Houses of God

God said, "Love thy neighbor." He did not say, "Love thy neighbor...unless you live in Lakewood."

Somebody wasn't playing by God's rules one morning last month when they left a blue plastic bag on Diane Caoua's driveway. Inside was a hate letter, pasted onto Colorado Christian University letterhead. Small type at the bottom read: "Colorado Christian College Real Estate Syndicate -- Raping and Pillaging Neighborhoods With Tax Free Immunity Since 1973."

Caoua has lived in the Meadowlark subdivision for the past ten years, happily co-existing with Christians and non-Christians alike. The middle-class enclave of single-family homes sits just north of CCU's thirty-acre campus between West Alameda and West Bayaud avenues in Lakewood. Caoua has befriended many of the more than sixty CCU students who moved into her neighborhood this summer. They babysit for her and eat dinner at her house. They call her "Mama D."

The letter in her driveway called her a dog killer. It called the students even worse.

"Welcome!! To all CCU students including Transients, Deviants, Child Molesters, Jock Rapists, Party Girls, Drunks, Druggies, and Absentee Landlords! This quiet residential neighborhood populated by people having community means nothing to us!! Let 'Dog Destroyin' Diane' take you hunting in her monster truck while she stalks and strikes down unsuspecting neighborhood pets!!!"

Caoua drives a four-door pickup, and she accidentally ran over a neighbor's canine companion in May. "I tried to miss it," she says. "Now I'm afraid someone's going to poison my dog, because this whole neighborhood's gone crazy over this CCU thing. Homes have been vandalized; I've been physically attacked; threatening phone calls are going around. I can't say everything I want to say here, because I have two kids, and it's not safe."

Hell broke loose in typically quiet Meadowlark this summer, when residents discovered what some call a sinister plot by CCU, the City of Lakewood and a conservative Christian real-estate investor to conquer their neighborhood in the name of the Lord and worldly profit -- one 1950s ranch-style home at a time.

The seeds of the conflict were sown in early April, when Denver real-estate investor Calvin Van Essen quietly began acquiring Meadowlark homes and turning them over to CCU for use as student housing.

Van Essen was traveling on business and couldn't be reached for comment, but Jim McCormick, CCU's vice president of student development, says, "Cal is a man of faith, and he was simply trying to help out the university. He was responding to our request."

Using the names of several of his 28 Colorado corporations, including "Iao," the Greek word for Jesus, Van Essen snapped up seven houses in ten weeks, or 5 percent of all Meadowlark properties. Suspicions were aroused in June, when watchful area residents noticed movers loading CCU dormitory bunk beds into the newly purchased homes. What they discovered led them to gnash their teeth and howl about "the integrity of our neighborhood" -- and halted Van Essen's buying spree. The seven single-family homes had been converted to CCU "theme houses," each inhabited by nine students.

"The Christian soldiers are marching on Meadowlark," says one conspiracy theorist speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We don't want to live in the middle of a cult."

The houses, which are organized around themes such as missionary work and urban ministries, are owned by Van Essen but are managed by CCU and considered campus housing under a master leasing program. The university pays Van Essen a flat rate for the seven houses, which are all within a block of the campus, and the students pay their monthly rent directly to CCU.

"We saw this arrangement with Cal as a way to basically expand our student housing at no cost to the university," explains McCormick. The evangelical university, he notes, can accomodate only about half of its approximately 1,000 students and doesn't have enough money to build additional facilities.

Students in the Meadowlark homes pay $1,665 per four-month semester, or about $415 per month, which is "the low end of our campus housing rate," according to McCormick. Multiply that by nine students per house, and the total charged is approximately $3,600 per month. The average rent for a two- or three-bedroom house in Meadowlark ranges from $1,200 to $1,500 a month, creating a monthly gross profit of at least $14,000.

"You have to understand, we only have students in those houses for eight full months a year," McCormick says. "Plus, you have administrative costs. And we pay all the utilities: trash, basic phone service, electric, things like that. And with a house like the women's accountability house, where we have a house full of nine women, well, you can just imagine what the heating and water bill is like."

The CCU houses have two distinct sets of neighbors. "We have one set who loves us and can't say enough about the caliber of our students and who welcome us into the neighborhood with open arms -- and then we have the other set," says McCormick.

Throughout June and July, protest signs sprouted on dozens of Meadowlark lawns. Outraged residents barraged Lakewood city officials with complaints. On July 29, a convoy of CCU minivans carrying six members of the Lakewood City Council and Mayor Steve Burkholder on a tour of the theme homes was tailed by carloads of protesters chanting "No Dorms" at every stop. Five days later, a pilot hired by the Mid-Lakewood Civic Association flew his small plane over a crowd of 13,000 attending a Lakewood on Parade celebration. The plane's banner read: "No Neighborhood Dorms!"

Entering damage-control mode in early September, McCormick sent a letter to every household in Meadowlark, apologizing for "not bringing you into our plans earlier" and inviting one and all to an upcoming root-beer float meet-and-greet at a nearby CCU theme house. But the anti-dormers would not be pacified with apologies or free ice cream.

"CCU and the city are both acting as if they're shocked to find that people in the neighborhood would actually object to having all these upstanding Christian students living nearby who will help us mow our lawns and bring us cookies," says Robert Baker, president of the Mid-Lakewood Civic Association. "What they don't seem to understand is that the issue is not how well the students act or how well the houses are taken care of. The issue is those students shouldn't be there to begin with. It's an improper use of the homes. No one buying real estate in a single-family neighborhood expects to have a small college dormitory next door. It negatively affects property values and the quality of life in the neighborhood."

Many of Meadowlark's residents are elderly retirees who have lived in the neighborhood since the 1950s or '60s and are disconcerted by the sudden influx of college-aged strangers.

Other opponents of the theme houses claim that too many cars are parked in front of the CCU properties, that traffic has increased in the neighborhood and that Lakewood officials are violating the separation of church and state by looking the other way while CCU ignores city zoning ordinances.

Those codes are quite strict for Meadowlark. It allows single-family dwellings only and specifically prohibits temporary housing such as hotels, bed-and-breakfasts or dormitories, defined as "a building containing living and sleeping facilities for students of a university or college."

"Our theme houses are not dormitories," says McCormick. "They're living communities with a unifying theme. Obviously, the students are not related to one another, but they still operate as a family-like unit because of this theme that keeps them all pointed in the same direction."

In response to the rapidly escalating hostility in Meadowlark, the Lakewood City Council fast-tracked a change in the citywide zoning code at a November 25 meeting. The new law, which the council passed unanimously, lowers the maximum number of unrelated people who can legally reside in one dwelling from one person per habitable room to one person per 500 square feet. The net effect on the CCU theme houses will be to lower the number of legal residents from ten to four or five, depending on the size of the house. However, the new law has a three-year grandfather clause and will not be enforced until late 2005.

Lakewood City Councilman Mike Stevens upbraided Meadowlark's rabble-rousers. "Tensions have been created by hysteria," he said. "You've had assaults in your neighborhood, neighbor against neighbor. It didn't have to be this way. It didn't have to turn out like this."

Now the city council, Meadowlark activists and CCU are gearing up for a fight over the legal definition of "college dormitory," which the council will take up on December 2.

"We won the first battle; now we go into phase two," says Meadowlark resident Michael O'Beirne. "We want the dorms out of our neighborhood."

Caoua, the recipient of last month's venomous letter, says a lot of her neighbors have too much time on their hands. "They're obsessed over nothing," she says. "They need to start a bingo group or something."