The Village People

Earlier this month, city planners, neighborhood activists and assorted bureaucrats gathered around three tables in a community meeting room. At the center of each table was a huge black-and-white aerial photograph of the northeastern edge of downtown Denver, extending north toward Manual High School and east to the hospital district. With markers and tracing paper, members of the East Village Advisory Council, formed by the Denver Housing Authority and including representatives of the DHA, the city's Community Planning and Development Agency and neighborhood groups, scribbled down their ideas for the future of East Village, an enclave of 249 subsidized and public-housing units that sits right in the middle of the pictured area.

EVAC members talked about how to reintegrate East Village's cul-de-sacs and dead-ends with the city's street grid. Which streets should be allowed to run through the neighborhood? Court? 22nd? They talked about density and streetscaping, play areas, retail, parking. They talked about the new development's sense of scale and character. They talked about renaming the community.

A year ago, lots of people were talking, and talking loudly, about East Village.

The owner of the property, Beverly Hills-based Casden Properties, had announced that it would not renew its contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide subsidized housing at East Village; instead, Casden planned to sell the entire place. A bidding war for the property ensued between Post Properties, an Atlanta-based developer renovating the old St. Luke's Hospital building into luxury housing right across from East Village, and the DHA, which vowed to block any sale to a private developer. In order to preserve affordable housing, the DHA argued, it would be better if it took over East Village. And even though Post publicly promised to maintain the subsidized Section 8 units at East Village, the city started looking into condemning the property.

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East Village residents, wary of the DHA as well as private developers, staged rallies and even marched on City Hall. And then, just weeks before the city's scheduled condemnation hearing, Post backed off, clearing the way for the DHA to purchase East Village ("This Old Housing Project," August 31, 2000).

In the months since the purchase, the city hasn't heard much from East Village residents. "Once we took over, a lot of the yelling stopped," says Sal Carpio, executive director of the DHA. "I think they were more comfortable with us being the landlord than Post."

But then, there aren't many residents of East Village left. Over half of the 600 people who lived at East Village in August 2000 have since moved away, many accepting HUD vouchers for subsidized apartments elsewhere. And others, like Ruby and Marcos Sanchez, decided it was time for someone else to lead the fight. "It was really draining," Ruby says.

"Nobody cares anymore," adds Marcos. "We care -- but we're not doing anything about it. There is still a fight here to be fought, but we have no ground to stand on. We can't tell the DHA what to do with its property."

In fact, just one East Village resident attended EVAC's August meeting. DHA officials blamed this on miscommunication and promised to do a better job of keeping residents informed. Although disappointed that he stood alone, 66-year-old Eugene Keyser, a seven-year resident of East Village, found this meeting much more professional than an earlier one.

"We'd tried to express our concerns as people being planned about, talked about," Keysersays of the previous meeting. "They refused to deal with us. They just think of us as gangsters shooting up the neighborhood."

When East Village was built almost thirty years ago, its design was considered cutting-edge. The 16.5-acre parcel right in the heart of the city, at 22nd and Tremont streets, boasted suburban-style duplexes surrounded by open space -- a 180-degree turn from the large high-rises then used to house the poor.

Although the first tenants of these duplexes were supposed to be reporters covering the 1976 Winter Olympics, the intention had always been to turn the units into affordable housing after the Games. Urban Inc., East Village's developer, had even secured $5 million from a federal program that offered interest subsidies in order to reduce the developer's monthly debt service; these savings were passed on to tenants in the form of lower-than-market rents. (This program was later replaced by Section 8, in which HUD provides a direct subsidy of tenants' rents for eligible, privately owned units.)

After Colorado voters turned down the Olympics, plans to turn East Village into affordable housing accelerated.

By 1988, ownership of of the complex had passed from Urban Inc. to Casden Properties. The property deteriorated under Casden, tenants complained. The grass died, maintenance requests lagged, and residents had to put up with everything from faulty fire extinguishers to holes in the ceiling to moldy carpeting.

The design that once seemed so cutting-edge became a magnet for criminal activity. Between January 1999 and April 2000, the neighborhood generated more than 2,000 calls for police service. Most of the culprits were non-residents who simply ignored signs posted throughout the property saying that East Village was closed to the public.

By the summer of 2000, conditions at East Village were abysmal. Still, most residents didn't want to move -- they just wanted their homes fixed. They liked the duplexes and the once-green open spaces.

So when Casden started talking about selling the property, residents marched, rallied and protested. Charmaine Barros ("Shark," as she's known in the neighborhood), who'd grown up in public housing at the corner of 24th and Arapahoe streets, took the lead in forming a residents' council. She and a handful of other East Village tenants traveled to L.A. in a futile attempt to meet with Alan Casden, chairman and CEO of Casden Properties.

Even though Post promised to keep the Section 8 units, residents didn't trust the private developer. Nor did the DHA -- whose fifty-unit Arrowhead public-housing facility stands on East Village property alongside the 199 subsidized-housing apartments. The DHA was particularly interested in preserving East Village's 125 three- and four-bedroom apartments, since affordable family housing is scarce in Denver. "That's the real reason the housing authority got involved," Carpio said at the EVAC meeting earlier this month.

According to Carpio, Post's final offer to Casden made no mention of affordable housing. "Post just doesn't do low-income housing," he says.

So the DHA fought hard to win East Village for itself. But the reputation of the DHA, a public agency, wasn't much better -- not among the residents, and not among the neighbors who lived close to East Village. "People are fearful of us when we move into a building," Carpio admits.

And sometimes with good reason. In 1999, for example, the DHA demolished 285 low-income apartments in Curtis Park for a $27 million mixed-used project spread over a 12.8-acre site. Two years later, construction is just getting under way.

"Everybody's got this basic mistrust of the housing authority's ability to get any meaningful project done," says Charles Brantigan, a longtime resident of the neighborhood and head of the Uptown Urban Design Forum, a group representing residents and businesses in Uptown, the area directly south and east of East Village.

Besides, as originally proposed, the DHA's plans for East Village didn't differ all that much from what Post wanted to do with the property -- and the private developer had a track record for getting projects done. Like Post, the DHA wanted to turn the entire area into a mixed-use development, which meant that Arrowhead, as well as the 199 low-income units, would be razed. In order to do so in one fell swoop, the authority planned to move out all of the tenants, at least temporarily.

With 4,200 units of public housing scattered throughout Denver, the DHA had "other options in other locations" to accommodate the East Village tenants, Carpio says. Banking on that, the DHA initially applied for a twenty-year transferable contract with HUD that would have allowed the DHA to move all 167 Section 8 contracts from the current East Village to the new East Village -- with a gap of some unspecified time period during which the units would be torn down and rebuilt.

HUD turned down that proposal. Instead, it suggested that the DHA project be done in phases, so that East Village could continue to provide at least some housing at all times. And in the meantime, HUD offered eligible East Village tenants vouchers that they could use to move to other Section 8 housing. Worried about what might happen to the project, last September over a hundred families took HUD up on its offer.

The DHA finally closed on East Village in November, buying the property for $12.3 million. The City of Denver, which had been willing to hold condemnation hearings on the property, loaned the DHA $2.5 million; the housing authority came up with the rest.

But while the DHA had been adamantly professing its interest in East Village for months, it didn't get around to inspecting the property until after the sale went through. And East Village was in even worse shape than the agency had suspected. Only a handful of the units passed minimal HUD standards: Electrical and heating systems were shot in some, while others had bad floors and countertops. The 118 units north of Park Avenue West were in worse shape than the 81 units to the south. Twelve had been "cannibalized," Carpio says.

According to the management-improvement operation plan that the DHA submitted to HUD late last fall, the authority would have had to spend $3.8 million over the next 24 months just to bring all of the current East Village units up to par.

Today, only 105 of East Village's 199 units are occupied. Although the DHA may rent out up to 25 more apartments, the remainder will be left empty until they are demolished. "Since we planned on redeveloping it, we are not rehabbing those units that are pretty extensively trashed out," Carpio says. "If more residents would have stayed, we would have done more to remodel the units."

The residents who remain agree that the DHA has done a better job of managing East Village than Casden did. The housing authority did renovate some units -- thirty, according to Carpio -- and installed new doors on many of buildings. But the grass is still dead, and East Village has lost what neighborhood feel it had last summer, when the residents banded together to fight for their future.

"They tried to get people out of there," Barros says. That way, the DHA would have fewer tenants to relocate when the project finally got under way, she suggests.

Last April, Barros says, the DHA wanted to move her from her four-bedroom East Village apartment to another one across the street, renovate the original, move her back into it, and then, next year, move her out of East Village altogether while the property was rebuilt. Hobbling from recent knee surgery, Barros thought the plan involved a few moves too many. "With my leg, I was barely making it up and down the stairs," she points out. Instead, she moved to a DHA apartment in Park Hill.

"My apartment was in top shape when I moved out of there," she says. But today, the building it's located in is boarded up. Barros wonders if the DHA is discouraging people from living at East Village.

"We never encouraged them to move," Carpio responds. "Our purpose in buying it wasn't moving people out of there, but keeping people there."

The area around East Village is exploding with new residential development, and the entire neighborhood is rapidly being gentrified. The population of the area, which is bounded by Stout, Downing, Colfax and Broadway, has increased 23 percent since 1990, while housing stock has decreased 1 percent, according to city figures. Residential vacancies are down from over 20 percent in 1990 to 9 percent today.

The neighborhood is clearly in transition. In the past, says East Village resident Cynthia Padilla, she had to battle the homeless who used the fountain in Benedict Fountain Park to bathe and wash clothes. Now she has to battle yuppies from Uptown Square, who walk their dogs over to the East Village side of the property and then leave their pets' messes on the ground.

More gentrification is coming. According to the city's community-planning office, no fewer than fifteen projects are either already under construction or under review in the area (see sidebar). If all of them are built out, these projects alone would add another 1,200 residential units to the neighborhood. Even the DHA has tried to get in on the action, positioning its East Village project as market-rate housing with some subsidized units, rather than the other way around. The higher-end units will not be "inexpensive," Carpio says, but they should be priced lower than units under construction in the Central Platte Valley and the Golden Triangle.

Several neighborhood groups are active in the area, and they keep a close eye on every proposed development. According to Ted Freedman, president of the Enterprise Hill Homeowners Association, the corridor along Park Avenue West holds 530 nearly contiguous low-income units, including the Barney Ford high-rise, which houses senior citizens; Bean Towers, home to a broad range of tenants, including the disabled; and East Village and Arrowhead. East Village is by far the largest, and neighborhood organizations have taken an intense interest in its redevelopment.

The DHA has included these groups -- several of which were very critical of East Village residents last summer -- in the planning process.

Francine Savala, a resident who worked closely with Barros on the protests, worries that tenants won't have a say in the redevelopment as long as neighbors such as the Uptown Urban Design Forum's Brantigan are included in EVAC.

A number of East Village residents, including Barros, as well as activists from Save Our Section 8, a citywide housing group, attended the first EVAC meeting this past spring. Even though Steve Charbonneau of the nonprofit Community Mediation Concepts was brought in to run the meeting, things got tense. "The housing authority used us when it was good for them," Barros says. "'Don't get mad at these people,'" she remembers Carpio telling her.

But she did get mad when the meeting's organizers tried to move her to the "audience" section of the crowd, away from the active participants. "The people from Uptown, the same guys are trying to dictate what happens," she says. "They want to come in and tell us our neighborhood is horrible. They want to come in and tell us how to live. We let 'em know that as long as we're here, we're going to have a say in what happens."

Soon after the meeting, Brantigan exchanged e-mails with Charbonneau.

Brantigan: "While I understand that circumstances are such that the Villagers need to focus on their needs as individuals, I would appreciate it if you would rule them out of order every time they question the motives of the members of the panel or try to lay a guilt trip on them."

Charbonneau: "You're very correct. I have begun working on this also."

Brantigan: "I would also appreciate keeping the Save Our Section 8 people at bay if that is possible. Most of their comments were inappropriate as well."

Charbonneau: "The next meeting will be structured somewhat differently to resolve the problem with the SOS8 folks."

At the request of Brantigan's group, the next EVAC meeting wasn't held at the DHA meeting room near East Village, but at a facility farther away. By moving the meeting, Barros complains, the DHA was "bowing down" to the neighbors.

And in June, Carpio disbanded Barros's residents' council, which he maintains "never really existed." Although Barros and her colleagues were "recognized as leaders," he says, the DHA had "always made it clear they had to become a legitimate body" elected by the residents.

"Charmaine and her little group decided they were going to run the council, but they couldn't do it," says Padilla, a 25-year East Village resident. They couldn't do it because they appointed themselves, she explains, and discouraged people they didn't like from coming to meetings.

"The ones that have stayed are the ones that have lived there a while," Padilla adds. "They didn't panic like everybody else did. There were a few people that made waves but made them in the wrong way. They weren't doing things the right way."

But both current residents and some neighbors wonder if the DHA is doing things the right way now. "I think, to a certain extent, all our involvement is for show, to check a box on a HUD form that says there was community involvement," says Freedman, whose homeowners' association was one of the groups invited to the EVAC meetings.

Neighbors aren't just worried about how the project may look. They're worried that the DHA may not get the job done at all.

"DHA has never successfully completed a mixed-income development and has a demonstrated lack of ability to do so," Freedman warned in a letter to the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority's board of directors. "Its track record in our neighborhood is one of disclaiming any responsibility for the outrageous crime statistics of its properties, stigmatizing its low-income tenants and isolating them in poverty and of acquiring substantial properties that it's failed to develop for decades."

Brantigan says he would have preferred to see Post successful in its bid to redevelop East Village. Post delivered exactly what it promised in Uptown Square and built good relationships with community groups, he points out. "Because of the value of East Village, that's a problem that would have been solved in the private sector," he says.

Earlier this year, as the old leadership left East Village, Eugene Keyser formed the East Village Neighborhood Association. He is its only registered member.

Keyser obtained a $1,600 grant from the city to purchase a computer. It now sits in Barros's Park Hill apartment because Keyser didn't want it; Barros is still learning how to use it.

"I know she's committed," Keyser says of Barros. "Whether she can do anything remains to be seen."

"We're just regrouping," Barros insists. "We're going to be there again."

In the meantime, Keyser represents the residents at the advisory meetings. In the beginning, he admits, he was "very ambivalent about mixed income." But over the intervening months, he's come to change his mind. "I'm absolutely committed to Sal Carpio," Keyser says.

It helped that in July, the DHA took Keyser and five other East Village residents to Atlanta, where they studied successful mixed-income redevelopments in that city. The projects were "as beautiful as anything you'll see in Denver," Carpio says. "They have to build them to market-rate quality, or no one will rent them."

Keyser thought some of them were even better than Post's Uptown Square project. One complex had an Olympic-sized swimming pool, an eighteen-hole golf course, a soccer field and a covered picnic area sandwiched between 700 to 800 units. Inside and out, he says, the fit and finish of the project was excellent.

Padilla, who also made the trip, was impressed with one low-income community that had been completely torn down and rebuilt. Still, she says, fancy countertops and nice design are not as important to the future of East Village as an active management that enforces the rules. "For the last six years, management was really bad at not checking the tenants," she points out. "They wouldn't do a thorough background. They would let relatives or friends in, and that's what started the plunge."

Although the DHA has said it will contract with a private company to manage the renovated East Village, it is years away from signing such a contract. "We don't intend to manage this," Carpio says. "We know that if we manage, it will be hard to rent to market-rate families." And right now, the DHA doesn't have a deal with a developer to build the project, doesn't have a final plan for the project, doesn't even have agreement from residents and neighbors on what the project should be.

"Maybe Sal should have taken some of the rest of us as well," Brantigan says of the fact-finding trip. "Why should people who are basically welfare recipients get tickets to see if they approve of something in Atlanta?"

David Warren, a pastor at Open Door Fellowship in Uptown, says he hasn't seen much change at East Village -- other than the diminishing population. The church began delivering free school supplies to East Village families two summers ago, and also helped renovate a playground there; it's since fallen into disrepair.

"Our main concern is the spiritual renewal of the people who live there," Warren says. "No matter what they do with the area, if the people's lives don't change, it's not going to be that effective. You'll just bring in new people with the same problems, or the area may clean up, but nobody's been helped."

A Post spokeswoman says the developer has no comment on the job the housing authority is doing and adds that the company has no regrets about its decision not to purchase East Village.

The DHA will issue Requests for Proposals on the project in September; the RFPs are due back on October 18. Carpio expects negotiations with master-developer candidates to begin in December, with the winner of the contract determined by February 2002. The authority needs to stick to that timeline: If a construction schedule isn't finalized before next April, the DHA will have to enter into another one-year contract with HUD. And that "will expose the apartments to HUD inspections and require DHA to spend more money on units that DHA intends to demolish in the immediate future," according to notes from one DHA meeting.

Carpio insists the authority is on track. "We hope to do this without federal funds," he says. "With increasing density and getting private developers involved, the numbers will work out."

Even though the project is full of vacant units, "If we did not buy East Village, those people who are there now would not be there now," Carpio adds. "It's not like we're bleeding over there. Right now we're losing money on East Village, but we knew that was going to happen. We have planned for that."

The DHA plans to continue renting units through October. Then construction will begin, and tenants will rotate in and out. Those who have stayed loyal to East Village will be given first pick in the new development.

Ruby and Marcos Sanchez plan to be there. The couple used to live in a shoddy unit north of Park Avenue West; after the DHA purchased the property, it moved them to a nicer apartment on the south side of the street. The Sanchezes like their new place, and they've eased off from their activist role of last summer.

Now there is more time for family picnics, trips to the pool, fishing and movies. "We felt we had done our job," says Marcos. "What we fought for, we actually got."

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