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Denver’s Westwood warily watches redevelopment happen. Can it stay true to its roots when gentrification looms?

In this predominantly Latino community, residents -- and city government -- have mobilized to minimize displacement, even as they embrace improvement. But trust is elusive.

Looking down Morrison Road toward downtown Denver from Westwood on Jan. 15, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Mayra Martinez can roll out of bed in an apartment that’s among the newest construction in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood and slip behind her desk at the law firm across the street in a matter of minutes.

She pays a little over $1,000 a month for the one-bedroom space, utilities included. That’s a bargain in the city’s bloated rental market, because her complex contains affordable housing for tenants who make no more than 60 percent of the area’s median income.

Martinez caught the wave of redevelopment that’s in the early stages of transforming Westwood from a long-ignored, mostly Latino community with too few parks, no full-service grocery, no recreation center and an extreme mash-up of residential homes into … well, that remains to be seen.

Plans abound for the nearly rectangular patch of southwest Denver bounded by Alameda and Mississippi avenues from north to south and Federal and Sheridan boulevards from east to west. Morrison Road, with all its potential as a commercial and cultural corridor, cuts a slashing diagonal that points to the downtown skyline. But like other working-class urban enclaves before it, Westwood now appears on the radar as a blip of affordability, opportunity and possibility.

Ripe for gentrification.

Martinez, 27, has spent more than half her life in this community and recognizes the mixed blessing of attention that — even as the city, nonprofits and community groups work to steer it in an equitable direction — forecasts change. Depending on point of view, that change either threatens or enhances this slice of city life.

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“It’s sad to see so many people leave who lost their homes and relocated because they can’t afford rent that’s so expensive,” she says. “It’s good to see different kinds of people joining the neighborhood — it’s always good to be different — but it’s sad to see people losing their homes.”

She’s talking about the other words associated with gentrification, the ones with slightly less political shading: Involuntary displacement. Martinez watched as an 86-year-old neighbor wound up moving to Pueblo because of rising rent in the neighborhood. And she has seen others leave — some willingly, some less so — when the apartments she now calls home replaced a deteriorating trailer park that housed about 70 families and more than 250 residents.

Still, Westwood remains very much a community on the cusp of change — one that has seen an influx of new residents, yet retains its Latino identity even as the area’s demographics, to the eyes of locals, slowly trend whiter and more affluent. It’s a neighborhood that hasn’t reached a cultural tipping point but remains at risk for gentrification, according to a 2016 study done by the city. At-risk neighborhoods meet at least two of these three criteria: median income lower than Denver’s; percentage of renter-occupied units higher than Denver’s; percentage of residents with less than a bachelor’s degree higher than Denver’s. Westwood meets all three.

The 2016 study also took note of an analysis done by Governing magazine that evaluated certain census tracts for rising home values and more educated residents as evidence of gentrification. Denver ranked seventh among the nation’s 50 largest cities with more than 42 percent of “eligible” tracts showing those telltale signs.

After witnessing the metamorphosis of areas like Five Points and the Highlands, where economics rearranged not only the cityscape but also the cultural landscape, Denver’s planners resolved to oversee more measured development.

Denver found “no magic bullet” to rewrite the gentrification script that has already delivered negative impacts to some communities. But it outlined a dozen recommendations that could be implemented — and in some cases, already have been — to ensure that neighborhoods in the early stages of transition avoid involuntary displacement.

The issue flared last year when ink! Coffee in Five Points posted a sign that read, “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014” — sparking a backlash that focused attention on the term’s racial connotation and elicited an apology from the owner. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock referenced that incident as he reaffirmed in last year’s State of the City speech that addressing gentrification would remain a priority.

He also addressed one of the report’s recommendations, announcing the creation of the Neighborhood Equity and Stabilization Team, or NEST, that would seek to “blunt any threatened loss of culture, character and community that investment can cause.” Former state Sen. Irene Aguilar in October became the team’s director, working to leverage seven city agencies, including the Office of Economic Development, Denver Human Services, and Human Rights and Community Partnerships, as well as a variety of community resources to support local residents and businesses.

One of the key findings of the city’s study emphasized that to manage gentrification, access to economic opportunity needs to play a role in public investment. National studies have shown that the answer isn’t slowing redevelopment, but rather keeping residents in place while neighborhood improvements create new economic opportunities around them.

It’s a tricky dance, managing growth in the midst of an urban population boom. Neighborhoods naturally evolve over time, and ethnic enclaves have shifted in Denver as the region has grown. But the pace of change in some communities has raised a caution flag as the city races to accommodate growth, improve quality of life and, amid the redevelopment, avoid massive uprooting of established residents and culture.

“I’ve tried to work on my language, because it’s not really anti-gentrification so much as anti-displacement,” Aguilar says of her team’s focus. “Really, we want the city to get nicer and better. We just don’t want that to mean if you don’t have money you can’t be here.”

Moonlight Ranch, located on Morrison Road near the intersection of South Osceola Street and Custer Place in what is now Westwood, was a Prohibition-era speakeasy run by organized crime leader Mike Rossi, his wife, Caroline, and later, Chicago gunman Diamond Jack Alterie and his wife, Ermina Rossi. More on the Moonlight Ranch here. (Courtesy of Denver Public Library)

Westwood’s blue-collar roots

Practically from the start, Westwood was a blue-collar town — and yes, for a short stretch it was a town — ignored by Denver for decades until its annexation in 1947. Many residents contend the city has ignored it for decades since. Until now.

On open land beyond Denver’s borders, P.T. Barnum of circus fame — “The Greatest Show on Earth” — bought 760 acres and laid out a subdivision in 1882 that eventually grew, as other developers joined in over the years, south along Morrison Road. Cheap land and lax building requirements fostered a dense and diverse array of living structures.

When World War II erupted, so did Westwood, as workers at the Denver Ordnance Plant, the massive 1941 federal project built in Lakewood to generate millions of rounds of ammunition per day, found the area a convenient spot to call home. After the war, returning veterans also settled there in inexpensive housing.

MAPS: How gentrification has reshaped Denver

The Colorado Sun analyzed four dimensions of change — race/ethnicity, poverty, education and income level — that measure the neighborhoods of Denver most transformed by new residents. >> Click here to see the maps.

“I counted 23 trailer parks in this neighborhood back in the ’40s and ’50s,” says Michelle Schoen, president of the Westwood Residents Association who has researched the community’s history. “This has always been a low-income, blue-collar area. If you look at maps of the neighborhood, in 1937 it was mostly farms. The next aerial photo, from 1952, all of a sudden there’s this massive explosion of homes, trailers, businesses.”

The trailer parks have slowly disappeared, though not completely. Among the single-family dwellings packed into the neighborhood today — with a population density for its roughly 16,000 residents that’s more than double Denver’s average — most tend toward the smaller side. Design and condition vary wildly even within a single block.

Nonetheless, for-sale signs have become fixtures while properties already sold undergo spruce-ups or even massive renovation. Still, Westwood remains one of Denver’s more affordable areas, relatively speaking. Listings on Zillow.com run from the $200,000s for well under 1,000 square feet to more than $400,000 for about 1,600 square feet.

But for many residents — and now former residents — home ownership remains a dream, and just making rent has proved difficult, if not insurmountable.

Familiar language, affordable rent

Yuridia Bahena, who arrived in Denver in 2001 from Mexico via Chicago, says through an interpreter that she settled in Westwood because “it’s where I felt welcome, because the majority of the community spoke my language.” Many local residents share a common language, culture and immigration background, including those who have lived here illegally — in some cases for decades.

Bahena had no trouble finding affordable housing in the neighborhood — even at market rate — until recently. In December 2017, she explains, her landlord sold the property and gave her one month to vacate.

She says that the approaching holidays, plus the fees of $200 or more for each rental application, made the process of finding new housing difficult. Complicating matters, she had to undergo surgery in early January, so she put her belongings in storage and stayed with a relative after leaving the hospital.

At market rates, she says she needed nearly $6,000 to cover the first and last months’ rent plus deposit. She eventually found a place — but not in Westwood.

Sixty-four-year-old Aurora Perez built a life for herself and her daughters over 20 years in Westwood. Three years ago, between jobs and desperate for a place she could afford, she found something inexpensive. But the place, she recalls, was in such disrepair that it lacked heat and water and had been trashed by homeless drug abusers.

The owner said she could stay there for $400 a month.

Gradually, she made what improvements she could to the property at her own expense. She added some windows, fixed the lights and repaired the drain. She asked the landlord to deduct her costs from the rent. He told her she knew the condition of the place when she moved in and could leave if she didn’t like it.

“But I had already invested too much money,” Perez says, through an interpreter.

Despite the hardships, it had started to feel like home when the owner sold and gave her a month to leave.

“We couldn’t do anything,” she says. “We couldn’t find anything around the neighborhood. The situation became so hard. The rents were so high.”

Cold economics and bad luck also conspired to put Schoen on the verge of displacement. She moved to Colorado from Washington, D.C., in 2007 and got married just as the Great Recession began. She and her husband found a foreclosed property that had been vacant for a year and bought the house, badly in need of repair, for $115,000.

“It wasn’t a perfect house, but it was perfect for us,” she says. “That’s how we ended up in Westwood. We found the house we fell in love with.”

Then she fell in love with the neighborhood. Being white, she was the “oddball,” but that suited her fine. “We don’t see anyone any different than us,” Schoen says. “We’ve all got our struggles. I don’t care if you’re undocumented or where you came from. If you need help, we’ll help you. We’re all in this together.”

She cultivated her large yard and met neighbors by taking them fresh produce. When her husband was out of work and they tried to get by on savings, she made extra money by making blackberry habanero jam from the blackberries that grew along her fence. Anything to make ends meet.

Still, they lost the house. By luck, they found a Westwood rental and managed to remain close by. For a blue-collar neighborhood, Westwood has become expensive, Schoen notes. And with the redevelopment that already has begun to improve the physical surroundings, she can see both the benefits for some and the looming hardship for others.

“It’s good if you’re a homeowner who can afford the property-tax increase,” Schoen says. “That’s a big if. Yes, rising property values can be a good thing. You have more equity in your home, more money in your pocket if you want to buy something else. But what about if you’re on a fixed income, or undocumented and only make so much money? What do you do then? It’s not all good, and it’s not all bad. It’s rough.”

Many on the verge of being priced out

Count Schoen among those who feel they’re hanging on to Westwood by their fingernails. After losing one home and finding a rental almost by accident, she looks at the rising real estate market, considers that her landlord recently retired and can’t help but wonder if it’s only a matter of time before he cashes out and she becomes one of the involuntarily displaced.

Maybe she and her husband could find another rental. But probably not here, where in June, when Schoen broke her knee and was homebound for 10 weeks, neighbors brought dinner and stopped by to visit “to make sure I wasn’t losing my mind.” Even her El Salvadoran neighbors, who speak almost no English, would manage to communicate: Are you OK? Do you need something?

“I love living here,” Schoen says, and then channels P.T. Barnum. “It’s the best place on Earth. I’ve got the best neighbors, I really do. If something happens, they’re always there. That’s what makes this neighborhood, the people. It’s not the condition of the houses, not anything material. It’s the people.”

Jesus Olivas, an employee at a clinic on Morrison Road, waits for a take-out order at Kahlo’s restaurant in the Westwood neighborhood on Jan. 16, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Recession made Westwood vulnerable

Paul López, Denver’s District 3 councilman who will finish his final term this spring, can sum up Westwood’s history in a word: “Disrespected.”

“What we tried to do when I came into office was change that story and turn that around,” he says. “Streets were old and in disrepair, you had trash-ridden alleys, alleys that hadn’t been paved in I don’t know how long.”

But just a year into his first term, the recession struck and local residents lost jobs and homes. Even rental properties went vacant. And that, he claims, made Westwood particularly vulnerable to gentrification. Investors bought homes cheap that they’re now selling top-of-market. And the people who normally bought those homes, the blue-collar working class, can no longer afford them.

City Councilman Paul López, posing here for a portrait on Jan. 17, 2019, in Westwood, grew up in the neighborhood and has worked to advance improvements there during his time on the council. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Even those who managed to stay, he adds, can find themselves in difficult financial straits. Some took on a lot of debt during the downturn and, if they didn’t lose their home, borrowed against it.

“I’ve seen folks with a lot of credit issues, and the only way out is to sell,” López says. “There are also other folks who see their property value increase and figure this is the time to capitalize on it, as anybody else would.”

Despite the economic challenges, López points to significant wins for the neighborhood on his watch: The construction of Cuatro Vientos Park along Alameda Avenue — the community’s first new park in 30 years; securing the bond that ranks as the second-highest investment in any single council district; a recycling program; a blossoming art program that bathes the streetscape in color while kids in juvenile diversion wash graffiti off walls.

From 2011-18, the city’s Office of Economic Development invested more than $11 million in Westwood, spreading the money across business development, neighborhood improvements, affordable housing, and workforce development and a 1.7-acre land acquisition by the nonprofit Re:Vision, which encourages both healthier eating and entrepreneurship.

“For me, what’s equally important as paved streets and community art, new trees and parks, is people whose spirits are lifted and walk through neighborhood with heads held high,” López says. “When I was younger, we were taught it was shameful to say you were from Westwood. Now they say it with pride.”

But after other Denver neighborhoods gentrified and with many more at risk, that pride comes tempered by fear that many of those who put their backs into making Westwood a better place to live might be displaced before they can experience the neighborhood’s long-term vision.

Cuatro Vientos / Four Winds Park, the first new park built in the neighborhood in 30 years, pictured at dusk on Jan. 18, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Jeff Romine, Denver’s chief economist, understands the frustration with what seemed to happen so quickly — and so completely — in an area like Five Points. But he points to the convergence of several circumstances that accelerated private investment levels beyond what anyone had seen in Denver for years.

Part of the formula involves what he calls the “re-realization” that the city’s core neighborhoods have a lot to offer, a trend that has gathered momentum over the past decade. Then came the recession in 2007 that brought investment to a halt. Gradually, the city began to pump money into several areas — and private investment followed, much earlier than in other cities still mired in the recession. And it produced wildly different outcomes from neighborhood to neighborhood.

While parts of the city still reeled from disinvestment, some core areas changed dramatically. And that’s what has some residents in Westwood and other at-risk communities uncertain whether redevelopment can really be managed or if they’re powerless against the economic forces that have reimagined other Denver neighborhoods.

“The unfortunate part is yes, some people got relocated and may not come back to that neighborhood,” Romine says. “What we’re trying to do is help the community create the community they want. That’s the hard part of this work, as far as community revitalization. You can interview 100 people, but there’s no right answer. There’s an art and science to this.”

Even the math has an element of subjectivity.

Forecasting the impact of investment

In July, the city solicited bids from consultants to develop an investment impact tool — an inexact but potentially useful means for gauging what sort of effects public and private investment might be expected to have on a given neighborhood. The idea is to provide a heads-up for residents so they can make informed decisions.

The model remains in the formative stages, but Romine explains that in practice it might go something like this: The city decides to build a new recreation center in a neighborhood. The private sector sees this and decides to invest in that neighborhood. The housing market begins to rise, and renters see their monthly obligation jump. If the investment impact tool can predict those trends at the time the investment begins, perhaps the city steps in to ramp up its outreach for home ownership assistance.

Potential homebuyers then have the choice to move ahead of the curve, saving themselves potentially tens of thousands of dollars on the purchase of a home, thus securing a means of staying in the neighborhood.

Romine says he hopes to see “base scenarios” for every Denver neighborhood by late spring, with the city running some neighborhood projection scenarios in early summer. Westwood is among the first neighborhoods the city wants to examine with the new tool, whose results will be available on the city’s web site.

López would like to see the city’s residents have another option: some form of rent control. Not necessarily the New York City variety, but a means to ensure through regulation sufficient inventory of affordable rentals. That might mean requiring developers to set aside some percentage of a project’s housing units as affordable.

“The first victims of any kind of gentrification are renters,” López says. “That, we do not have a tool for. Not yet. If the state legislature can lift the prohibition on cities and let them regulate the rental market, let home rule cities decide for themselves what tools they want to use, they should.”

Former state senator Irene Aguilar, director of Denver’s Neighborhood Equity and Stabilization Team, or NEST, poses for a portrait in the Denver City and County Building on Jan. 29, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Rent control has never been an easy sell in Colorado. In 2012, when Aguilar served in the state Senate, she recalls running a uniform landlord-tenants rights bill. It proved a bruising legislative battle in a state that traditionally has viewed any type of rent control as a non-starter.

“It started out as 72 pages,” Aguilar says of her bill, “and ended up listing just three rights. It lost anyway.”

This year, with Democratic majorities in both chambers, the idea of regulating the rental market will get another look. But whether there’s enough enthusiasm for such a measure remains an open question.

Aguilar notes that the city also is looking at where it might invest in real estate — an effort already underway in the Globeville neighborhood and East Colfax Avenue — with the goal of providing more affordable housing. Other cities, she adds, have put aside money earmarked for the purchase of properties and enacted an ordinance giving the city right of first refusal on a property sale.

Yet another tool that might prove useful, particularly in Westwood, where extended Latino families often live under the same roof, is to allow the construction of “accessory dwelling units,” Aguilar adds. That would permit homes with significant yard space to erect another living unit on the property — something that could either accommodate family more comfortably or become a source of income and equity.

“We like for communities like Westwood to be nicer and not perceived to be inferior in terms of quality of education or access to goods and services,” Aguilar says. “We want that to happen at the same time people who live there can stay there. That’s part of economic mobility. Anti-displacement efforts need to focus not on a place for these people to go but for them to have choice of neighborhood and be able to stay there.”

A woman has a bite to eat at Kahlo’s restaurant on Morrison Road in the Westwood neighborhood of Denver on Jan. 26, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Morrison Road: “It’s our Main Street”

The long-term vision for Westwood in many ways begins with a vision for Morrison Road.

Lined with an inordinate number of auto body, repair and tire shops, it also has enough restaurants and storefronts — and more important, potential — to hint at a “linear mercado,” or marketplace. Local leaders envision a Mexican cultural district, in much the way that the stretch of Vietnamese-owned businesses along South Federal Boulevard has become known as Little Saigon.

Just a year ago, Denver’s city council passed the bond (later approved by voters) that will pump nearly $50 million into Westwood, with $37.5 million earmarked for a recreation center and $12.2 million to bring Morrison Road closer to the community focal point described in the neighborhood master plan.

“The vision there, it was so much more than just junkyards and auto body shops,” López says. “It’s our Main Street.”

He rattles off the community efforts that begin along this thoroughfare and spread throughout the neighborhood: there’s Re:Vision, the nonprofit dedicated to bringing new life to this “food desert,” in part by encouraging hundreds of families to grow their own vegetables; there’s the food co-op to fill the grocery store void; restaurants have opened.

“A person would right away think, ‘gentrification,’” López says. “That’s not gentrification. That’s what you call thoughtful and responsible community development.”

Also occupying offices along the thoroughfare are key players like Westwood Unidos, a community group that organized to address the concerns of a neighborhood heavily populated by immigrants, mostly Spanish speakers and many who’ve been here for years illegally. BuCu West, the nonprofit that nurtures the intersection of business and culture, works to rev the neighborhood’s entrepreneurial spirit on a street well-positioned to become a cultural and economic corridor.

“It feels very much like a small town,” says José Esparza, BuCu West’s executive director. “People wave at you. On Morrison Road, if you’re walking up and down the street, you’re going to see someone you know if you’re from this neighborhood.”

As the city recognized in its 2016 study, part of the solution to inoculate the neighborhood against displacement is economic. BuCu West has instituted programs to lower barriers to entrepreneurship so that locals can launch their own businesses. Esparza points to a family-owned convenience store that BuCu West helped get off the ground. Now the owner is looking to open a second business.

BuCu West also has purchased Kitchen Network, a dozen commercial kitchens in a space on Morrison Road that plays a role in helping about 150 specialty food businesses a year, with one kitchen leased back to the organization to house a bottling company that employs six local residents, who eventually will become stockholders.

“It fits our mission in terms of supporting entrepreneurs,” Esparza says of the kitchens, which hope to expand their services to more food trucks, caterers, bakers, wholesalers and retailers.

Jose Esparza, executive director of BuCu West, an organization dedicated to helping entrepreneurs in the Westwood neighborhood, is pictured in his office on Jan. 17, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Our approach has been to put culture and the people who are here at the forefront. In that sense, we have a brand, we have an image, and we want to stick to that image. We want to build on what’s already here.”

That means locally run businesses supported by the community that may not reach a grand economic scale but will allow the people who live and work in Westwood to create a sustainable future.

“Some private equity guy is going to say, ‘Those returns aren’t enough for me.’ And we’re saying, those returns are perfect for us,” Esparza says. “Slow is perfect for us. It’s not cookie-cutter, brought to you by corporations. It’s brought to you directly by individuals who’ve lived here for generations.”

Fighting a food desert by growing in the neighborhood

Just down the street from BuCu West, the nonprofit Re:Vision also works toward economic empowerment as a means for warding off displacement. For nearly a decade it has fostered self-sufficiency — and healthier eating — among neighborhood households through its garden program, in which people known as promotoras, or community health workers, help families grow their own vegetables.

Nine promotoras each handle a group of households, visiting about three times a month to make sure that the gardens get the care they require. Re:Vision communications director JoAnna Cintron notes that this year the promotoras served 280 families, compared to nine in the program’s first year.

Homeowners in the garden program have paid on an income-based sliding scale, starting at $40 a season for families making less than $35,000 a year. That includes compost, seeds, mentoring and an irrigation system. The highest charge was $100 for families making over $60,000. The actual cost to the program, Cintron says, runs about $500 per family. A grant from the Colorado Health Foundation helps cover the expense.

The promotoras let families choose what they grow — cabbage, okra, tomatoes, kale, brussel sprouts, onions, zucchini, squash —  so they garden vegetables they like to eat. In many cases, the gardens produce more than a family can immediately consume, so Re:Vision offers classes in an educational kitchen to teach everything from farm-to-table cooking to canning and preserving.

The program, like some of the vegetables it produces, has grown organically, mostly by word of mouth, since its inception. Families “graduate” after five years in the garden program and often become mentors for new families. Over its lifetime, Cintron estimates, the promotoras have helped cultivate about 2,000 gardens for 600 families.

“The main issue we’re seeking to solve is food access in this area, a food desert,” she says. “This community has tremendous capacity. Once you alleviate basic needs — food, housing and health — communities start to thrive and excel in areas that they are knowledgeable about.”

Mayra Olivas tends to a crop in a shipping container greenhouse operated by Re:Vision in Westwood on Jan. 18, 2019. Olivas works as a “promotora,” educating the community about the aims of Re:Vision, and also recruits participants. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The organization takes economic empowerment a step further with Re:Unite, which aims to develop leaders in the community, specifically women. All of the promotoras are women, most of them from Mexico, and Re:Vision has invested $1 million over the last 10 years in their wages and professional development, Cintron estimates. Now, some are starting their own businesses.

The big-picture idea: Build wealth in the neighborhood and keep it in the neighborhood. Another program, called Re:Own, sets out a long-term vision for how to address the threat of gentrification by locally growing entrepreneurs and showcasing them along Westwood’s primary thoroughfare.

The current food co-op, a large building next door to Re:Vision that will soon move its operation a few doors down, will become an art center with classroom space and a commercial kitchen to, for instance, help convert the in-home practice of salsa making from “that side hustle” to a legitimate business, Cintron explains.

What does salsa have to do with gentrification? Everything.

“We are trying our hardest to take that stand and say it’s no longer OK to completely erase a neighborhood’s identity and culture in the name of redevelopment and economic growth,” Cintron says. “Are we an anti-gentrification nonprofit? No. That’s not our mission, it will never be our mission. But our work ideally helps build the capacity of the community so they can be the forces against gentrification.”

Indira Guzman, who spent much of her youth living in Westwood, where her father was a pastor and her mother served as a parent liaison at Monroe Elementary School, has worked as an interpreter during many community meetings. She notes that many Latino residents — herself included — have pooled resources to create rotating savings and credit mechanisms called tandas.

Each member contributes a weekly amount to a pool, and then they take turns, sometimes according to need, collecting the entire sum. The informal credit system flows from that.

“It happens naturally within cultural circles,” Guzman says. “The credit system has to be more planned out. Tandas is organic — it’s just, ‘Let’s get together and do this.’”

Many of the same residents who participate in tandas also have coalesced into a grassroots organization called Our Home, Our Rights, that advocates on behalf of keeping current residents in Westwood.

The power of home equity

Many locals still have another weapon: home equity. Although home ownership has dipped in Westwood since the recession, López suggests that more homeowners need to understand the capital they might be sitting on, and learn to leverage it without feeling they must sell to realize its benefits or dig themselves out of debt.

“You want them to be able to hang onto that capital if they own it,” he says.

Renters, on the other hand, sometimes depend on the kindness of landlords.

Occasionally, tenants like Mayra Olivas, a Re:Vision promotora, land in properties owned by individuals who don’t care to sell to the highest bidder or jack up rents to keep pace with the market. She and her family have lived in the same house for eight years.

But she remains keenly aware that many others aren’t so lucky. Olivas says 24 families left the organization’s garden program this year, and half of them were forced by economics to leave the neighborhood to find housing.

And though she’s hopeful that the positive changes to Westwood as development continues will be something her family can enjoy, she realizes it may not be long before they find themselves on the wrong side of the economic equation.

“It’s a real fear, because we’re seeing that gentrification is advancing more and more,” Olivas says. “And it’s true that maybe we’re not going to be here when the changes are actually completed. But my hope is that we’re going to be the seed, and that we’re planting it, and other people will get the fruit of it.”

Hazardous conditions inside mobile home parks on Morrison Road, seen on the left in May 2016, prompted the city to consider closing them down. Eventually, a deal was struck to help relocate or buy out residents as the land was redeveloped into the Del Corazon apartments, seen on the right. (Left photo provided by Ryan Dravitz Photography, right photo by Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A trailer park’s transformation highlights redevelopment challenges

The Shady Nook and Belmont mobile home parks, which for years straddled Morrison Road near the southwest border of Westwood, provided affordable housing in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The median household income has hovered at slightly more than half of Denver’s citywide figure while about one-third of families live in poverty.

But the parks also triggered a string of complaints about hazardous living conditions that ranged from gas leaks to exposed electrical wires to downed fences, problems that councilman López fielded from tenants and eventually referred to the fire department, which found even more safety violations.

“Normally, when you see that kind of nonconforming use, the city shuts it down,” López says.

But with residents depending on the relatively low-cost housing, the situation called for something less drastic and more creative as López weighed the options of redevelopment or inaction.

“Are you kicking people out or watching the place burn?” he says. “I’d rather be the person that addresses the issue. And so what we did was partner with the developer. We finally had somebody who said, ‘We can make this work.’”

That somebody was Charlie Woolley, founder and president of the St. Charles Town Co., which has done urban development and management in Denver for 25 years. Woolley, who lived in Five Points in the 1980s, before its transformation, had developed a reputation for forward thinking, responsible development with projects along East Colfax Avenue — the Lowenstein Theater project among them — and already had done a project that provided Westwood with low-income housing in the midst of the recession.

And so, Woolley recalls, around 2010 the owner of the trailer parks, under increasing pressure to make improvements, called him to see if they could work out a deal, which eventually became the outright sale of the 4.5-acre property. That led to a partnership between Woolley and the city in which Denver helped with high land costs and strategy for dealing with the park’s residents.

From left, Jordan Zielinski, Darren Grommeck and Charlie Woolley. The three are the principal developers from the St. Charles Town Company, which built Del Corazon Apartments. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

That relocation effort was complicated by the sometimes convoluted ownership scenarios in a mobile home park. The park owners usually own the land and rent lots to tenants, who might either own their trailer or rent it from a third party. Those details had to be sorted out.

Qualifying residents were given choices. They could accept a rent differential so they could afford another place of their choosing, in some cases for up to five years. If they owned their trailer, they could accept a replacement trailer comparable in size, but compliant with safety and sanitation requirements. Or they could accept a cash buyout.

“We had a few moments where the community felt we were doing a horrible thing,” Woolley says. “Communication around the community was difficult, with language barriers, lots of residents who were non-U.S. citizens. The culture around a place like that becomes so guarded, it’s hard to get your true messages out.”

Guzman, the interpreter, also helped out in meetings that preceded the redevelopment.

When residents saw the plans for the multi-story apartment complex, she recalls, they insisted they didn’t want to live in gallineros — chicken coops. They thought that’s what apartments were,” Guzman says. “Stacked on top of each other. No place for kids to play. They kept saying, ‘We don’t want that.’”

But she says that through community outreach during the displacement “a lot of people were able to buy property, condos, a trailer in Brighton. They were able to buy something nice.”

Wooley notes nearly each of the 70 trailer homes had a different set of circumstances to address, but “one by one by one, we developed criteria.”

But it also meant that most residents had to move out of Westwood. It took 18 months to raze the trailer park — none of the trailers could be salvaged — and construct the Del Corazon complex.

Woolley says most of those who chose to stay in trailer homes resettled in parks west of Interstate 25 along about a 3-mile corridor from Westminster to Sheridan — with many locating near other family members.

“There are a lot of arguments around the neighborhood and people are divided in the sense that you want improvement, but you don’t want too much too fast,” says Esparza, the BuCu West director, whose office sits a few blocks away from Del Corazon on Morrison Road. “I don’t think that’s what happened there. I think it was a complex project with a lot of families that were accounted for, interviewed and, overall, the community had a lot of input on what they wanted out of that site. Those apartment buildings are a great improvement.”

Easy to make promises that can’t be kept

Some in Westwood still aren’t fans of the project, and can’t think of anyone from the former trailer park who returned to claim an apartment. Schoen, the residents’ association president, saw friends uprooted by the relocation.

“They shipped them all out,” she says. “Lakewood, Commerce City, Brighton — all gone. They were promised they would get first dibs on an apartment. Here’s the problem with saying that. Most of them didn’t qualify for normal federal government assistance in their relocation. There are a lot of undocumented in the neighborhood. So it was really easy to make a promise that you weren’t going to have to keep.”

Woolley acknowledges that federal rules can make it difficult, though not impossible, for non-U.S. citizens to qualify for some affordable housing. But he describes another reason that many of the parks’ tenants chose to leave.

“Any prudent person, given the option to own a much-improved home in a good place vs. taking some income for a period and coming back to a beautiful apartment, you’d take the equity,” he says.

When Del Corazon was completed last spring, it provided 197 units of affordable housing, mostly two- and three-bedroom apartments spread over three stories, to replace the 70 trailers.

Sidewalks and a crossing signal also were installed on Morrison Road, where pedestrian safety has long been an issue. A pocket park with a soccer court now sits adjacent to the complex.

Woolley calls the project “transformative in a good way, not a gentrifying way.” He allows that earlier changes in close-in neighborhoods happened with momentum and speed nobody saw coming.

“The difference now in the approach to Westwood is that it’s focused on affordability,” he says. “We know it’s ethnically diverse, so how do we improve from a public safety point of view and maintain affordability and ethnic diversity and build the neighborhood around those values?”

A man walks past a mural and billboard at the corner of South Irving Street and West Kentucky Avenue in Westwood. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun).

New residents try to help preserve neighborhood

In the 2016 census, Westwood stood at nearly 80 percent Latino. Some migrated here after gentrification pushed them out of what they still refer to as the North Side, the neighborhoods currently known as the Highlands in northwest Denver, or the area now known as the Auraria campus.

Other folks arrived here more recently because they sought a bargain, but also a diverse community.

Ben and Nicole Lesavoy bought a 1,400-square-foot home near the west edge of Westwood six years ago, when real estate prices hadn’t yet entered the stratosphere. They originally came to Colorado from the San Francisco Bay area, where Ben grew up in houses that had been in the family since the 1800s — the only way, he says, his family could have afforded to live there. Nicole grew up in Kansas City, but loved the cultural collage she encountered in California.

When the Bay Area became too expensive, they decided to strike out for Colorado. They rented in a couple of spots, in the city and near the foothills, before deciding to look for something to buy. Ben, who was working in real estate at the time, saw the bungalow on South Yates Street and figured that, at $150,000, it looked like a good investment.

They came for the economics. They stayed for the diversity.

“Honestly, I think we were both pretty naive on how great this neighborhood is,” Nicole says. “It was pretty much for price and the investment aspect that we bought this, but now that we’ve been here, gotten to know the community and neighbors, I feel like we made an excellent decision. We’ve discovered great people and awesome stuff going on here.”

They see improvements coming to the neighborhood that already have made it a better place to live. When they first arrived, Ben used to ride his bike to work downtown because it was quicker than fighting traffic — but he could feel the risk as cars blew past him on Morrison Road, which had “a half-ass bike lane and no median.” Now, he sees the development along that main artery, plus the renovation and construction of nearby parks, and restaurants serving some of the city’s best ethnic food.

Nicole and Ben Lesavoy pose for a portrait with their children in their Westwood home — where they have lived for six years. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Nicole serves on the board of the food co-op. Both she and Ben made their first foray into community organizing when they tried to launch a skateboarding program, complete with donated skateboards and clinics, but ran into liability concerns that quashed their hopes that the city might build Westwood a skate park like the one downtown.

BuCu West’s Esparza notes: “They’re active, a part of this community, and they’ve done it in a way that’s embracing the culture around them without trying to push out existing residents.”

And the investment part? Their house, which they’ve fixed up considerably, most recently by self-installing hardwood floors, would likely fetch in the range of $300,000, Ben says. They’ve had a good vantage point to watch the real estate market churn around them. The rental across the street has been gutted and put up for sale, and they figure it’s just a matter of time before other nearby homes get flipped.

For them, timing was everything. The finances worked for Nicole to be a stay-at-home mom for their son Ivan, 3, and daughter Celia, 4 months.

“Here in Denver we’re already seeing people priced out of their neighborhoods,” Nicole says. “If we didn’t buy our house when we did there’s no way we could afford it. No way I could stay at home. We get the (solicitation) cards in the mail. We’ve thought about selling. But there isn’t any place better that we have found to go. We can’t get a nicer house or a nicer neighborhood.”

But schools loom as an issue for them — not now, but in a few years. The performance of their neighborhood school, Knapp Elementary, has been a disappointment. Although it “meets expectations” according to the Denver Public Schools performance framework and they prefer to send their kids there, the Lesavoys also understand why many new families opt to send their kids elsewhere.

The hunt for better schools

“It’s hard,” Nicole says, “because I do understand the gentrification piece, that you’re going to make sure your child goes to the best school, and that’s not going to be in this neighborhood. If we send him here, that’s one more enrollment that helps the school get more funding. But I also don’t want to hold him back just because I believe in the cause. I’m hopeful these schools will get better here.”

At Castro Elementary School on Westwood’s southern edge, neighbors worried that the school might close as it dipped into probationary status. But parent liaison Eve Ulloa, who has lived virtually all her life in the neighborhood and watched her kids attend Castro, notes that under principal Robert Villarreal it has risen to “meets expectations.”

But Castro still has 99 percent minority enrollment. Asked how many white kids attend the school, Ulloa pauses in thought and then responds not with a number, but a name.

“George,” she says.

Many new arrivals to Westwood seem to be younger, white and, for now, single or couples without children.

“They have dogs,” Ulloa says. “A lot of schools’ numbers are going down as big families move out and young couples move in. Everybody is friendly, even the new group of people coming in. I’m a crossing guard, and I see people running with their dogs and I build relations with them. It’s becoming different, but change is good.”

That said, she noticed that the school lost enrollment when the Del Corazon apartments replaced the trailer parks. Though no site has yet been selected for the recreation center that’s on the drawing board, she and others wonder if another trailer park on Kentucky Avenue might be the next target for redevelopment.

Ulloa lives just about six houses away from the school. Three years ago, she figures, her house would have sold for about $120,000. Today, it’s closer to $400,000. Speculators have come to her door and, after she rebuffed them, left their card and an invitation to call if she changes her mind. She won’t.

Her dad paid $35,000 for the property. With his own hands, he added a living room, garage, two storage sheds and a patio. She cried when she had to replace the windows he had built and installed himself. She feels a pride of place that reaches far beyond finance.

She will stay, and pass the house on to her daughter, who now teaches at Castro.

“Change is change,” Ulloa says, “and we just have to roll with it.”


 

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Colorado Journalism’s Generation Next

The Colorado Sun has been pleased to work with the University of Colorado’s News Corps, led by Chuck Plunkett, to showcase the work of student journalists who pursued various elements of our larger look at gentrification in Denver. Many of the program’s participants produced excellent work, but we present this week what we felt were the best of the best — work that promises a bright future for local journalism in Colorado and wherever these talented students land.

Monday

WESTWOOD: Staff writer Kevin Simpson explores the Denver neighborhood of Westwood and its struggle to retain its identity while dealing with the challenges of gentrification, which has become a top issue for city leaders. Freelance photographer Jeremy Sparig contributes a wide array of images. Freelance graphic artist Carrie Osgood sketches maps that show the demographic changes across Denver over the years.

PROGRESS REPORT: In 2016, the city published a report that made 12 recommendations for ways that Denver could mitigate the negative effects of gentrification. The Sun asked for an update. The city summarized its response to each of the recommendations.

Tuesday

SUN VALLEY: CU journalism students Amanda K. Clark and Shannon Mullane paint a compelling portrait of Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood, which city officials hope will be a model for development without displacement — though locals aren’t so sure. Mullane also produced a short audio story on a community institution, while Lara Henry created a detailed, illustrated timeline of the neighborhood. Both Clark and Mullane also contributed photos.

REDLINING: Students Anna Blanco, Anna Mary Scott and Jackson Reed examine the practice of redlining and how, as a side effect of gentrification, it still echoes today. The package includes photos shot by Blanco and Reed.

ROOTS RUN DEEP: CU journalism student Will Halbert spent time with longtime Westwood resident Eve Ulloa and produced a poignant video that details all the things that bind her to the neighborhood.

Wednesday

ACROSS THE STATE: Sun writer Kevin Simpson returns to look at how Colorado’s hot real estate market has triggered early rumblings of displacement across the state — and how other cities are trying to prepare to counter the negative impacts of gentrification.


 

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