Melissa Diaz moved to Colorado from California fleeing from an abusive relationship. She previously worked for different health nonprofits but ultimately her own health took a toll on her.
Diaz said she eventually lost her housing and became homeless.
“Housing is vital. That’s where it all starts,” Diaz said. “When I was in California, I saw how mental health issues were tied to homelessness. You have to wonder if it’s tied to being in the street and the survival instincts that have to come along with that. When you’re in that position, you don’t go to the doctor. You don’t take care of yourself. You’re just living to survive the next day. Housing is where it starts.”
Diaz found that housing and told her story on a dreary yet inspiring day at the Viña Apartments, a new and affordable apartment complex in Elyria-Swansea, that’s been in the works since 2015.
What was once an industrial lot at 48th Avenue and Vine Street is now an 150-unit complex offering studios through three bedrooms near RTD’s N line station. Half of the units are for those earning between 30% and 50% of the area median income, or salary ranges of $22,050 to $36,700 for a single person. The remaining units will be available for those making up to 80% AMI, or $55,950 for a single person.
“The cost of housing is impacting so many folks in Denver and the affordability needed is clearly greatest among our lowest income earners,” said Britta Fisher, the executive director of Denver’s Department of Housing Stability. “Affordable housing is also needed across a range of incomes and this project will serve that range up… ensuring that people like teachers and first responders who work in Denver, can live here as well.”
Besides providing housing, Viña will also have retail space and will encompass the new Tepeyac Community Health Center. Tepeyac has worked in the Globeville-Elyria Swansea neighborhood for almost 30 years, providing medical services to primarily Latino and low-income residents.
The current center on Lincoln Street in Globeville is about 6,000 square feet. The new center will be about 24,000 SF and will be able to serve more residents.
“We started at a little North Denver bungalow … and it was the community that built our initial clinic, changing the two-bedroom home into two exam rooms,” said Center CEO Jim Garcia. “There’s all this growth happening around the neighborhood and I just think how important the work is we’re doing here to maintain the identity of this community and to put a stake in the ground in this community. This is where we are meant to be.”
The project idea first bloomed in 2015 when the Urban Land Conservancy purchased the six-acre site. The ULC is a real estate nonprofit that aims to preserve communities and prevent displacement and the organization partnered with Columbia Ventures to create the mixed-used development. Through a 99-year renewable land lease, the Viña site will remain affordable. The project was also funded by HOST, the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, and the Colorado Division of Housing.
In the courtyard of the complex, which includes a playground structure, seating and colorful butterfly murals created by graffiti-artist and muralist Jolt of Guerilla Garden, city officials, stakeholders and residents gathered for a circular ribbon cutting ceremony.
Erin Clark, the new Chief Real Estate Investment Officer with Denver Housing Authority, said the circular format was to ensure that everyone gets to cut a piece of the ribbon, including residents.
“Everyone was involved in this and we all want to be connected by this ribbon,” Clark said.
Diaz said she hopes the city continues focusing on low-income housing and she hopes the people who need it come forward. For Diaz, it was all about perseverance and making sure she wasn’t forgotten about.
“Be pushy but don’t be mean,” Diaz said. “If you don’t speak up for yourself, who will? I live off of about $1,500 a month. If I have to pay $1,000 for an apartment, how do I eat? I’m grateful that I have this option. This is the nicest place I’ve ever lived, I have to say that. I’ve had a compromised immune system for 33 years. I’m grateful my purpose isn’t done and I just keep going. Without a roof over my head, there’d be no way.”
Westwood has also received more affordable housing.
On Tuesday, west Denver residents and city officials celebrated the opening of Avenida Del Sol, an income restricted apartment building located on Morrison Road.
The three-story building, adorned with a mural from local artist Bimmer Torres, is a 79-unit complex offering one-, two- and three- bedrooms for those making between 30% and 80% AMI, or salary ranges from $22,050 to about $55,950 for a single person.
About a quarter of the units will be reserved for those between 30% and 40% AMI.
The building was developed by Gorman & Company, an income-restricted housing developer which has recently built several affordable complexes throughout Denver, including The Stella in Globeville and Terraza del Sol, located on the other side of Westwood.
Part of the $27.2 million project was funded by HOST through the Affordable Housing Fund. Other financiers include the Colorado Housing & Finance Authority and the Colorado Division of Housing.
Like Globeville and Elyria-Swansea residents, Westwood residents are at high risk for displacement. Both apartment complexes offer units solely for those who are considered “cost-burdened” in that 30% AMI range, which Councilwoman Jamie Torres said is desperately needed.
“It’s an option that doesn’t exist elsewhere,” Torres said. “We’re working on other kinds of requirements like the Expanding Affordable Housing policy, but that would still only touch, if we’re lucky 60 to 80% AMI, in private development. It shows that we have a huge gap for folks who are 30 to 60% AMI.”
The Expanding Affordable Housing proposal has been in the works since 2020. If passed by City Council, it would force market-rate developers that are building projects with 10 or more units to either create 8% to 12% income-restricted housing or pay a fee toward the city’s affordable housing fund.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated what city agency Erin Clark represents. We regret the error.