Curtis Park School Claims DHA Eviction Contributes to Gentrification

A classroom at Tubman Hilliard Global Academy.
A classroom at Tubman Hilliard Global Academy. Courtesy of Tunda Asega
On November 26, Tunda Asega, director of Tubman Hilliard Global Academy, received an eviction notice from the Denver Housing Authority; Asega had been leasing a building from the DHA for his school. The letter stated that Asega and his staff had to vacate the DHA-owned King Trimble Community Center in Curtis Park within three days.

"They accepted our December rent, which was paid on time. They gave us no notice that we would be kicked out just before Christmas," says Asega.

DHA says that Asega and the academy violated the terms of their lease and twice failed to pay rent on time. But Asega denies the allegations, and charges that the eviction is just the latest iteration of gentrification in Denver. Asega's unwillingness to shut down operations and leave the premises prompted the DHA to file a lawsuit against the school on November 30. And that's why Tubman Hilliard Global Academy and the DHA, which develops and runs government-subsidized housing, are facing off in Denver County Court today, December 14.

The DHA developed the King Trimble Community Center in Curtis Park "as an affordable and flexible, multi-purpose community serving space for use by community-based non-profit entities," according to a DHA press release. In 2012, the housing authority leased the building to Asega and the Tubman Hilliard school, which serves mostly black and Hispanic students.

In the lease, which was supposed to run until November 2022, the DHA and Asega agreed that the building would be used by Asega "for the purpose of operating a school, which includes, but is not limited to, elementary school classes, before- and after-school programming, and related activities." The contract states that the tenant, Asega, needs to seek written permission from the landlord for other uses. It also notes that "the tenant may allow community organizations with similar or complementary missions to tenant to utilize the property." The rent is $200 per month.

In the first few years in the building, Asega offered a STEM-focused curriculum for K-8 students. Although Tubman Hilliard Global Academy is a private school, it was completely free for students. That may have been one of the reasons the school fell on hard times, says Drew Melnick, the lawyer representing Asega and the school pro bono in their dispute with the DHA.

"I don't see a tremendous amount of care for preserving the historic community."

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By fall 2017, Tubman Hilliard had run out of money, and Asega decided to pivot from a STEM-focused curriculum to one centered on music and arts. "Music departments have been gutted from most public schools. We've stepped forward to address that," says Asega.

According to the counterclaim that Melnick filed on December 7 to the DHA's suit, Asega notified the DHA last December that he would be reorganizing the school. The counterclaim then notes that "DHA acknowledged that Tubman was reorganizing and allowed Tubman to continue its ongoing efforts to reopen in the fall of 2018."

In February 2018, the DHA sent a letter to Asega stating that he was late in paying the rent. Two months later, the DHA sent a second letter, saying that Asega was in violation of the lease contract for "not using the premises for the purpose of operating a school," according to a complaint filed by Joshua Crawley, an attorney representing the DHA.

Asega responded a day later, saying that he was operating a school on the premises and would be reopening in fall 2018. On August 31, the DHA sent another letter, reiterating that Asega was violating the lease by not operating a school on the premises. Asega responded, saying that the school was opening on September 13, according to the complaint filed by Crawley.

As of December 7, the school had 27 enrolled students, according to Melnick's counterclaim. Asega predicts that the student population will double by next semester if Tubman Hilliard is allowed to stay in the building.

While attempting to grow its student body, the school is utilizing volunteer artists, teachers and music professionals to teach the students. One such artist is Max Rozier, who runs Belly First Productions, a Denver-based music-production company. "As the school has gotten started and they’ve been expanding programming, our primary role has been to offer volunteer hours and pro bono music education," says Rozier.

The school also uses the space for after-school programming, like dance classes, which Asega opened up to children and adults alike. "We've got a tremendous amount of community support across the arts community, and we're now seeing a change in the trajectory that we're on. We're going to have a very robust program in the next year," says Asega.

But the DHA claims that Tubman Hilliard Global Academy isn't operating as a school, and is instead running "an adult dance and entertainment studio as well as a music recording studio on the premises."

Firing back at DHA, Tubman Hilliard Global Academy representatives claim that the housing authority placed a camera across the street from the school and pointed it directly at the school's entrance sometime between the end of May and the end of October.

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The camera facing the entrance of Tubman Hilliard Global Academy.
Courtesy of Drew Melnick
Two months ago, DHA staffers inspected the school and said it was in "general disrepair."  According to a DHA statement, they observed three unsupervised children "roaming the building."

Then in November came the eviction notice.

Asega had told DHA officials that the school wouldn't vacate the building, and the DHA responded by filing the lawsuit. Earlier this week, Stella Madrid, community affairs officer for the DHA, released a statement regarding the dispute. "It is clear that the center continues to be used by outside groups for purposes not expressly agreed to in the lease and without DHA’s approval," the statement reads in part. (The DHA did not respond to further requests for comment.)

According to the statement, since it issued the eviction notice, the DHA has been in negotiations with the school to allow it to continue operating in the building. The DHA offered the school a one-year lease, which would have expired three years before the current lease. The DHA also proposed raising the rent from $2,400 per year to $18,000 per year, according to a copy of the proposed agreement.

The counterclaim filed by Melnick pushes back against the DHA, saying that the DHA is unlawfully trying to dictate the curriculum of a private school, violating Tubman Hilliard Global Academy's First Amendment rights. The school is also alleging discrimination by the DHA, saying that the DHA filmed a predominantly minority school and not any other school in Denver, to its knowledge.

If the school leaves because of the DHA, the housing authority would be contributing to the gentrification of Curtis Park, Asega says: "I don't see a tremendous amount of care for preserving the historic community."

For its part, the DHA states that its goal for the King Trimble Community Center is to ensure that it is "once again a fully utilized, an active, vibrant and affordable community serving facility operated by community non-profit organizations who serve disadvantaged and low-income residents and members of the community."

Whether the Tubman Hilliard Global Academy will be allowed to do that will be decided in court.

"This has been an incredibly jarring and traumatizing experience for the whole school community. We're going on trial for our lives," says Asega. "We will either rise or fall as a school community."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.