renew its subsidized-housing contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, setting the stage for the transformation of the entire neighborhood.
Casden is looking to sell, and two parties have been looking to buy: Atlanta-based Post Properties, in the midst of a gigantic redevelopment project of the old St. Luke's Hospital next door to East Village; and the City of Denver, through the Denver Housing Authority.
At the southern edge of East Village sits a triangle of greenspace called Benedict Fountain Park, where the homeless spend their days near one of the loveliest fountains in town. Buttressed by Post's swanky Uptown Square property on one side and a row of elegant old homes on the other, within a few blocks of downtown yet relatively untrafficked, the low-income housing on the north side of the park is all that stands in the way of transforming this part of town into an oasis of prosperity.
Earlier this year, Post offered Casden $12.8 million for the 199-apartment property, vowing to provide homes for the low-income residents in a new project there; the city countered with a condemnation proceeding to try to buy the property through eminent domain. Last week, Post upped the ante by signing a $14 million contract for the property -- which the city was set to fight at a condemnation hearing in Denver District Court set first for September 1, then postponed this week to October 6. And then, on August 29, Post announced it was withdrawing its contract.
But Post may not be out of the deal for good. "We continue to be enthusiastic about being part of downtown Denver's renaissance," Art Lomenick, executive vice president for Post's western division, announced Tuesday, "and hopefully to be a part of East Village's redevelopment in the future."
Each side has a great deal at stake. By promising to keep low-income housing, Post might have an easier time getting any ultimate project approved by the city's zoning department and win political favor for future projects. The Denver Housing Authority, traditionally defensive about its territory, has been using the condemnation to cast itself as a defender of low-income housing in the face of an out-of-town developer who hadn't committed to anything in writing. For its part, the DHA has refused to meet with Post until the condemnation issue was settled.
Despite its adversarial posture, the housing authority wants largely the same thing Post wanted -- to redevelop East Village. The DHA hopes to embark on a complete makeover, much like its demolition of a public-housing project in Curtis Park last year to pave the way for a mixed-income redevelopment that is supposed to break ground this fall. The details may vary if Post does wind up with control of East Village, but both sides would need each other. Any city development needs private know-how, and any private development needs city approval.
What residents want, though, may be something else altogether. The sale of East Village could force hundreds of residents to be dislocated at once -- forced to take government vouchers and seek apartments in the private sector at a time when the tightening rental market has prompted more landlords to shun such vouchers. Even if East Village is redeveloped gradually, those who are forced out may find it difficult to return when the project is completed years from now.
Barros and a handful of the more than 600 tenants at East Village have formed the East Village Resident Council to offer another alternative for the future of their community: They don't want redevelopment. They don't want mixed-income. They want someone to fix up their places and leave them alone. This is their neighborhood. So the council rallies neighbors for a march on City Hall. Members sell Indian tacos on Saturdays to raise money. Barros and a few others even drove to Los Angeles a few weeks ago to try to arrange a meeting with Alan Casden, the chairman and CEO of Casden Properties.
Casden wouldn't meet with them, but they haven't given up hope. "We want to keep our housing the way it is, with our yards and our trees," Barros says. "We want it fixed up. I don't want things torn down."
Barros knows the odds are against her. "The real issue," she says, "is we're fighting capitalism. If they own us, they could tell us to get the hell out of here."
After Post announced its $14 million contract last week, the developer essentially did own them. "People were happy. They were screaming and yelling because Post said they would give us five-year contracts," says Barros. "But I wasn't too happy. We need to see this in black and white." She'd rather see a contract preserving affordable housing at East Village for 25 years, but she realizes that five years may be the most the residents can ask for.
For some longtime residents, their apartments represent much more than simply cheap housing. There are probably few neighborhoods in Denver that match East Village for the ease and abundance of its front-door socializing. People sit on the wood stoops that line each sidewalk leading into their buildings and maybe smoke or drink or shoot the shit. Parents -- some of them not much older than teenagers -- chat about jobs or relationships or who's going to buy the neighborhood. Their children whiz by on bicycles or inline skates, many of them donated by the Denver police.
The cops are an occasional presence but not an oppressive one. Stereos and televisions are loud, but the only guns being fired are in action movies. Mormons ride around on bicycles seeking new members. When the outside lights go out, a woman will fiddle around in the circuit breaker attached to her building until they come back on.
The place may not have the green lawns and cute cul-de-sacs of the suburbs, but it does have a fragile sense of community. Yet East Village is the only neighborhood in town on the verge of being bought and demolished outright.
Still, many East Village residents just want to leave.
The signs are posted above every door of all 23 federally subsidized apartment buildings that make up East Village. They read: "No trespassing/loitering. This property is closed to the public. Access is limited to residents, their guests, staff, agents and vendors of the property owners. D.R.M.S. #38-115 Drug Free community -- selling or use of illegal drugs is not permitted on the grounds or in a living unit."
Twenty years ago, the buildings of East Village -- which resemble suburban duplexes, with vertical beige wood siding and brick -- were deemed state of the art. Their large and open grounds were a refreshing break from years of low-income apartments crammed into ugly high-rise fortresses. On the fringes of East Village are fifty Denver Housing Authority apartments in a dozen buildings distinguished by dark brick and yellow stucco. Though the DHA properties go by the name Arrowhead, people usually refer to all 249 apartments as East Village.
Now, as the signs suggest, East Village is full of suspicion and mistrust. Around the neighborhood, much of the grass is either dead or vanished, replaced by dirt. Residents say Casden deliberately turned off the water. But it turns out that the sprinkler lines were busted this spring when AT&T hired a subcontractor to bury the neighborhood's cable lines. They still haven't been fixed.
Residents are wary of police, too. The once-lauded open spaces have at times proved a perfect venue for drug dealers and buyers. "It was not designed well as defensible space," says Jim Murphy, a vice president with Urban Inc., the company that owned and managed East Village until 1998. There were days when East Village was home to gangbangers openly selling drugs. Days when cops didn't even want to drive through the neighborhood, fearing they would be shot at.
Cliff Jackson, the property's manager, says that in the last year, there has not been one shooting incident at East Village. But there still is occasional trouble. East Village (including Arrowhead and two neighboring high-rise towers) received 2,156 calls for police service from January 1999 through April 2000.
Most of the troubles at East Village are drug troubles. Though Jackson has made twenty drug-related evictions in the last year and a half, he maintains that the level of drug activity has decreased in the last few years: "I used to see zombies running around here between the buildings." Police records back him up; only a small percentage of police calls in recent months have been drug-related.
Nonetheless, police say they have recently seen an increase in drug activity. Just last week, during a quiet evening, a half-dozen undercover and uniformed cops materialized out of nowhere to apprehend a fleeing suspect; he and a colleague were arrested after selling crack to undercover cops. One of the men doesn't even live in East Village. The dealer himself is the nephew of a resident.
In fact, many of the arrests in East Village don't involve residents. Despite the signs, trespassing is common, and a lot of the trespassers are transients. Booted out of the triangle park in front of the Good Samaritan House, then forced out of Sonny Lawson Park after fences were installed, they've migrated to East Village. Sometimes they'll hang out in the hallways or sleep under the stairwells. Captain John Costigan, who runs the Denver Police Department's vice and narcotics bureau, says that most crimes are committed by outsiders: "A very small percentage are people who actually live there."
Although some residents welcome a police presence in the area, others resent it. Trespassing tickets are common. If you're on your way to visit a relative, you may get by. If you're on your way to visit a friend, the cops will want to know who your friend is, and, many residents believe, they'll probably still write you a ticket. You can try your luck with a judge. "You ask 'em to come fix a problem, they come harass you instead," says East Village resident LeVetta Brown. One recent evening, five officers stopped two kids who were about a hundred steps from their East Village apartment.
"I don't think it's a matter of harassment," says Jackson. "If a police officer stops you and runs his little check on you, I don't think that's a problem of being harassed. It's a deterrent to keep some of the transients and unwanted people off the property."
Costigan says the trespassing law is an effective tool, but "occasionally someone who is a friend of one of the tenants or a new tenant will be contacted. We try to make our contacts as friendly as possible. But it can be a problem."
What with the police, the dead grass and the rumors of what will happen, it's no wonder that cardboard boxes line the apartments of many residents. People are starting to pack up now, just in case they're told to leave come September. And the dilemma for many is simply whether to save up to get new clothes and school supplies for their kids or save up for a deposit on a new place.
Resident Karen Thompson is already looking for a new apartment. She's starting to "declutter" her apartment in preparation for a move. "What is there to stay for?" she asks. "They haven't promised me anything."
Jackson says that there's been a mass moveout of between ten and twenty families in the last few months. While five or six were evicted for drug use, most of the rest aren't waiting to find out the future of East Village. But affordable housing is hard to come by, so no apartment remains vacant for long. At present there's a list of 150 people waiting to move into empty East Village apartments.
Charmaine Barros grew up in the projects, DHA housing at the corner of 24th and Arapahoe, the fourth of fifteen children. Starting when she was six, Barros and her siblings spent much of their time working farms around Greeley. She endured being called a "dirty old bean-picker" by kids in Denver. But she and her brothers and sisters would also get a little extra spending money each week. It may only have been a quarter, but it was better than what the name-callers were making, which was nothing.
Most of the residents of East Village know her as "Shark." She's had the nickname since childhood, when one of her younger sisters couldn't pronounce Charmaine. The nickname works, given the aggressive role Barros has played as an activist. She has spent much of her life in various crusades, including helping to organize farmworkers and fighting for low-income housing.
When she had her fifth child, in 1985, Barros moved back to Denver. She eventually rented a house on the cheap in southwest Denver, where she got in the habit of opening her doors to anyone who needed a place to stay.
She had her rental house for eight years, until her landlord decided to retire and sold it. By then she was saddled with three grandkids and her two youngest children, as well as two Indian boys from South Dakota that friends had dropped off with her for the summer. "I wouldn't have moved in here if I didn't need the space," she says of her East Village four-bedroom apartment. "I never wanted to move back to this environment."
But she did, last summer; there's nothing as affordable in her old part of town. She feels safe at East Village, and her activist nature is back in the swing of things. On a recent Thursday night, Shark and Ruby Sanchez and Sanchez's son, Ralph, pass out fliers announcing a meeting about Section 8 vouchers scheduled for the following evening. The fliers have a copy of a photo of Mayor Wellington Webb holding a sign that reads "Vouchers to Nowhere."
Shark met Ruby and her husband, Marcos, last spring at a three-month leadership training course run by the East Side Neighborhood Leadership Program. In class they learned how to access local resources, as well as organizational and public-speaking skills. No sooner did the Sanchezes finish in June than it was time to take up the defense of East Village.
The fight to save the neighborhood has consumed their time. Last summer there were trips to the river with their four children, picnics, swimming; this summer is all about signs and fundraisers. "Every Saturday has been taken up with tabling out front," Ruby says. "We do not want to be homeless in the cold weather. That's what drives us."
Although passersby purchase food and cars honk their approval at the signs as they race by on Park Avenue West, the council has raised only $58 during its Saturday fundraisers.
After the fliers are distributed, Ruby sets a plate of chicken wings on a table outside the family's three-bedroom basement apartment. Ruby grew up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and came to Denver to be with her mother. She met Marcos, an ex-Marine, in 1977 at a disco bar in Capitol Hill called the House of Draft.
Neither is working. Marcos used to be a roofer, but he fell off a roof in 1992 and broke his hip. He received a $37,000 settlement, but after attorneys' fees and other expenses took home only $13,000. Two years ago Ruby worked briefly as a maid for the YMCA, and the change in income caused the Sanchezes' rent to be adjusted from $106 to $415. She quit, and now the family lives off of Marcos's disability pay. (Rent dropped back to $106 a month.)
Marcos has enjoyed the struggle: meeting city officials, meeting the mayor, dealing with the press. "Eventually, we're going to get this place fixed up," he insists.
The 16.5-acre site was cleared in the early '70s by the Denver Urban Renewal Authority at a cost of $6.9 million. East Village was initially built to house journalists covering the 1976 Winter Olympics; afterward, the complex was to be turned over to a variety of housing uses. The Denver Housing Authority designated Arrowhead and the neighboring Thomas Bean Towers for seniors as low-income housing. East Village itself was designed for low-to-moderate incomes. (The rooms range from 875-square-foot, one-bedroom flats to 1,986-square-foot, four-bedroom townhouses.) The picture was to be completed with a high-income high-rise, to be built on the wedge-shaped parcel at the corner of Park Avenue West and 20th Avenue.
Although the Park Avenue Tower was built there in 1976, Urban Inc.'s Jim Murphy says no one could find "a developer to put in a high-income development in that location at that time," and instead the tower became a rental retirement community. The DHA projects moved forward as planned, as did East Village, even after voters passed on the Olympics. Today, despite the desire for mixed-income residents, the area has one of the higher concentrations of low-income housing in the city.
Urban Inc. built East Village with the help of $5 million from a federally insured program called 236. By providing an interest subsidy that reduced the monthly debt service on a building, 236 enabled landlords to charge lower-than-market rents. It was an indirect subsidy to low-income tenants, but Murphy says funding was cut soon after. "The way it was initially designed was not very workable. It did not cope well with periods of high inflation," he says.
The program was superseded by Section 8, which began in 1974 with the passage of the Housing and Community Development Act. The new legislation reflected a policy shift away from huge multi-family housing projects as officials realized they were "isolating people into environments where they didn't have a lot of opportunity to mix with other people," says Joe Garcia, head of HUD's Rocky Mountain regional office.
The solution, through Section 8, was to offer incentives for private developers to build more dispersed affordable housing. The government promised to enter into twenty-year contracts with these developers. Residents would pay 30 percent of their income as rent, and HUD would pay the rest. HUD also would set the maximum rent property owners could charge. As tenants' incomes rose, so would their rent payments, and Uncle Sam would always cover the difference. Landlords were "pretty much guaranteed a revenue stream," says Garcia. Later, Section 8 vouchers were developed that allowed families to rent from a wider range of apartments in the private sector, including those that would accommodate larger families. Today, 167 out of 199 apartments at East Village are Section 8. The rest are still considered 236; those residents pay a flat rate each month, regardless of changes in their income, and the government covers the rest.
Urban Inc. was brought in to help develop East Village and eventually became the primary owner. But from the start, an investment group called 76 HIPL, an investor in low-income projects across the country, had an interest in East Village. Murphy says that Casden Properties was one of the principals of the group that oversaw HIPL. In December 1988, Casden bought Urban's general partnership and took over the complex. Murphy won't say how much the deal was worth, only that "it was a reasonable offer." Casden officials decline to comment for this story.
By the mid-'90s, the twenty-year Section 8 contracts started expiring. Many of the original Section 8 properties were built with forty-year mortgages, and with a booming economy, Garcia says that "some landlords wanted to get out of the program, if they thought their project was economically viable at fair market rates."
In 1999 there were about 6,000 Section 8 units in Colorado set to expire out of 18,000 total. Of 114 buildings up for renewal, only three opted out. So far, Garcia reports, the "overwhelming majority" of landlords have opted to stay in -- but as the contracts began to expire four or five years ago, congressional appropriations for HUD subsidies diminished substantially, and contracts could be renewed for no more than one year at a time. "So each year, the number of units covered by expiring contracts seems to increase," Garcia says. Last year Congress did approve five-year Section 8 contracts, but those contracts remain contingent on the level of federal subsidies.
The squeeze on affordable housing helps explain why many residents and the Denver Housing Authority were skeptical of Post's pledges to provide it. After all, even if Post purchases East Village, it would not be required to provide low-income housing. As it stands, Casden's subsidized contract runs out at the end of September, the condemnation hearing isn't set until the following week -- and Post just officially pulled out of the deal.
Murphy describes the current situation in the neighborhood as "very awkward."
About forty people attend the voucher meeting at the Thomas Bean Towers. East Villager Eddy Vigil suspects that if it weren't for the free food and drink, the crowd would be even smaller. Over the blare of fans and the noise of children playing in the corner, people try to follow a presentation by John Parvensky and Joyce Alms-Ransford, both of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, and Teresa Duran of the Colorado Division of Housing.
Because the fliers that Barros and Sanchez passed out mentioned Section 8 vouchers, many attendees believe they will be receiving theirs tonight. They'll need the vouchers to find a new place to live. Among East Villagers, vouchers elicit three different responses. Some believe that with one they will be able to easily find a new home, regardless of the fate of the neighborhood. Others worry that even with vouchers, the chances of finding a new home range from slim to none.
Then there is Shark's reaction. She sees vouchers as a tool to clear the residents out of East Village. "Why struggle when you can take something and go somewhere else?" she says. "I'm concerned that people will take these vouchers, find some other place to be and find out that's not where they want to be. They could go out and be totally alone."
Collectively, though, the crowd is upset when they are told by the panelists that no one will be getting vouchers tonight. And things get noisy when Alms-Ransford says that the 167 families on Section 8 will get first crack at the vouchers, while the remaining 32 families paying a flat rate have to wait. She assures people that HUD has set aside enough money to provide vouchers for everyone at East Village, but there are procedural hurdles to jump through.
"We have to wait?" says one woman. "I might as well cut my throat and slash my wrists."
"I really believe everybody will be served," Alms-Ransford responds. "It's just a matter of timing."
The only good news is when Duran tells residents they will not have to undergo the usual Colorado Bureau of Investigation check to get cleared for vouchers. This is a relief to those with a criminal background, even a minor one. But that doesn't mean that private-sector landlords can't demand such a check. (East Village manager Jackson says CBI checks screen mainly for serious crime such as assaults, domestic violence, felony thefts and destruction of property, and that searches go back only three years.) After families qualify for vouchers, they have sixty days to find a new place. If they don't succeed, they can apply for a sixty-day extension. After that, time's up.
Wearing dark glasses, with a leather backpack slung over her shoulders, Shark addresses the three panelists. Other people who are asking questions either face the crowd or no one in particular, but Shark leans over the speakers' table, in their faces. She wants to know how the state Division of Housing got involved in this, anyway.
"We don't want to hear that!" someone behind her snaps.
"I'm asking a question!" Shark shouts back.
Parvensky asks people to raise their hands to show whether they want to stay at East Village or leave. Most indicate they want to leave.
"The market's not very hospitable right now," Parvensky says.
Barbara Reed asks her eleven-year-old nephew, Marcus, to fetch another heavy oxygen tank from her bedroom. Her doctors like her to have one hooked up when she's watching TV, in case she dozes off. Right now she's watching The New Detectives. When Marcus returns, he retires to a neighboring couch, the new Harry Potter book in hand.
Reed attended the voucher meeting. "It's just a big to-do over nothing," she says. "They haven't asked no one to leave. It's not a situation until we know what's going to happen."
A former morning cook at the long-ago-demolished Cosmopolitan Hotel, Reed has lived in East Village for 23 years. She likes that she's within walking distance of her health clinic. Marcus has a short walk to Ebert Elementary, where he will begin the sixth grade this fall. She can walk downtown when she wants to, but it's not something she does frequently, given her health. Her ailments range from carpal tunnel syndrome to asthma to diabetes. She lives off a disability income and pays $310 a month in rent.
Five or six years ago, Reed was a member of the East Village Resident Council, which sounds like it was larger than it is now. Back then there were elections and by-laws; buildings appointed "captains" or "co-captains" to represent them. With help from a $100 HUD grant, the council raised a few dollars and was able to find organizations to donate supplies. There was a meeting space, computer training, a food bank, a clothes bank and daycare.
Today the current resident council -- after having disbanded for a few years -- can't find a place to meet, and Reed notes that the property has gone from "beautiful to what it is today." To her it's become a neighborhood where children run around unsupervised and pull up cable lines at the bases of homes just to play around with them. She says that last year kids played with pay phones on the grounds, calling 911, which may have inflated police calls for service stats. (Jackson says the same thing.)
Reed doesn't blame the bad upkeep at East Village on owners or maintenance. She blames it on the residents. After all, she points out, her apartment is immaculate. And she thinks Barros and the current council are mostly making noise to make noise. "It's just that things are changing and we have to change with the time," she says. "There was a time none of us were living over here. Progress stops for no one."
She is not alone in her sentiment. One of the guys who does maintenance at East Village says he can't give his real name because management doesn't allow its staff to talk to the press. To him there is no question about it: Whoever buys East Village will move the residents out. For good. Promises to the contrary are just politics.
"They've got to put a little tomato sauce on the meat to dress it up," he says. "Baby boomers and yuppies have come in and fucked everything up. It's greed."
Francine Savala has plenty of tattoos, bearing her name and the names of her children. "Savala" is in gothic letters on her neck; "Alonzo" on her left leg, for her son A.J.; "Matice" on her right leg; "Tameria" on her right shoulder; and on her wrists, "Baby" and "S," for baby Solomon. She's thinking about another tattoo, but she says she doesn't know if she wants to spend the money.
Three of her children live with her; her baby girl lives with her father. A native of Albert Lea, Minnesota, a small town near the Iowa border, the 22-year-old Savala moved into East Village in March 1997. She's thinking about moving. "If worse comes to worst, I'll be packed."
Her apartment is in bad shape. There's a square-shaped hole about two feet by two feet in her wall -- that was there before she moved in. There's mold on the carpet. Since last October, her refrigerator has only been good for freezing food, and a replacement didn't arrive until a few weeks ago. The back room has a hole in the ceiling that's two months old and hasn't been fixed. The moldy carpet here is covered with boxes; the room smells musty. If Savala stays, she wants to install chicken wire across her ground-floor patio to prevent the neighbor above from dumping trash on it.
Everyone blames Casden for the shoddy upkeep at East Village, but Jackson says that "before Casden bought the property, there were problems." Because East Village rents have to be approved by HUD, they lag behind a comparable market-rate project by one-third. Jackson explains that this means maintenance efforts are underfunded and chronically behind schedule -- by five or six years, he estimates.
Still, he thinks a lot of the blame for the shoddy units must be borne by years of excessive wear and tear by residents. "Cabinet doors don't just fall off," he says. "You have to apply pressure."
According to Cliff Jackson, before deciding to sell East Village, Casden was planning to buy the fifty Arrowhead apartments from the DHA and redevelop the entire complex itself, with at least 800 low- to moderate-income apartments. The 249 combined units of subsidized housing would remain, while the rest would be built under a federal tax credit program called Section 42.
Last December, Casden Properties did offer to buy Arrowhead for $20,000 a unit -- a total of $1 million. During a conference call with Alan Casden, DHA executive director Sal Carpio and other city officials, Carpio says Casden told him, "Your stuff is a bunch of junk, like mine is." Carpio said no way: His mandate would be to replace all fifty units somewhere else in the city, and $1 million wasn't going to get it done.
The DHA went to Denver City Council for funds to acquire East Village, and on May 16, the council passed a $2.5 million appropriation for the housing authority. With the council money, the housing authority made an offer for $6.05 million. Casden said no, and the city filed a motion to condemn the property under eminent domain, which allows the city to take control of properties if it can prove it is in the public interest to do so. In this case, the public interest is preserving low-income housing.
Post, meanwhile, finally made its own bid to Casden. "Post doesn't have experience developing mixed income," admits spokeswoman C.L. Harmer, although the company does manage some apartment complexes that accept Section 8 vouchers. "But building is building, development is development. The key to a low-income facility is good management. And Post has that on their resumé. Post just wants to be a part of redeveloping the site. I don't think its agenda is much more specific than that."
Neither is the DHA's. "We're asking for immediate possession," says Carpio. But even if the DHA wins its condemnation hearing, it still must purchase the property at market value, and market value will have to be determined by a three-member commission appointed by Denver District Judge Warren Martin. "If we were to be successful in the condemnation part, I doubt that the price would be set right away," he adds.
There is some debate as to what constitutes market value. Carpio says its based on a property appraisal that follows guidelines set by condemnation law. But if market value is near the $14 million that Post had offered -- more than double the city's offer -- then that changes everything.
At the June hearing, Casden announced it had a letter of intent from Post to buy East Village. Judge Martin told DHA attorneys that when the hearing resumed, the DHA had better have an equal amount of money ready to deposit in escrow.
While the city moved ahead with condemnation, Denver City Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth released her own proposal on June 12. Under her plan, Casden would sell East Village to Post, which would agree to maintain all 249 subsidized units for fifteen years.
(That obviously counts the housing-authority units, though there's no mention of how they would be transferred if the DHA remains determined to hold on to them.) The housing authority would be responsible for relocating tenants from East Village and giving them first crack at the new units when they are finished. Wedgeworth's plan also called for the housing authority and Post to enter into a joint venture to redevelop the DHA units.
Wedgeworth viewed the proposal as "a discussion point" at the very least, but she says that became impossible after Carpio and the DHA backed out of any discussions with anyone, citing the advice of the housing authority's attorneys. She followed up by introducing a resolution at a city council meeting to preserve subsidized housing at East Village; the resolution passed July 10. "Investing millions to only rehabilitate the deteriorating units at East Village will not address the economic segregation and isolation of this development from the rest of the City," it stated.
Wedgeworth initially supported the condemnation, but now she believes that the city's adversarial stance is not worth the risk. "The city doesn't have the money," she says. "Here's a $2 billion corporation that wants to buy the land and says they'll work with you. And the housing authority won't speak to anybody."
Carpio brushes Wedgeworth's comments aside. "She wants us to get involved with Post. They may be the owner, but we're in a legal proceeding. Anything you say may be held against you. Based on the advice of our attorney, we shouldn't talk to anybody about the redevelopment potential of East Village, especially with people who don't own it. Our purpose in condemning is to make sure 600 people don't get thrown out, not to cut a deal with Post."
Wedgeworth's proposal wasn't very practical, he adds. The DHA can only issue vouchers to people in the DHA system, and they cannot issue vouchers for the fifteen-year time frame that Wedgeworth suggested. In addition, the housing authority can only relocate people on property it owns.
Denver City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt calls DHA's handling of East Village "extremely myopic and almost naive, and that's kind, in thinking they would redevelop this project without a private-sector developer."
When Wedgeworth tried to bring Post and the city together during the summer, the city resisted. "Very early on, there were meetings with Post, and we asked them to put something in writing about their plan, and we never received anything from them," says Myrna Hipp, executive director of the city's Community Planning and Development Agency. "Until we were willing to see what Post was planning, there was no point in meeting."
"I'm baffled that the city doesn't jump at this," says Chuck Brantigan, a member of the Uptown Urban Design Forum, a neighborhood organization in the area. "Here you have a bunch of neighborhood groups saying we want to preserve low-income housing, and a private developer with a track record of building exactly what they say they're going to build. Then you have the mayor saying we'll front the money, which he doesn't really have."
"The city recognizes that its offer was obviously not competitive with Post Properties," says mayoral press secretary Andrew Hudson. "We've looked at other fund sources, but I don't know where it's at right now in terms of whether there will be another offer." The city is releasing an affordable-housing plan in the next couple of months, he adds.
For its part, Post said on Tuesday that it was withdrawing its contract because it "hasn't been able to forge the consensus it believes is vital to bulding the unique neighborhoods we strive for."
From Superfly's two-bedroom apartment, the Soul Food soundtrack blares through large speakers. Outside, the 43-year-old, his wife and a few friends sit on the stoop, sipping beers. Nobody is eager to reveal their real names, but 'Fly says he works as an assistant manager over grounds at the Denver Zoo; his wife also works at the zoo.
Superfly has been at East Village for five years. He thinks the closing of Stapleton and the arrival of light rail doomed the neighborhood to gentrification. His pal, C Dogg, agrees: "I've never seen this many white people in this neighborhood."
Nearby, one light is out, and its pole leans like the Tower of Pisa. The security door to their building is gone. Been gone for years. "How hard is it to replace a door?" says another friend, named Rance. He looks at the grass. It's more than dead. It's gone. "Ain't nothing ever gonna grow here."
Superfly offers a tour of his two-bedroom apartment, where he lives with his wife and her twelve-year-old son, Delano. The place has four television sets, two stereo systems and two mini-stereo systems. As if there's doubt, he points out, more than once, "Everything is paid for, nothin' stolen up here. I paid cash."
His wife sleeps on the couch because he snores. 'Fly wants a house someday. "We all want to get away from here."
In the living room, he points to framed pictures on the wall and asks, "Who's that?"
It's portraits of Mandela and Malcolm and Martin. Two of Tupac Shakur, one with a caption that reads "Only God can judge me." On the television, someone is making a speech at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.
The City of Denver conducted its own analysis of what East Village is worth, and its numbers came out to about the same as the housing authority's offer, around $6 million. "If the city was to take it over, there are a lot of ideas floating around," says Hudson. "The mayor wants to see market-rate housing, affordable housing for police officers and teachers, and low-income housing."
That mixture of low-income and market-rate housing is similar to the promises Post had been making. "Post has been committed for over two years to preserve low-income housing that exists at East Village," Harmer says. "It's Post's style to engage in a very intense community process for assessing what the redevelopment should look like."
Barros uses one of her favorite words, "sneaky," when describing how she thinks Post would deal with residents. "They're gonna take our yards and trees," she says. "I don't think they're gonna make it a community. They don't have it over there [at St. Luke's] where they built the new project. I don't think they're doing anything in good faith."
Barros knows she walks a fine line. She supports the housing authority in its condemnation efforts -- and thereby opposes Post --but she knows residents will have to deal with Post, or another private developer, if the condemnation fails. "While a renewal agreement with HUD could only be for five years, [a developer] could enter into a contractual agreement with the city and the DHA to maintain the units for as long as the city can negotiate," says HUD's Garcia.
The city is not entirely without leverage here. Its strongest bargaining chip is that East Village is intertwined with the fifty DHA units of Arrowhead: It would be unrealistic for any developer to buy one without addressing the other. "DHA and the city have real leverage with the fifty units intermingled in the site," Harmer says. "It would be Post's preference to partner in redeveloping the whole site with DHA."
Carpio concedes that the DHA might have "some big leverage down the road," but he adds that making any move on the public housing is more complex than just signing on the dotted line. Since East Village is subsidized housing and Arrowhead is public housing, Carpio explains, funding to redevelop the projects would have to come from different sources.
Besides the Arrowhead land, Wedgeworth says the city has one more card to play if Post, or whoever, tries not to include affordable housing, and that is zoning. "The reality is, if you want your zoning approved, it would behoove you to do that," she says.
While the condemnation will affect the future of the neighborhood, the differences may not be as great as the housing authority suggests. The DHA has already shown its commitment to the mixed-income model, having completed demolition last year of 286 apartment units at Curtis Park in anticipation of redeveloping -- with a private development company from Atlanta -- the entire 12.8-acre site. The $27 million project, says Hipp, is in the "final throes of submission of documents for HUD's review." She expects the project will be finalized at the end of September.
Wedgeworth correctly points out that East Villagers -- and others in affordable housing -- look at Curtis Park and see...nothing. The apartments were completely destroyed. What remains is dirt. The people were moved, but East Villagers don't know where. "When it's redeveloped, it's a third, a third, a third, and they're losing housing," Wedgeworth says. "People have concerns."
It's true that all 500 Curtis Park residents were relocated to other DHA properties, an easier task than the potential relocation of the East Villagers. A move from one public housing project to another, whatever its negative effects, at least shields people from the private market. But with vouchers in hand, that's exactly where most of the East Villagers are headed, and private landlords can choose to accept or reject them.
Carpio says it may be difficult for tenants to use their vouchers to stay at East Village, because the apartments there would have to pass HUD housing-quality standards. Carpio's been in some of the East Village apartments and says, "They would never even come close to meeting standards."
Across the way from East Village, crews are repairing roofs on the Arrowhead buildings. Their lawns are being watered. It gives Barros confidence that if the housing authority prevails in court, it may simply authorize major repairs at East Village and leave it at that. She says she'd rather have the housing authority as a landlord than Post. "I've personally dealt with DHA. I know they have people there long-term."
But Jackson questions the timing of Carpio's Arrowhead rehab project. "Why did it take all the media attention to improve their units?" Jackson asks. "They needed roofs years ago."
Situated at the southern end of East Village across 20th Avenue, the $100 million Uptown Square project is a massive achievement, involving the construction of 914 apartments and condominiums, along with parking garages and 60,000 square feet of commercial real estate. Uptown Square is full of benches and wide, red-brick sidewalks. A big copper-shingled turret projects from the corner of Pennsylvania and 20th. A sign below reads, simply, "Post," and above that is a symbol, a rose. The apartment units will rent from $800 to $1,200 a month.
One recent evening, LeVetta Brown, along with her husband and young son, strolled over to Uptown Square. LeVetta thought the place was like Pleasantville, the movie about a perfect and insular 1950s Father Knows Best-like town. Already there are security guards patrolling the project, which is still under construction.
A few weeks earlier, East Village staged a cookout and then marched over to the City and County Building. There were at least a hundred marchers, some in wheelchairs or on bikes, waving signs and shouting through bullhorns: "The people, united, will never be defeated!" The police arrived, and after a few terse words about needing permits, escorted the marchers through intersections all the way to Civic Center Park, where they assembled on the steps of City Hall as the big clock struck six.
The march passed through Uptown Square, past brand-new townhouses already purchased and occupied. A few faces -- all of them white -- poked their heads out as the protesters headed up the street. "They're not going to let us live in luxury townhomes," Brown says. "We'll have their definition of affordable housing, but they won't have us living over here."
But Brown knows a new unit in a new development would be an improvement. Yes, she has her TV and her stereo, Panasonic speakers, Genesis game station, couches, her whirring fan. But there's a hole in the kitchen sink. Her fire extinguisher has fluid but no pressure. Her apartment doesn't have a smoke detector. Jackson brought her a new detector a few weeks ago, but it didn't work. Brown says she can't even get a plunger to fix her own clogged sink. She says maintenance gave her grief about the work order, but she told them, "All I want is a plunger; I'll fix it."
A comforter is propped up against the window in place of blinds, a common scene at East Village. A blanket covers the glass door to the patio in back. The front window is not solidly in its track and could be removed with little effort. A piece of the window frame is used to brace the window itself.
Brown, who is twenty, is on a welfare program that has her enrolled in a city community-service program. A week ago she started as an administrative assistant at a counseling center. She's been revamping the center's computer systems, getting current software loaded up, reorganizing files and designing new fliers for the center. It all sounds fine, but she says the welfare program is slave labor. She works forty hours a week and brings in only $372 a month. "That's gone in the first week," she explains "After that I'm stuck babysitting, donating blood. I'm stressing."
Brown says she's not asking for much, just a crack at a decent standard of living. "If you can build stadiums and amusement parks and give tax breaks on [Denver] Pavilions," she muses, "then y'all got enough money to take care of us 'til we can get out of this."
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