To keep people in their homes, this arm of Denver’s government uses the same list predatory lenders use to uproot them

“We don’t want those people to lose they equity they’ve built.”
5 min. read
Irene Aguilar, former state senator and lead of Denver’s Neighborhood Equity and Stabilization Team, poses for a portrait. Sept. 19, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

She's a doctor who makes house calls.

Irene Aguilar also heads a city task force charged with fighting displacement. She and other city officials were knocking on doors in East Colfax this week offering advice on how not to get scammed by unscrupulous real estate speculators. In a way, the canvassing was about health, Aguilar said.

"Thinking about how you maintain health, basically you need shelter," she said.

Aguilar, a former state senator from Denver, took over about a year ago as head of Denver's Neighborhood Equity and Stabilization Team, or NEST, an arm of the city's economic development department. The task force brings together staff from multiple city departments to ensure that when newcomers are  drawn to neighborhoods transformed by development, established residents -- who often are impoverished and minorities -- aren't pushed out.

People weren't coming to NEST in the numbers Aguilar expected. She wasn't sure whether that was because they were skeptical government could help, or unaware of what the city had to offer.

"I'm surprised how often people I talk to don't realize the depth of services that are offered for them free of charge by the city," she said.

She decided not to wait for people to come to her for information about programs like emergency rental help, property tax exemptions and homeowner counseling. She and her staff started by brainstorming about who most needed to be contacted, and settled on asking the city treasurer for names of homeowners who were behind on property taxes.

They learned the treasurer often gets the same request from private citizens, some of whom may use the information to target people with offers to buy their homes or sell them loans. The information is public.

Armed with a list from treasury, NEST started in East Colfax, a neighborhood where houses are still relatively affordable, Aguilar said. Some longtime homeowners paid $50,000 or $60,000 decades ago for homes that now are worth much more.

Wednesday evening Aguilar led a multiagency team of about a dozen who fanned out in East Colfax. In two hours they knocked on 111 doors, 43 of which were opened.

Aguilar, who has canvassed as a statehouse candidate, found residents more receptive to being offered advice and information about housing than they had been to her political pitches.

Some of the staff who accompanied her to East Colfax had never participated in such an exercise. They developed a script to help guide conversations:

"Property values in Denver are really going up and we know that many people in East Colfax are having problems paying their property taxes," the script read in part. "We want to warn you to be careful because there are people who will try to trick you into taking a bad loan or mortgage deal and you could lose some of the value of your home. Some of these scammers call our city treasurer to find out who is late on their property taxes and then trick people into selling their home for less than it is worth."

Mailers with the same message could have been sent, but they might have gone straight to recycling bins. Phone calls could have gone unanswered.

"I just want to increase our likelihood of actually reaching the person," Aguilar said. "Too many things are happening in our world in an impersonal fashion."

Owning a home can help a family build wealth in a country where that opportunity has not always been available to all, Aguilar said. Several of the East Colfax homeowners contacted by her team reported getting flyers every day asking if they wanted to sell their homes, she said.

"We don't want those people to lose the equity they've built," Aguilar said.

She and her fellow canvassers left behind materials on the city's homeowner assistance programs. They also offered to connect residents with one-on-one counseling.

One woman expressed confusion about a recent change in her homeowner's insurance.  Aguilar offered to have a city staffer with expertise call. The woman gave Aguilar her phone number, but cautioned that she never answered when she saw an unfamiliar number on her phone screen.

Aguilar told her: "I'll tell them to leave a message and you can call them back."

"I thought, 'She just needs a little help,'" Aguilar said.

After the initial foray into East Colfax, Aguilar planned to work with the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative to canvass in Globeville, Elyria and Swansea. She'd also like to work from another list -- of homeowners who face liens on their property because they failed to respond to a citation for failing to maintain the property, for instance. In some cases it could be an elderly resident who needs help cutting the grass. She could be connected with a nonprofit for an assist, Aguilar said.

"I would love for, before they go to lien, they give the contacts to NEST," Aguilar said.

"If people were making living wages this wouldn't be as much of an issue," Aguilar said, speaking on the day Mayor Michael Hancock and City Councilwoman Robin Kniech were framing their push to gradually raise wages citywide as a means to ensure equality.

"It is a big societal problem," Aguilar said of economic inequities and the legacy of racism. "It's not just that Denver has a booming economy."

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