Artist Lauri Lynnxe Murphy has rented more than 30 homes and studios in Denver. A developer, of all people, helped her buy a place of her own.
The lesson she learned: Developers can still make money selling to tenants rather than kicking them out and fixing and flipping.
Through her adulthood, artist Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, 55, has lived or worked in more than thirty places in Denver.
“I’ve been gentrified out of everywhere,” Murphy said as she sorted tree bark for a sculpture installation at RedLine Contemporary Art Center, where she’s in the middle of a two-year residency.
Though Murphy’s found more financial success than most artists, every time in her career she’s started gaining traction, crisis has hit the country — along with her bank account: September 11, the Great Recession and, more recently, COVID-19. Other than the 15 years she owned a home in North City Park with her ex-husband, whose name was on the mortgage, owning a place of her own never seemed like it was in the cards.
Over the past three decades, she’s worked various jobs including delivering singing telegrams and slinging drinks at classic Denver spots like Muddy’s, City Spirit, Rock Island and Cafe 13. In the early 2000s, she was a telemarketer in the mortgage industry. Her bosses were training her to be a loan officer, but she quit because they were telling her to lie to people about interest rates and whether they were offering fixed-rate mortgages (not long after, the housing bubble popped, in ’08). In the years since, she’s been a freelance writer, a gallery artist and an adjunct college professor, where she currently works full-time hours for part-time pay.
Through it all, she hasn’t brought in a regular, stable income and has sometimes lived on the brink of homelessness — particularly after her divorce. The idea of staying in Denver as rents have continued to climb has long been challenging — owning a home, impossible. Now, she’s as surprised as anybody that she bought a two-bedroom home in a duplex and will be enjoying a way of living she always assumed was out of reach.
Not long ago, Murphy was planning to leave Denver and travel full time in a homemade tiny home.
A few years back, after her divorce, Murphy was living out of her Five Points art studio in a warehouse and set out to build a tiny home to take on the road, making and exhibiting artwork and hosting workshops about environmental issues. She called the project the Mayday Experiment and chronicled her adventures in conception and construction in Westword.
But that very public dream was dashed after she fell at the gym, tore a ligament in her hip, wound up in the hospital and quickly ran out of money.
After that, she lost the will to continue working on her tiny-home project.
“I had spent a year building these amazing stairs, and I couldn’t climb them,” she said.
Needing the cash, she sold the tiny home to a couple who planned to live in the backyard of their parents’ house. They drove her handmade home away, and she never heard from them again.
After losing her tiny home, Murphy fought for housing for artists — even as she feared she would be evicted from her own studio and home.
Murphy lived out of her warehouse studio, creating large-scale sculptural works, for three years before the City of Denver began cracking down on artists living and working out of certain spaces. She subsidized rent by subletting the studio and hosting parties and gallery openings. Just after the 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland that killed 36 people at a dance party, Denver code enforcers began showing up to DIY venues and live-work spaces such as Rhinoceropolis and Juice Church and kicking artists out of their homes.
Even as Murphy — a natural-born activist — joined other artists and loudly opposed the city’s crackdowns on the cultural community with the organization Amplify Arts Denver, she continued living and working out of her own warehouse studio, afraid code enforcers would stop by and send her packing into homelessness. She no longer leased the space nor hosted events — and the cost of continuing to rent was becoming unbearable.
“The doorbell was ringing, and I’d have a panic attack,” she recalled. She would keep her lawyer on speed dial in case the City showed up to give her the boot. Clearly, she knew it was time to move — but she struggled to find a new place that she could afford and that would welcome her in. Living alone was too expensive, and most people looking for roommates were decades younger than she was. She considered leaving down, but her mom and brother lived in the area, and Murphy wanted to be close to family and the arts community where she had built a career.
“It took me two years to find a place to live,” she recalled. “And part of it was that I had no rental record after being married for so long. And part of it was that I couldn’t afford anything, and it was like all the roommate situations were millennials, and I don’t blame them for wanting to live with people their own age.”
After two years of looking, Murphy found a two-bedroom home she could afford to rent.
“I wound up taking over somebody’s old-Denver lease,” she said. “It was like below market rent I was paying. I think when I started, it was $750.”
Her new home, near Mississippi Avenue and Federal Boulevard, was in Athmar Park — a neighborhood where she saw some signs of gentrification, but nothing like she experienced in Five Points. The restaurants were good. The neighborhood was diverse. She had room to set up a garden and live a life she wanted.
After being there for a year, Murphy asked the owner if she could extend her lease for five years, and surprisingly, the landlord agreed. The contract was solid: Murphy had first right of refusal — which meant if her landlord decided to sell, she’d have the right to put in the first offer. The rate was affordable. And the five-year promise was comforting.
“I was finally to a point where I’d been there a couple years,” she said. “And I was getting stable again, financially. And it was good. I liked that.”
Yet even with a five-year lease, housing stability was not guaranteed.
A couple months after Murphy signed her second lease, the property owner, who was in her nineties, passed away, and her children inherited the home. Not long after, the property management company started hassling Murphy about moving tires she was using to grow potatoes and asking her to clean up her space so the owners could visit. Soon, a real estate agent showed up, and Murphy began to realize there were plans to sell in the works. Even though she had first right of refusal secured in her lease, nobody had bothered to let her know her home was for sale and even if they had, she didn’t see an obvious way she could buy.
Not long after, she received a call from a real estate agent working for Krista Macco, a small developer who was in the final steps of closing on the property. Macco had been told that the tenants in the space were willing and able to move, and it wasn’t until close to closing that she realized Murphy and the person living in the other unit both wanted to stay — and had some legal protection. At first, the agent offered Murphy $5,000. She balked.
“I was like, ‘No,’ and I called the lawyer, and then I got back with [the agent]. I said, ‘I will move for $40,000, because that’s the value — the difference between what I pay in rent and what I will be paying. Plus, I don’t have time to move.”
So Macco reached out directly. “After I told her $40,000, she’s like, ‘Well, I can’t afford that. I’m just a small developer, mom and pop, you know,’ and she ends the letter with, ‘I’m a reasonable person. I’m a mom, I’m a Democrat’ — and I’m like, ‘Oh Lord!'” recalled Murphy.
Murphy, who’s never been shy of carrying out a righteous crusade, was tempted to go to battle against Macco and started researching her background.
“I did like a full social-media stalking,” Murphy admits. “And of course, she’s like blonde and skinny and beautiful, and all her bridesmaids look like her.’ And I was like, ‘These are not my people.'”
Still, Murphy decided not to judge the woman based on her photos. “Because I’ve been to therapy, I didn’t go to war with her like I wanted to.” Instead, Murphy decided to share her own awful experiences in the Denver real estate market with the developer. “I told her my whole story of what I’d been through and how difficult it had been, and how I just felt traumatized by real estate. I was trying to stay here for my mom.”
Macco was moved.
“It was starting to feel like it was going to be a really sad story, you know, having them both move out, not being able to help them find a place and just so I could flip it and make a buck or two,” remembered Macco. “So, basically, we started to get creative.”
Macco offered to help Murphy find a place, and the artist laughed it off, knowing that getting such a good deal on rent would be impossible. Eventually, as they went back and forth, Murphy asked if she could rent to own. Macco couldn’t afford that but instead wrote back, “Let’s just turn the lemons of 2020 into lemonade. And I’m gonna help you buy this house,” said Murphy, who cried in gratitude over the offer.
Starting in January 2021, the developer worked with Murphy every step of the way. For starters, Murphy, who had always tried to avoid debt, had no credit cards and soon learned that was hurting her credit score. So Macco encouraged her to apply for a card and hooked her up with a credit specialist who helped her out. The developer helped the tenant secure a loan. The first officer they worked with refused to help out, so Macco connected Murphy with Nick White of the Community Banks of Colorado.
“When I talked to him, he was like, ‘You know, I don’t get to feel good in this business very often, but if I get this house for you, I get to feel good. I really want to do this,” Murphy remembered. Though she had to jump through hoops, including getting her boyfriend to co-sign, finally White was able to approve her loan.
Murphy used money from an art project she had created at the new Meow Wolf Denver installation, Convergence Station, to pay the down payment. Macco helped her every step of the way, connecting her with Jason Lewis of Ecospace Real Estate, who helped broker the deal.
“It took nine months, and she stuck by my side,” said Murphy.
Unlike most homebuyers, she did not have to compete with fellow buyers with higher bids. She bought her home for $280,000, $5,000 less than the appraised value. And Macco even paid most of the closing costs.
“She was just like, I don’t want to displace people,” explained Murphy. “She’s an old-Denver person, too. There’s not that many people like that.”
Macco made a profit on the deal and hopes other developers and investors work with tenants instead of pushing them out.
While Macco acknowledges she might have made more money on the deal if she had fixed up the house and flipped it, she still made a profit, and on a shorter timeline. She worked with both tenants in the duplex to help them buy but only succeeded with Murphy; the other tenant couldn’t secure a loan and was ultimately forced to move, Macco said. Now, she’s fixing up that space and getting ready to sell it.
As she continues her journey as an investor with her husband, they plan on finding ways to work with tenants to help them own their homes. With twenty properties around town and a new multifamily project in the works in Lakewood, she’s thinking critically about the ethics of which properties they buy and who gets kicked out in the process.
“There’s a lot of unfortunate instances where people are getting moved out of their homes, and they don’t have anywhere to go,” Macco said. “But investors — we don’t always have to make the bad-guy decisions. And there’s still money to be made, even if you’re not having to displace your tenants. And that’s what I learned.”
Murphy hopes other developers follow suit and find ways to work with tenants instead of displacing them.
Looking back on her journey toward home-ownership, Murphy admitted that sometimes it’s felt like guardian angels have had her back. But she does think there are some lessons that can be learned from her experience.
When people sign a lease, they should always add a clause for first right of refusal and insist that it is respected, she said. The city should incentivize landlords to sell to tenants rather than selling to developers coming in to fix and flip homes and should find ways to help renters who want to buy their homes and stay in place.
Murphy acknowledged how rare her experience has been and how the stars lined up to bring together a team of people who actually knew what they were doing and how to advocate for her — a skillset most homebuyers just don’t have.
She’s even started conversations with city officials about ways to incentivize owners and developers to sell to tenants rather than evicting them. Doing so, she hopes, will keep many longtime residents in the city and neighborhood communities intact.
“I got so fortunate. It’s crazy. I can’t believe I own a home, because I never expected to — especially in Denver,” she said. “And it was really going to be like my next move was away.”