East Colfax neighbors embrace homes in the pipeline for low-income and unhoused Denverites

“Once people get stable housing, they’re safe and they can do so much more.”
7 min. read
A closed strip club on East Colfax, 8315 E. Colfax Ave. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

UPDATE: On Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, the Denver City Council approved a contract to sell city-owned land to Brothers Redevelopment for $10 in exchange for 99 years of low rents at 7900 E. Colfax Ave.

The apartment building, on East Colfax Avenue near Trenton Street, will have 72 units that are attainable for people who make 30 percent of the area median income or less, or $22,300 for a two-person household. Forty-seven homes will have one bedroom, 19 will have two bedrooms and six will have three bedrooms, according to city documents.

Construction will start this year and finish in 2022.

When the topic is housing low-income families and the homeless, questions about security and traffic are typical.

What Cathy Wellwood wanted to know was different.

"I've already had people asking how do they apply for this housing," Wellwood said Tuesday night during an East Colfax Neighborhood Association monthly meeting.

The comment from Wellwood, who lives near proposed housing developments on vacant East Colfax lots, spoke of a need that was evident.

Gerald Turner politely asked passersby whether they could spare a dollar. He was walking Wednesday morning along the stretch of East Colfax where the city and two nonprofits have proposed one building of 80 apartments for families earning up to 80 percent of the area median income, and another project for people who have experienced homelessness.

Turner said he had been living on the streets nine years. He said he avoids shelters because he doesn't "want to be locked in at night," but would consider moving into an apartment such as those that Brothers Redevelopment Inc. has proposed down the street on the empty lot at 7900 E. Colfax Ave.

Brothers is working with the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado to provide on-site support to tenants who have experienced homelessness.

"It's a great idea," said Turner, who said he had not previously heard about the development plans. He had an aesthetic opinion as well, saying he hoped the new buildings would be modern, but not too tall or otherwise out of keeping with the low-rise motels, convenience shops and auto dealers that dominate the area.

Tuesday's was the first community meeting since Denver Economic Development & Opportunity announced that proposals from nonprofit developers Brothers and Mercy Housing had won. The city purchased the land in 2017 for a total of just under $2 million using federal housing funds. The developers are working to fund their projects and City Council has to approve contracts for each to buy a plot from the city for $10 in exchange for keeping rents low for 99 years. If all goes according to plan, the projects are expected to open in 2022.

The apartments will range from one- to four-bedroom in a city that needs more housing for larger low- and moderate-income families. Mercy also plans to lease the ground floor of its project to a preschool operator that will accept state subsidies to ensure neighbors can afford to enroll their children. Mercy's plot is occupied by an abandoned strip club at 8315 E. Colfax Ave. and an adjacent parking lot at 1500 Valentia St.

Wednesday morning, what was once PT's All Nude II was boarded up and surrounded by a chain-link construction fence.  Around the corner, Bob Ring sat on the stoop outside a small brick duplex. Ring said he once lived in a Colfax motel, and associated the strip club with crime and violence. Ring hadn't heard much about the housing and preschool  plans.

"Anything would be better than what was there," Ring said.

Brothers plans to build one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments for 72 families in a partnership with the Brain Injury Alliance. The alliance has found that strokes, concussions and other injuries increase a person's chances of becoming homeless because they can affect performance at school or work and lead to lifelong physical and cognitive disabilities.

The brain injury group will have offices in the building to service neighbors. And to address possible displacement in a neighborhood considered on the cusp of gentrification, Brothers plans to open an office on the ground floor to provide housing counseling and to connect neighbors to rental assistance and other support.

The national apartment search website RENTCafé.com said in a report released Wednesday that the average monthly rent in Denver had risen to $1,670 in June, up $58 since the start of the year. Denver's average rent was the sixth highest among the 260 largest cities in the United States, according to RENTCafé.

At Tuesday's community briefing in East Colfax, Mercy's regional real estate development director Kuhl Brown told neighbor Wellwood that his nonprofit would reach out to residents of the cheap motels scattered along Colfax. Some are home to people on the edge of homelessness.

"I definitely think that needs to happen," said Vanessa Frank, who was sitting next to Wellwood.

In an interview following the meeting, Wellwood said she knew a family that just left one of those hotels for an apartment.

"Stable housing has just made such a huge difference for their kids," Wellwood said.

"Once people get stable housing, they're safe and they can do so much more."

Wellwood recently retired from Jewish Family Services where her job involved finding housing for immigrants and refugees. She was familiar with Mercy and Brothers. When she heard their proposals had won city approval "I thought, those are good, solid agencies with lots of experience," she said.

Frank, who lives across an alley from the proposed Brothers site, came to the meeting with skepticism. She said afterward she was reassured to hear Jeff Martinez, president of Brothers, speak of his plans to ensure security at the building and round-the-clock staffing and say that his team was considering ways to calm traffic in and out of the building.  She also learned the building would be four stories -- City Council had approved a rezoning that allows for buildings of up to five stories at the sites -- and saw a preliminary architect's rendering that included a courtyard along the alley.

"I think I was really worried it was going to be five stories," Frank said. "The design did sort of consider the block more than I anticipated."

Frank, who has been involved in talks about the sites for months, said she would have preferred market-rate apartments be included in the developments. She said she would join a steering committee being formed for the Brothers project.

Megan Yonke, the Denver Economic Development & Opportunity housing development officer overseeing the Mercy and Brothers projects on East Colfax, said the city asked the Brothers team to form the steering committee because such bodies have helped facilitate communication and been an opportunity to educate the public. Community outreach is an element of both the Mercy and Brothers proposed contracts, Yonke, who helped lead Tuesday's meeting, said in an interview Wednesday.

"We really feel like we're in a great moment of education about what we mean by supportive housing," she said.

She noted that Tim Roberts, president of the East Colfax Neighborhood Association and host of the meeting at his Counterpath publishing and exhibition space business near the Brothers site, had raised a question Tuesday night about opportunities for people living in the new housing and others in East Colfax to interact as neighbors.

"That is precisely what we're trying to get to in these conversations with neighbors," she said.

In further response to Wellwood's question, the city will coordinate with homelessness service providers to connect potential tenants to the Brothers project. Yonke said the city has learned of the important role service providers play in other efforts to house the homeless, including Denver's social impact bond program.

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Mental Health Center of Denver use police arrest data to identify some of the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness, then offer them housing and health, food, transportation, employment, legal and other support. Investors in the social impact bond that supports the pilot project launched in 2016 will get their money back and possibly more if the program meets performance goals. The city hopes that the program will cost less than repeatedly arresting and jailing people experiencing homelessness or caring for them in emergency rooms.

This article was updated to correct the cross street of the Brothers Inc. development near Colfax Avenue. It is Trenton Street, not Tremont Street.

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