LAKEWOOD, CO — Amid growing local opposition, a homeless advocacy group advanced to the next step for a proposed large low-income housing development in Lakewood on federal surplus land. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless Friday submitted a financing plan to the Department of Health and Human Services for a $120 million 600-unit low-income housing complex that has passed its first hurdle.
The 30-year old agency, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, applied in January for a 20-year lease on the parcel under the McKenney-Vento Act, which gives first-dibs to vacated federal property to agencies serving the homeless.
But residents are concerned that the project is too big and will end up being a catch-all for homeless residents throughout the region.
“The current plan terrifies everyone,” said Ronda Frazier, who started the 800-plus member Facebook group Lakewood Residents Unite.
“It makes no sense to me that anyone would be considering a subsidized/homeless housing complex of such size,” Frazier wrote to the Denver head of the Department of Health and Human Services. “Did we not learn our lesson from the massive ‘tenement’ housing in cities like Detroit, Chicago and NYC?”
Frazier and other opponents say they do not object to housing for people experiencing homelessness in general, but that the project is too big and concentrated.
Mayor Adam Paul agrees. “We understand that there are needs and gaps to address homelessness in our community,” Paul said in a State of the City address last week. “However, the size and scope of what is currently being proposed does not follow the multiple plans our residents have previously envisioned for this site. I have great hope that we can involve all the stakeholders to find thoughtful and courageous solutions to address this need that also honors the city’s plans.”
The City of Lakewood has no authority to regulate the current or future use of the land when it is federally owned. The city also has no authority to be involved in the federal government’s decision about the coalition’s application. The city does have ideas about the “highest and best use” of the property, which have been proposed in various planning documents over the years.
Paul and three other council members are in Washington DC this week for the annual National League of Cities meeting. The Lakewood delegation will be reaching out to U.S. Congressman Ed Perlmutter and Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennett and the national offices of the HHS to ask for ideas to lighten the impact of the proposed project on the city, Paul confirmed.
As the project moves forward, HHS has 15 days to evaluate the proposed financing. That may take longer as questions and clarifications will need to be provided.
But even now, rumors are flying: The project is designed to move Denver’s homeless out of the city. The coalition is looking to hoover up any other grant money, including the city’s Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) to finance the project. The ground is uninhabitable for human dwellings due to a former armaments factory and dump on the site, the city won’t be able to police the grounds.
A petition opposing the project has already gained more than 2,000 signatures.
But even the developers can see problems with the scale and density of the project, said Cathy Alderman, spokesperson for the coalition. The problem is that the federal rules are not easy to change, and the coalition could not submit any plan that did not account for the entire parcel being used for homeless assistance, or they might lose their eligibility for any of the land, Alderman said.
“We’ve been tying to let everyone know from the get-go that we’ve tried to have the land subdivided, and planned a mixed-income, mixed-use development,” Alderman said. “We’re talking to the city, to elected officials to see if there’s a waiver or any kind of exemption we can get in the law,” she said.
McKenney-Vento provisions are hard to budge, Paul said in a Patch interview in February.
“Essentially, the Mckenney-Vento act is very rigid in what it has to do,” Paul said. “[The coalition] has no choice but to take all 59 acres, and must use it all for homeless services.”
Alderman said that the idea that the coalition would gobble up all local homeless funding for the project is not true.
“There’s not a grant program [in existence] that’s currently structured to support this kind of work,” she said. “We would not go to HUD to ask them to redirect dollars for this project. We might go to foundations, to help us make it work,” she said.
Local advocates for the homeless fear that the project will doom itself because of its size.
James Fry of the Mean Street Ministry said large groups different sorts of people crowded together will undermine the program. Mean Street houses a dozen working families a night in an emergency winter shelter in a Lakewood church school gym in the 1300 block of Ammons Street.
“There are families who you wouldn’t know they are homeless. These people are working. We give them a family-size tent and the opportunity to take a shower, so their children can attend school and they’re not living in the Honda,” Fry said. But his organization also distributes food to people on the street.
Housing families near older single people with hardened mental health and addiction issues is dangerous for children, Fry alleged.
“One of the worse things [the coalition is proposing] is putting an eight year old who’s in a bad situation and put them around some very broken single people and they see themselves as that. It’s very damaging to the psyche of a child, as is the humiliation the parents are going through,” Fry said.
Read the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless plan here:
Image via Colorado Coalition for the Homeless