Five Points couple behind Agape church sets out to develop affordable housing

“Affordable housing is another way to serve.”

Robert and Eddie Woolfolk stand inside the Agape Christian Church in Five Points. May 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Robert and Eddie Woolfolk stand inside the Agape Christian Church in Five Points. May 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

When Eddie Woolfolk started employing men around her Five Points neighborhood to renovate housing, she saw it as part of the services her Agape Christian Church was offering the community.

Woolfolk is executive director of Community Outreach Service Center, a nonprofit she and her husband, Robert Woolfolk, who is Agape’s pastor, formed in 1988 that offers such support as financial counseling, computer classes, and tutoring for young people. Twenty years ago, after Eddie learned many of the neighbors she’d put to work as handymen were struggling to hold onto jobs and find housing because they had been in prison, the Community Outreach Service Center added to its programs transitional housing and counseling for ex-offenders.

Now the Woolfolks, who have been at Agape four decades, are becoming affordable housing developers. They are planning to raze a row of Victorian cottages that house men in their transitional program to build a four-story, 36-unit apartment building for the neediest Denverites, including people who have experienced homelessness, are disabled or have been in prison. It will be restricted to households that earn no more than 30 percent of area median income, which now is $19,500 a year for one person.

The ground-breaking near the light rail station at 27th & Welton will likely happen at the end of July.

“We’ve just been here for such a long time in the community,” Eddie said. “We just know a lot of people. We know a lot of people that are down and out and need the services we have to offer. That’s what we believe we are called to do, is to serve the people. And affordable housing is another way to serve. I’d like to develop the whole block. But I don’t own the whole block.”

In recent years, the Woolfolks have watched luxury apartment buildings rise in Five Points.

“There’s a whole new world’s been created in this area,” Robert said. “The average Joe and Jill can’t afford to live in Five Points.”

Robert and Eddie Mae Woolfolk stand inside the Agape Christian Church in Five Points. May 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Robert and Eddie Woolfolk stand inside the Agape Christian Church in Five Points. May 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

He and his wife have also seen homelessness rise as the cost of living has increased beyond the wages of many of the people the couple have come to know in Five Points. Several shelters and other places that support people experiencing homeless are in the neighborhood.

The Woolfolks, whose ministry includes food and clothing pantries, said it’s not unusual to find people sleeping on the steps of the church at 2501 California Street. The pastor and his wife ask their night visitors to keep their area tidy, saying they get compliance for the most part. During the day the guests are gone, some working at jobs that don’t pay enough to cover housing.

Eddie also manages property, and saw that as another means to contribute to employment needs in Five Points. She reached out to men she’d seen idle in the neighborhood and found they had the skills she needed to maintain and renovate some of the properties she handled. But the workers would miss days or show up late.

“We decided to just sit down and ask them, ‘What’s going on?'” she said.

She learned that some had been in prison and upon release found employers did not want to hire them and landlords did not want to rent to them because of their records. That instability led to more brushes with the law.

“We realized the prison system was just full of men of color. When they got out of prison, they had nowhere to go,” she said. “It’s so hard for a man once he gets out of prison to find decent work and decent housing.”

The men told her housing was a major need. That led to the couple founding  Charity’s House, Community Outreach Service Center’s transitional housing program.

“We started Charity’s House to keep men out of jail,” Eddie said.

Homes on Welton Street owned by Robert and Eddie Woolfolk of the nonprofit Charity's House. May 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Homes on Welton Street owned by Robert and Eddie Woolfolk of the nonprofit Charity's House. May 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Charity’s House, which can serve up to 15 men at a time, has a counselor who works with residents in such areas as fatherhood and substance abuse recovery. The program also has Bible study and offers help finding and retaining work. Robert said the goal is to help men become “able to manage their lives.”

The Woolfolks have found it increasingly difficult to find permanent housing for Charity’s House participants as Denver housing costs rise. While the apartment building they are developing won’t be exclusively for men coming out of prison, they are expected to be among the tenants. Eddie said she planned to work with other transitional programs to ensure men leaving prison still have places to go to prepare them to live on their own.

The Woolfolks have experienced the gentrification sweeping Five Points in the form of daily calls from developers trying to buy either their church, built in 1887 as a German Methodist congregation, or the row of Victorian cottages that house their transitional program. None of the developers who called wanted to partner with them in an affordable housing project, something they’ve been dreaming of for years.

Finally, Eddie said, she was put in touch with a developer partner by Ray Stranske, founder of Hope Communities, a nonprofit known for affordable housing projects in Five Points.

Stranske introduced the Woolfolks to BlueLine Development, a Montana company that specializes in affordable housing and has worked before with churches in the Denver area, including Saint John’s, Denver’s Episcopal Cathedral. That project, known as the Saint Francis Apartments at Cathedral Square, has 49 units and support services for people who have recently experienced homelessness. BlueLine also built a 50-unit, low-income, permanent supportive housing complex on land that Aurora’s Elevation Christian Church sold to the Second Chance Center, a nonprofit that provides job training, mentoring and other support for people who were once incarcerated.

The Woolfolks connected “with BlueLine after we talked with I don’t know how many developers,” Eddie said. “BlueLine was willing to take on our project.”

Churches tend to have land in the city — near shopping and transit — that’s going unused as their congregations dwindle. The churches that partner with BlueLine by making land available usually want the project to house the most vulnerable, and that often entails bringing in another partner to help manage the housing. With the Woolfolks, BlueLine has one partner with both the land and the experience supporting people who need more help than most to stay housed. The Woolfolks and the Mental Health Center of Denver will provide counseling and other support for tenants.

“I’m just thrilled that I get to work with the Woolfolks,” said Oriana Sanchez, a Denver-based project manager for BlueLine Development.

BlueLine brings expertise in piecing together the financing puzzle it takes to build housing that can be offered at below market rate rents. Last week,  the Colorado Department of Local Affairs’s Division of Housing announced it had awarded the Woolfolks and BlueLine a $1.2 million grant to build Charity’s House Apartments. Sanchez said vouchers from the Denver Housing Authority and tax credits also were being deployed. She said the $13 million project has been in the works for about four years.

Construction, particularly of affordable housing, was exempt from the stop-work orders imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Sanchez said she expected Charity’s House Apartments to open as scheduled in August of 2021.

Robert said he expected the impact of the coronavirus to increase the need not only for affordable housing, but for work. He envisioned neighbors helping build Charity’s House Apartments.

“This will give us an opportunity to train people so they can move forward,” he said.

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