A rarity: This stressed Denver community has been advocating for more below-market housing in their neighborhoods

Elyria, along with the neighboring communities of Globeville and Swansea, comprise a corner of Denver embattled by change all around.

Jane Harrington, executive director of the Colorado Community Land Trust, hugs GES Coalition member Raymunda Carreon after Denver City Council approved a zoning exception for an ADU at an Elyria Swansea home, Jan. 7, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Jane Harrington, executive director of the Colorado Community Land Trust, hugs GES Coalition member Raymunda Carreon after Denver City Council approved a zoning exception for an ADU at an Elyria Swansea home, Jan. 7, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

It was a community meeting about affordable housing with a twist — instead of ranting about property values and parking, neighbors were calling for more attainable units in a planned Elyria project.

Elyria, along with the neighboring communities of Globeville and Swansea, comprise a corner of Denver embattled by change all around — the I-70 renovation and expansion project, the National Western development, gentrification in Five Points. Residents of Globeville, Elyria and Swansea formed the GES Coalition Organizing for Health and Housing Justice, which called Tuesday’s meeting about the planned mixed-use development at 48th and Race, near an RTD commuter rail station that is expected to open next year.

“I feel like this is a neighborhood whose nerves are frayed,” said Dillon Baynes, whose Atlanta-based Columbia Ventures is developing 48th and Race on land the nonprofit Urban Land Conservancy bought for $5.5 million, in part with loans from Denver’s Office of Economic Development.

Baynes flew in from Atlanta for Tuesday’s meeting, which also was attended by ULC and OED representatives. It was an earnest hour or so that featured no rants of any kind. The GES Coalition did not get all the assurances it requested. But at the end of the week — just meeting the Friday deadline — the GES board agreed unanimously to send a letter of support for the development team’s application for low-income housing tax credits needed to start construction. In the letter to the Colorado Housing Finance Authority, the coalition said the affordable units Columbia Ventures has committed to building were “a critical component” of a start at addressing community concerns.

“We need, need the affordable units,” said Nola Miguel, director of the GES Coalition.

The Urban Land Conservancy has been working to realize a vision for affordable housing, business and community-serving uses at 48th and Race since buying the six-acre site in 2015 — about the same time the GES coalition was formed. Erin Clark, ULC’s vice president for master site development, said the goal was to try to lessen displacement. The GES coalition is determined that longtime residents get to stay in a once-neglected neighborhood that is finally seeing transit and other infrastructure improvements. At Tuesday’s meeting, GES members in their distinctive pink T-shirts spoke of how development too often means rising rents, and of their concern 48th and Race might drive up housing costs.

Pending approval of the tax credits, the development team hopes next year will see the start a first phase of 150 units on two acres at 48th and Race. All 150 are to be affordable, meaning the rent would not take up more than 30 percent of a family’s income. Half of those 150 units are set aside for people earning no more than 50 percent of the area median income, or AMI. Of those 45 will be for people earning no more than 30 percent of AMI.

The GES Coalition would like the mix to better reflect the community. It has conducted surveys that show 76 percent of households in Elyria and Swansea make no more than 35 percent of AMI.  Nearly two-thirds of Elyria Swansea renters are paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing, the coalition has found.

When all six acres are built out, 51 percent of the housing is to be affordable for people making up to 80 percent of AMI.  The final mix of AMI percentages could depend on subsidies from the city and other financial considerations.

ULC’s Clark acknowledged in an interview Friday that “the need in this particular community is deep affordability.”

Tenants paying more — including teachers and first responders who are among those expected to qualify for the 80 percent AMI units — help make cheaper rents possible for others, Clark said.

“At the end of the day there is a debt on the property that has to be repaid,” she said. “We’re trying to make it affordable for the user. But it’s not necessarily affordable to build.”

ULC makes land available on 99-year leases that are automatically renewed for another 99 years, bringing down the costs of building by taking the cost of the plot out of the equation for the developer.  The possibility of affordability being locked in for 198 years is one of the things neighbors find encouraging about 48th and Race, Miguel said.  So are plans for part of the project to be a new home for Clinica Tepeyac, which has since 1995 ensured residents of largely Hispanic and low-income communities in Denver have access to health care.

“We understand that you have to balance it out to make the finances work,” Miguel said, adding that she would like to see developers be more innovative in meeting that challenge.

Miguel’s coalition has taken steps to form its own land trust, a model in which the land under a group of homes is owned communally and never sold, putting a brake on appreciation. Members also have turned to city council for zoning permission to add density to create more housing.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the coalition got assurances from ULC to match up to $5,000 of money raised for a legal fund neighbors want to set up to ensure tenants have access to counsel about evictions and other issues. Columbia Ventures said it wanted neighborhood businesses as part of the retail mix at 48th and Race. The landowner and the developer also said they would sign a neighborhood benefits agreement with GES, though it was unclear what that would entail.

Dr. Irene Aguilar, director of an OED program called the Neighborhood Equity Stabilization team, said she came away from Tuesday’s meeting determined to look for other ways the city can ensure Globeville and Elyria Swansea get more affordable housing. Aguilar said she was impressed to see neighbors taking time from work and family to speak out.

“It was great that they recognize their power,” she said.

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