Change of Plans

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Ozzie and Harriet wouldn't recognize the place.

Bill Sullivan lives in Park Hill, one of Denver's oldest neighborhoods, and makes the 25-minute drive out to the suburbs for work. His job with the NNDC is a role reversal, too, "a flip-flop for me, because I've been doing primarily affordable housing and community development in rebuilding inner cities," he says.

The sixty-year-old community activist got his start in redevelopment in his home town of Cleveland, Ohio, fixing up old Victorians in neighborhoods that by the '70s had become archetypal urban slums. For the next three decades, Sullivan worked in economic development in places like New York and Puerto Rico, and helped to create the Neighborhood Capital Corporation, a national group formed to provide more financial resources for non-profit housing developers. After spending ten years as the founder and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Mutual Housing Association (and studying housing models in Europe on a Fannie Mae Foundation fellowship), in 2004 Sullivan was asked to serve on the NNDC board. He took over as executive director last year.

The NNDC's office is located behind an aging Safeway, in a split-level cinderblock building with steel bars on the windows that was originally a dentist's office, then a local union headquarters. Sullivan describes it as "urban-riot architecture," a '60s style seemingly intended to shield occupants from the outside world.

Inside his office, Sullivan puzzles over two large maps taped on the wall that together depict modern-day Northglenn: 7.5 square miles of looping neighborhood streets bisected by collector roads and I-25. The city has reached nearly 100 percent buildout, and lacking undeveloped acres to focus on, planners have begun looking at existing structures for redevelopment possibilities. The room is filled with photographs of three houses that the NNDC purchased in the past year, along with balsa-wood models of what the fixer-uppers will look like after an overhaul.

"In the first round of development here, all the houses were 600 to 800 square feet and one level," Sullivan says, pointing to the center of the maps. "Later, other homes were built that were bi-levels and tri-levels. They're solid houses, built very well." The houses may be small by today's standards, but the lots are large. "In Denver, the standard house lot is 6,200 square feet," he explains. "Some of the lots out here, if you look at the radius, are 8,400 square feet. They're gigantic."

But the gigantic yards weren't enough to maintain property values. Sullivan posted the maps two years ago in order to chart the number of single-family homes that were being used as rentals -- each identified with a red dot, a total of 600 dots on the 9,206 homes within the Northglenn city limits. This year, Sullivan created a second map and found that the number of rentals had jumped to 950 rentals. For a bedroom community that had long boasted a strong home-occupancy rate, that was a hefty increase in under two years.

It indicated that people who are trying to sell their homes in Northglenn for $150,000 to $200,000 are meeting with intense competition in new boomburgs like Firestone and Dacono fourteen miles to the north, where homes twice as big go for the same price and no money down. Instead of selling at dramatically reduced prices, many owners are renting out their Northglenn homes, waiting to see if the market returns. So are the investor companies that have snatched up hundreds of addresses at foreclosure auctions over the past two years. (Colorado has the worst foreclosure rate in the nation, and Adams County -- which includes Northglenn -- has the distinction of being at the top of that heap.)

Sullivan taps his finger on a series of red dots: "Here you have four rental properties right in a row." He's seen the trend before. One of the tools he used to gauge change in inner-city neighborhoods was to take Polaroids of every house on a block. Absentee landlords are less likely to care for lawns or invest significant money in upkeep, and over the months and years, the pictures could be compiled into a time-lapse exhibit of a neighborhood sliding into blight.

He nods to the row of rentals. "I'll bet you a dollar's worth of doughnuts that you could take anyone out there and they'd be able to pick them out just by looking at them," Sullivan says. Cracked driveways, broken gutters, dead grass -- that's the stuff that keeps nearby homeowners awake at night. First a house, then a block, and finally, a whole street. There goes the neighborhood.

Neglected houses are the exception rather than the rule in Northglenn's quiet environs. The majority of residences are well cared for. The sturdy accessories of working-class principles -- lawn figurines, motor homes and boats -- show lifetimes of saving. But from 1990 to 2000, the median household income in Northglenn dropped from $49,957 to $48,276, while the median income for the metro area as a whole increased by $4,500. Census figures show the slow uptick in the average age of a Northglenn resident: from eighteen in 1970 to 33 years old today. The owners of these tidy homes are aging quickly, and their kids are buying newer, bigger houses outside of Northglenn -- some in the city, others in suburbs that are farther out. And as they go, so do retailers.

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Jared Jacang Maher