Clash over DIY housing pits activists against city of Denver: Here’s what you need to know
It was always going to get shut down.
This weekend, a village of hand-built tiny homes sprung up at 2500 Lawrence St., a city-owned plot of land in Denver’s Curtis Park neighborhood, only to get swiftly torn down by police. The group behind the guerrilla construction is Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL) — an activist collective that’s known for pushing the boundaries on homeless rights issues. They’ve been dreaming, scheming and building “Resurrection Village” for months. What they want is a safe, sustainable alternative to sleeping on the streets — something they say does not exist in Denver’s booming economy.
DHOL saw an opportunity in the plot of land known as Sustainability Park.
Denver Housing Authority is selling the property to a private developer to replace the urban farmers who currently lease the land. Construction on the new housing units won’t break ground until spring, but Denver Urban Farmers Collaborative has to move out now.
On Saturday, the farmers hosted Permaculture Action Day — an event that invited volunteers to help uproot plants, move tools and say goodbye to the beloved community garden. Using that whirlwind of activity as cover, DHOL swooped in to start assembling their tiny homes in the north end of the park.
Tiny homes have all the amenities of a home: a roof overhead, locking door and the privacy of enclosed walls. But they are, as the name implies, tiny, 100-200 square feet.
The group had been constructing them for months using a paneled design that disassembles and assembles in pieces. So erecting the village was just a matter of transporting, aligning and screwing it all together.
There was a goofy excitement Saturday afternoon, with people strumming guitars and chatting as they worked. Some curious onlookers from the permaculture side of things wandered over to lend a hand. By the time the sun set on Sustainability Park, five tiny homes were nearly finished.
Ray Lyall was all set to move into one of them. It was still roofless, but the sky looked clear and the crew was tired after a long day of building. Roof or no roof, Lyall was ecstatic about having his own home after two years of living on the streets.
Just after 10 p.m., police showed up. After all, it was recently purchased private property slated for development that these folks were preparing to live on.
Most people didn’t want to risk confrontation and left the park when they were told to. But some stayed put, taking refuge in the tiny homes.
A helicopter circled overhead as Lt. Tony Galloway ordered the activists to get off the property.
“You’ll to have to drag me out of here!” Lyall yelled out the door of his new abode.
Smoking cigarettes and voicing their peaceful intentions, the ten activists hunkered down inside knowing what was coming. The 70 cops approaching in full riot gear made it awfully clear.
On the other side of the park fence, a throng of supporters cheered their friends and jeered the cops while everyone in tiny homes was pulled out, cuffed and put in the back of a police van. The rumble of their stomping feet inside could be heard above all the hubbub.
“House keys not handcuffs!” was one of the more civil refrains heard in the stream of commentary. Some taunts equated law enforcement to a certain farm animal while others wondered whether the size of cops’ guns revealed insecurity about the size of what else they were packing.
Dump trucks pulled in to cart off all the tiny homes while those who had spent over a year building them clung to the fence looking helplessly on.
All told, ten people were arrested for trespassing. Nine were bonded out the next morning, with help from the Denver Anarchist Black Cross, and one got out Monday.
DHOL member Karen Seed was part of the cadre that went to jail. She said of course she “knew it was in the spectrum of possibilities” for the village to get torn down, but “was not expecting that level of backlash so immediately. I was really hoping we’d have a second day to show Denver what this could really look like.”
Spokesman for the Denver Police Department Tyrone Campbell confirmed that Seed, Lyall and eight others were indeed booked for trespassing on private property, but couldn’t speak to the fate of the tiny homes. He told The Colorado Independent that some were removed — though declined to clarify what “removed” means — and some were returned.
DHOL maintains that they haven’t gotten any homes, tools or other personal items back.
The activists understood they were breaking the law. And that was kind of the point. It was a symbolic direct action designed to highlight how the police prioritize developers’ desires over the needs of people without a home.
Karen Seed: “The way I see it — and I how a lot of DHOL sees it — is that framing it as private property is not right. It’s not in the spirit of public service to make money off of land that’s supposed to be public.”
Resurrection Village faces a few obstacles, not the least of which is land. Namely, that 2500 Lawrence St. is privately owned property.
Pre-colonization, the land belonged to the Arapaho tribe. But since the city was incorporated in the mid-19th century, in essence occupying that land, the Denver Housing Authority has been its steward.
The city built affordable housing units there in the 1950s. Underfunded for decades, the project was torn down in the late 90s. The plot then went unused until 2009 when the city temporarily leased it out to the Denver Urban Farmers Collaborative — comprised of sustainable agriculture groups GreenLeaf, Produce Denver and GrowHaus. Farmers have been partnering with local school groups and community volunteers to grow produce for distribution in the city’s food deserts.
Earlier this year, Denver Housing Authority sold 2500 Lawrence St. to a private developer —Treehouse Development — a Denver-based real estate firm that plans to build 220 new units in the neighborhood. Per the city’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, 10 percent of the units will be “affordable” which, based on median area income, are priced for individuals making between $22,000 and $44,000 a year. Larger homes slated for development are valued in the mid $600,000s.
Representatives at Treehouse did not return The Colorado Independent’s interview requests.
“Not even these token 22 units would be affordable for the hundreds of low income people who were kicked out of their homes on this land 10 and 20 years ago,” according to a statement put out by Denver Homeless Out Loud.
“No amount of ‘greenwashing’ and empty promises can hide the plain truth: Public assets should not be used to incentivize upscale market-rate housing. Urban farmers and low-income people should not be displaced for the sake of economic development right in the midst of Denver’s worst housing crisis ever.”
Denver has an affordability problem, and it boils down to this: too many people, not enough housing.
The city’s population grew by over 100,000 from 2010 to 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and shows no sign of slowing down.
When it comes to housing all those people, supply is not keeping up with demand.
Only Seattle and San Francisco have lower vacancy rates than Denver, according to 2014 census data. So if you want to live in any of Denver’s hard-to-come-by housing, you have to pay more and more every year. The housing division of Colorado Department of Local Affairs found that in 2012, just under half of renter households in Denver were severely rent-burdened, meaning more than a third of their income went to paying rent.
And as those who can afford it crowd as close to LoDo as possible, those who can’t, but whose families have lived their for decades, get pushed out.
For some that means pushed out to the suburbs via lightrail. But for thousands of Denverites that means pushed out of housing entirely.
The federally funded Metro Denver Homeless Initiative found more than 3,000 people experiencing homelessness one night in January 2014. Asked why, respondents’ most common answer was “lost job/can’t find work” and “housing costs too high.”
Denverites who can’t afford housing are left with few options.
The night before the tiny home occupation, former truck driver Greg Dickerson had a spot to rest that was warm and dry. Then a cop came, gave him a little kick and told him to move along.
“That happens every night,” he said, estimating that sleep comes in three or four hour chunks at a time. “And then you spend all day waiting on line. For food, for shelter — just the necessities.”
This is Dickerson’s fourth and hardest time living on the streets: His car, dog and ID were all stolen recently by a vengeful ex. Trying to get any of it back has been a bureaucratic nightmare, he said, and there’s not much work out there for an older guy with a blown out knee. So for now, he’s moving along.
“Most people don’t want to see us,” Dickerson said. “They just want to see high rises.”
That’s the feedback City Councilman Albus Brooks reported hearing from constituents when he penned Denver’s Urban Camping Ban in 2012. Brooks, who represents District 8 that includes Sustainability Park, told The Denver Post that he took a stroll down the 16th Street Mall to gain understanding of the issue before proposing the ordinance.
“We have predators, sex offenders, folks selling drugs and taking advantage of people and vagrants all pretending to be these homeless folks […] I am compassionate, but I also understand that sometimes people need to be dealt with.”
The camping ban makes it illegal “to reside or dwell temporarily in a place, with shelter.” A tent, tarp, lean-to, sleeping bag, bedroll, blanket and any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing all count as “shelter.”
When the measure was under consideration, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado urged the council to reject it.
“The ordinance is unwise, mean-spirited and potentially unconstitutional,” public policy director Denise Maes wrote. “Denver can do better than a criminalization approach.”
But with support from the downtown business community, City Council did not reject the camping ban and now it’s on the books.
After the law had been in effect for a year, DHOL conducted a report from the streets with data analysis by urban politics professor Tony Robinson of the University of Colorado Denver. They passed out surveys to 512 homeless people from various popular gathering spots in the city to learn how the camping ban was affecting people’s quality of life. Around half felt less safe since the ban and most reported getting less sleep and having more trouble accessing shelters. People now try to avoid well-lit, central locations and instead choose to hide off the beaten path in bushes, behind dumpsters and under bridges.
Denver doesn’t have enough shelter beds for the homeless anyway. The DHOL report found while the homeless population has grown over the years, the number of beds available to the homeless has stayed more or less stagnant.
Right to rest
Denver is facing pressure to overturn its camping ban at the local, state and national level.
This summer, the U.S. Department of Justice weighed in on a case out of Boise, Idaho — a city, like Denver, that prohibits people from existing in public while failing to provide enough shelter space. The DOJ’s filing argues the camping ban is a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
“It should be uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment. . . Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
Following the DOJ’s lead, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development made some changes to its homeless assistance initiatives. Applicants now have to “describe how they are reducing criminalization of homelessness” to win a competitive Continuum of Care grant.
Last year, service agencies in Denver got more than $20 million from HUD through that program. But if the city can’t demonstrate it’s making moves on decriminalizing homelessness, that grant may very well not come through next time around.
At the state level, camping ban opponents tried and failed to pass a “Right to Rest” bill in the legislature last session. Had it passed, the bill would have codified “the right to use and move freely in public spaces without discrimination, to rest in public spaces without discrimination, to eat or accept food in any public space where food is not prohibited, to occupy a legally parked vehicle, and to have a reasonable expectation of privacy of one’s property.”
The Homeless Bill of Rights, as it’s called, is a campaign by the Western Regional Advocacy Project that spans Colorado, California, Oregon and Washington. DHOL is heading up the effort here in Colorado.
The bill was voted down 8-3 in the Veterans and Military Affairs Committee in the state House. DHOL promises Right to Rest will be back next session.
But in the here and now, City Council could vote to overturn the ban. So that’s what homeless advocates are asking them to do.
Monday evening, Occupy Denver, an activist group distinct from DHOL, touted a petition with over 14,500 signatures calling for repeal of the urban camping ban. On the front steps of the City and County building, Occupy organizer Laura Avant called the camping ban inhumane.
“When they say ‘move along,’ we say ‘move along to where?'” Avant said into a microphone standing with several supporters holding banners. “The time for repeal is now!”
During Avant’s plea, a well-known local rabble-rouser dressed in old-fashioned police garb mimed a move along. He tapped the door of a constructed cardboard house and waved his baton at someone lying in a sleeping bag behind it. The gathered crowd chuckled gratefully.
Ray Lyall, fresh out of jail, stepped up to thank his network of supporters and bemoan the loss of his new tiny home.
“Saturday night I didn’t get to go home and put my feet up like I wanted to. They took it from me. But I’m back and I’m not giving up.”
Another DHOL member read a letter asking for their tiny homes back, for Sustainability Park to be re-opened (it’s been chained shut with “no trespassing signs” since the raid) and for a meeting with Denver Housing Authority to discuss next steps. Recent events “followed a pattern which is all too common,” he continued. “We spend more money criminalizing homelessness than we would if we simply housed the same unhoused folks.”
The letter points out that the money spent holding ten people in jail for a night and on bond could pay for three new tiny homes. That claim is based on Vera Institute’s estimated price tag for jailing one person for a night ($83), bond money ($1500) and DHOL’s estimated cost of materials for the tiny homes ($700-$2,500). DHOL’s cost estimates don’t account for land or labor.
“We’d like to find a solution that makes fiscal and moral sense,” the letter concludes. “Until then, they will have nowhere else to go, so you’ll probably see a lot of us out on the street.”
DHOL has indeed been out on the street, strategizing and sleeping just outside the locked gates of Sustainability Park every night since their homes were taken. The activists remain committed to two principal demands:
Legalize Tiny Homes in Denver – A cheap, sustainable, and attractive solution for many.
Set Aside Publicly Owned Land for Tiny Homes and people experiencing homelessness -Public Assets Should Be Used For The Public Good – we don’t need our public land sold to private developers to build condos when we are in an affordable housing crisis. We need a Tiny Home Village run by and for people experiencing homelessness.
And three secondary:
End the Criminalization of Homelessness – Repeal all laws which infringe on people’s rights to move freely, rest, sleep and protect oneself from the elements, sleep in your legally parked vehicle, and eat in public spaces.
Adequately Fund Affordable Housing Development – We need real funding for our current crisis. Not just small ‘rotating funds’ for workforce housing. We need to fully refund our affordable housing budget on a federal, state and local level.
Stop Displacing Urban Farmers – keep the few urban farms we have in Denver Functioning (stop selling public land to private developers).
Joining activists outside the City and County building was Ibrahim Mubarak, a self-described direct action guru from the west coast. Over a decade ago, Mubarak was instrumental in founding Dignity Village — a tiny home and tent village in Portland that’s now an incorporated nonprofit which the city recognizes as a campground.
Mubarak told the group assembled on the steps of the City and County building that the raid on Resurrection Village does not mean failure.
“This is how we started in Dignity Village too. We thought it was it,” he said. “But a lot of little defeats can add up to victory.”
Monday night, around 30 supporters filed into City Council’s chamber right before a zoning hearing was set to begin. Occupiers backed up Avant as she slammed the stack of petitions down in front of Council President Chris Herndon. DHOL members stood in the back.
“Repeal the urban camping ban!” they shouted at the Council. Decorum broke for a few minutes as the activists spoke.
“We just want to be able to live and help each other out,” yelled the never-shy Occupier Caryn Sodaro. “Show some compassion!”
Herndon was among a few councilmembers who left the chamber when activists entered it. Upon his return he smacked his gavel and called for the hearing to begin, apologizing for the “inconvenience.”
“Inconvenience?” a woman in the back cried out. “Homeless people are not inconvenient!”
Then the Council proceeded through some zoning issues and heard public comments on the mayor’s 2015 budget.
Resurrection Village and the urban camping ban were not specific agenda items, but some commenters questioned whether it’s right to put $8 million for affordable housing next to $24 million for the Sheriff’s department.
After the meeting, Councilman Rafael Espinoza talked tiny homes with The Colorado Independent.
Trespassing on private property is obviously not an avenue the Councilman would support, though he expressed shared frustration in seeing developers sit on land for months before doing anything with it.
“It drives me crazy when I drive around town,” he said. “It’s like, we could be doing something with it right now!”
But even if DHOL were to wade into the realm of private ownership and actually acquire some land, an issue remains: Tiny homes, because of their size, violate city zoning codes. Espinoza said he’s been approached about legalizing tiny homes in all of Denver county, but he doesn’t like the idea.
“Not everybody has a noble cause,” he said. “People would start putting tiny homes in their backyard and renting them out on Airbnb. Then we’d have a mess.”
Espinoza is intrigued by the idea of amending the zoning code more narrowly, so that one pilot project on one plot of land could test the concept.
“Maybe we could even find a way to fund it,” he said with a half-smile.
Photos by Nat Stein
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