New housing to reduce cost-of-living among Denver immigrants, refugees

Tensions are rising between residents along the East Colfax corridor and developers who are planning new condos and townhomes in one of the remaining affordable areas that many immigrants, refugees and day laborers have long called home.

Aurora’s Planning and Zoning Commission recently approved two housing projects in northwest Aurora that residents fear will lead to gentrification by increasing rents and insurance costs in the area. The developers behind the projects — condo buildings known as the Ambience project and townhomes referred to as the Grand Avenue project — argue they are taking abandoned and blighted areas plagued by crime and redeveloping them into better housing options.

Hundreds of people who live in the East Colfax corridor, which straddles Aurora and Denver, have rallied together to protest the projects, expected to break ground in the next couple of years. Many residents have also attended Aurora planning commission meetings, urging officials to deny the proposals, saying the expensive new builds do not fit the character of their neighborhoods.

“This community is where our day labor members have lived for decades,” Mateos Alvarez, director of the Dayton Street Day Labor Center in Aurora, said. “And now because of developments like this Ambience site, and others like Stanley Marketplace, Montview Plaza, the expansion of Anschutz campus, we increasingly cannot afford to live here.”

Three residents submitted an appeal to the city opposing the Grand Avenue project and asking City Council to reconsider the planning commission’s decision. Plans for the development include 53 single-family townhomes to be built on five “infill” sites on 3.45 acres of land. They’re slated for portions of Akron Street between 12th Avenue and 14th Avenue,  Alton Street between 13th Avenue and 14th Avenue, and 14th Avenue between Akron Street and Alton Street. The commission’s documents state that the development will be built on land that’s mostly vacant, aside from a few abandoned and developer-owned single-family buildings. A developer at an October planning commission meeting said the units would likely be in the $500,000 price range.

The Ambience project was approved earlier this year to build 44 multi-family units in three buildings at the southeast corner of Yosemite Street and East 14th Avenue. The buildings would sit on a 1.3-acre parcel of land that, aside from one abandoned building, is vacant, according to planning commission documents. The units are expected to be about 1,800 square feet and have two or three bedrooms, starting at around $600,000.

Grassroots organizations such as the East Colfax Community Collective have been working with residents to make their opposition known, even beyond the planning commission meetings. Although residents missed the official deadline to appeal the Ambience project to the City Council, the groups organized a protest against the project on Oct. 15 where 200 people gathered at New Freedom Park and marched through East Colfax.

Participants held up signs in different languages in front of the planned Ambience project, and chanted, “many cultures, one voice,” in English, Spanish, Burmese, Karen and other languages. They gave speeches in various languages as they discussed the impact such a project would have on their homes.

About 62% of people living along East Colfax were renters, according to 2013-2017 data, and the average cost of rent for a one-bedroom in the area is $1,100, a 12% increase from the year before, according to the online rental platform, Zumper.

One of the developers of the Ambience site, Aman Kochar of Yosemite Colfax Square LLC, lives in Aurora and said he and many of his partners came as immigrants to the U.S. themselves. His day job is working as an IT professional. The partners saw the lot that had been vacant for about 30 years as an opportunity, he told The Denver Post.

“I just want to tell people that we’re doing this to uplift the area,” he said. “That place has not a single house for sale. We’re doing this to increase the job, the economy, the opportunity zone, and when we sell … we don’t get opportunities on benefits. It’s only when we keep for some years that we get the benefits.”

The project has received support from Mayor Mike Coffman who said he wants to see a revitalization of the East Colfax corridor.

Police and code enforcement have received constant complaints from neighbors about crime in the area where the new condos will be built and it’s negatively affecting the homeowners, Coffman said.

He called the East Colfax corridor the “toughest area in the city.” Coffman supports increased redevelopment, but he said the city is also working on finding ways to ensure more affordable housing options are also available through a new housing task force. He added that it’s going to be a balancing act of building market-rate apartment buildings and affordable housing or workforce housing that’s more attainable for people.

“The challenge is going to be, can you redevelop without pushing people out?” Coffman said.

For the residents who live along the corridor now, waiting on recommendations for policy changes in the future is not an option. They want to see changes to the neglected sections of the East Colfax corridor but not at the expense of their housing.

Rashid Ullah who lives in the corridor had worked the night shift the day before the protest, but he still attended because he and his family can’t afford increased rent, he said.

Ullah moved to the U.S. in 2009. He was born in Burma, Myanmar, grew up in Bangladesh and lived in a refugee camp for 18 years.

The apartment he lived in in 2010 in the East Colfax neighborhood is now double the cost and is not even well maintained, he said. He and one other adult in his household support their family members who live together – 18 of them in a four-bedroom unit with a basement.

“It’s really difficult for people who are low income here,” he said. “If they do this condo, the rent is increased … more people will move to different places.”

Like some of his immigrant neighbors, Ullah used to work at the JBS meat packing plant in Greeley. Many of them chose to live in the East Colfax area because of its access to public transportation and affordability, as well as a sense of community.

Say Ra Sein, who spoke in Karen, said through a translator at the Oct. 15 protest that she moved to the U.S. from a Thailand refugee camp in 2007 and has lived in East Colfax for 15 years.

“Right now, the expensive buildings that they will be building are right in front of my house,” she said. “Because they are in front of my house, I am scared that the rent will raise up every year in the future. In the past 15 years, my rent was $900 or lower, but now the rents keep going up every year and we almost cannot afford to pay rent.”

That’s what happened to the apartment building Celia Caballero was renting in Capitol Hill in 2007 where costs rose so much, she had to move, she said.

Caballero is now a homeowner in the 1300 block of Akron Street, and along with two other residents, she filed the appeal against the Grand Avenue project.

“We believe that the construction of this site will lead to the displacement of our community and will have the result of kicking out local community members from the neighborhood,” they wrote in their letter. “Property taxes and rents will increase to the point that we will be unable to afford to live here and we will be forced to leave.”

Caballero said their properties will be surrounded by the new luxury developments on all sides and she worries that the low-income immigrant communities who live there will be looked down upon. The 52-year-old Latina, worked two jobs for years as a single mother and participated in an additional work program so she could afford to buy her small house two decades ago. She now has a job in the cafeteria of a nearby school and makes $16 an hour, and she lives at her home with her niece and her son and his girlfriend.

The city’s existing infrastructure and public improvements won’t be enough to support the new developments and will likely create issues for the current residents along East Colfax, Caballero said. She’s also concerned about an increase in traffic near the schools and rising costs that would force families and children to move, reducing enrollment.

While Caballero believes more affordable housing is needed and that the East Colfax area has been neglected, these projects are not the solution, she said. She’d prefer to see the space used for a mix of affordable housing and a park or recreation center.

Developer Nathan Adams of redT Homes disputes the community’s categorization of the planned townhomes as “luxury,” saying that the company has a very thin margin of profit with current construction costs. He argued that his company is taking a dilapidated area and turning it into housing that will be available in late 2023 or early 2024.

“What you’re not going to see right now (at the project site) because we’ve partnered with the police in Aurora is, we had homeless people posted up on the site, tents, smoking crack, a lot of prostitution in that immediate area,” Adams said. “The sites don’t look great today, but they look substantially better than they did six months ago.”

Aurora code enforcement identified the property as a nuisance, and city staff and police worked with the property owner to improve the property and surrounding areas, according to city spokesman Michael Brannen. City staff did not immediately provide details about what issues led to that determination.

Adams said he came across the site almost two years ago and spent time negotiating with the former owners as well as the city and a nonprofit in the hopes of offering affordable housing in the area.

“We ran that out for several months and ran into a bunch of dead ends,” he said. “With the market moving like it was a year and a half ago, we thought well, maybe we can actually make this a market-rate project.”

Adams said he has reached out to the groups expressing concerns like the East Colfax Community Collective and even offered up a community benefits agreement, but as of last week, they hadn’t met with him.

The planning and zoning process is not set up in a way that values community input, and the appeals process isn’t very accessible, said Brendan Greene, co-founder of the East Colfax Community Collective and one of the groups that organized the protest.

“How can we say that the city’s meaningfully engaging with its residents when the only way we know what’s being planned at these sites is when a two-by-two yellow sign goes up two weeks before the final vote? By the time that yellow sign goes up on the fence, all of the decisions have already been made,” he said.

Caballero said she only learned about the Grand Avenue project from her son who drove by a sign about a community meeting without much notice. She didn’t know about the Ambience project until it had been approved.

There’s no requirement for notes to be taken at these meetings or an official record kept, Greene said, and to appeal, a resident has to be able to cite specific city code provisions and apply them correctly.

“What we are asking for isn’t complicated,” he said. “We’re asking that we center the residents who live in Aurora in the decisions that impact and involve them in a meaningful way.”

An exact date has not been determined yet, but Greene said the appeal of the Grand Avenue project is expected to go before the City Council in November.

At the April 13 meeting, Planning Commissioner Bob Gaiser, who is also the vice chair of the Brighton Housing Authority, sympathized with the need for more affordable housing, but he said that’s not the Planning and Zoning Commission’s task – those are policy decisions that have to come from the City Council.

That’s why Councilwoman Crystal Murillo wants to see changes to the criteria for approving projects in the long term, particularly in a way that would include the community, which has a vested interest in the larger impacts of such projects.

She hopes the council will consider changes, including requiring developments to be more inclusive of different incomes, building homes that are for sale at more reasonable prices and including mixed-use developments so small businesses can also benefit.

 

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