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.

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.

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T.R. Witcher