Denver Artists Are Being Priced Out. Is This Colfax Motel a Fix?

Kyle Harris
Night Window is Denver's latest attempt at affordable housing for artists.

The latest attempt to provide affordable housing for Denver artists is now under way at 8400 East Colfax Avenue. It's a small contribution to a big problem for the city's creative community — and the living quarters are even smaller. 

A couple of blocks from Aurora, the Night Window boasts 25 tiny rooms created out of the guts of the former 7 Star Motel, shuttered by the city in 2017 amid allegations of drug use and prostitution. Soon after, the property went into foreclosure, and developers Kyle Zeppelin and Neil Adam — the co-owners of GRACe, the Globeville Riverfront Art Center — purchased the property and decided to open an artist-housing project there.

They’ve spent the past year renovating the motel rooms into single-occupancy housing for creatives, and hired artist Nikki Dechent as the property manager. Tapped to run day-to-day operations, Dechent prides herself on offering rentals to any people who can prove they’re artists — and her definition is wide open, as long as the would-be tenant has a portfolio. Bad credit? No worries. No credit? That's fine. 

For $800 per month, Night Window offers artists a Murphy bed, plywood flooring, a small kitchen outfitted with a hot plate but no oven, an adjacent bathroom off the kitchen, utilities, Internet service and an affordable place to exist — increasingly hard to find in Denver. There's also a common area for shared meals and sketching circles, a full kitchen, and walls where artists scribble information about themselves and their favorite restaurants and bars in the area.

Night Window opened late last year, and so far, eight artists have moved in, including a dance teacher, a virtual-reality artist, an author, a ceramicist, a musician and an illustrator. Some tenants will be able to create art in their apartments, while others, who use dangerous materials or have large-scale projects, will have to find studio space.

When Dechent was a kid growing up in Illinois, her family schooled her in a Southern-Midwestern work ethic, teaching her to do things for herself and her community, she recalls. After moving to the suburbs of Detroit, she frequented the Motor City's art institutions, marveling at Diego Rivera’s murals about working-class solidarity and admiring the graffiti painted all over town. When she was in her twenties, Dechent moved into the city and became an unofficial resident of the Trumbullplex, an anarchist housing collective and venue. There she developed a collectivist mentality, watching how the punk community and longtime neighbors worked together on urban farming projects. To survive in Detroit, people had to share resources and figure out how to do things themselves. She liked it that way.

Twelve years ago, she moved to Denver, then on the brink of an economic explosion. The following years saw massive projects — such as Zeppelin Development's Zeppelin Station and the Source Hotel + Market Hall — rise in former working-class neighborhoods, while the industrial warehouses where artists had long lived and worked became prohibitively expensive.

Dechent says that unlike in the Midwest, where artists, inspired by the strong union presence, worked together, she found Denver and its cultural scene to be hyper-competitive. However, she admits that her view of the scene was narrow back then. A jewelry maker and painter who mixes her own paints (and has found herself tripping after inhaling fumes from her concoctions), she has big plans for building community at Night Window. While she doesn't live there herself, she envisions hosting skill shares where creatives talk about the nuts and bolts of running a business; she imagines people making art and barbecuing in a courtyard adjacent to Colfax, and hopes that Denver artists' murals will cover the building one day.
click to enlarge A mural on the side of Night Window. - KYLE HARRIS
A mural on the side of Night Window.
Kyle Harris
Even if Night Window is technically not a collective, she wants it to feel like one.

Still, she knows it's not the big fix for the ongoing struggle that artists find themselves in as they look for affordable and attainable housing — 25 units doesn't do much when there are 10,000-plus arts and culture workers in the metro area (and that number from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation doesn't take into account the vast majority of artists, writers, musicians and other creatives who aren’t making money off their art).

At public meetings, Denver officials have claimed they want to help artists with housing. There has been a lot of talk about solutions, but no results. For years the city pointed to a proposed collaboration with Minneapolis-based nonprofit developer Artspace as evidence that it was working to solve the problem. Artspace was attempting to build 85 units of affordable housing in the RiNo Art District, in the North Wynkoop project, in partnership with developer Westfield. But the for-profit and nonprofit developers' funding timelines didn't match, and the Artspace project was ultimately scuttled. After failing to find another site in Denver, the nonprofit doubled down on alternatives in Wheat Ridge, Colorado Springs and Aurora.

After the Denver Artspace deal fell through, Ginger White, now executive director of Denver Arts & Venues, acknowledged that "affordable housing is a hard project to deliver."

Thus far, 25 tiny units in a ramshackle Colfax motel is the only new attempt to stop Denver's exodus of artists who can't afford to live here anymore. “There needs to be more than this,” Dechent says. “This can’t be the only one.”