Developer boots homeless ‘crazy people’ to build trendy housing

“We’re just trying to get land somewhere safe to rest our heads without freezing or worrying about cops coming to arrest us.” — Mike Hildenbrand

Developer boots homeless ‘crazy people’ to build trendy housing
Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks tried to broker a deal between homeless activists deadset on creating a tiny home village and a real estate developer with the property rights to build a new housing project. Last week, the deal fell through and the activists were kicked off the land. But they swear their fight isn’t over. Photo: Nat Stein

 

“Resurrection Village is not dead.”

But for now, Resurrection Village — a self-governing tiny home community for people experiencing homelessness — is only in activists’ imaginations.

The dream came to life for a few hours in late October when the group Denver Homeless Out Loud erected five tiny homes in the rapidly gentrifying Five Points neighborhood. They chose the former site of Sustainability Park — then government-owned and home to urban farming projects, now owned by TreeHouse Brokerage and Development and slated for a new, for-sale housing project. But before the roofs were nailed down, police confiscated the structures and arrested ten activists.

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In late October, activists tried to build tiny homes at Sustainability Park. Before the roofs were attached, police swooped in to tear down the houses and arrest the advocates. Photo: Nat Stein

Since that initial raid, a couple dozen DHOL activists have been camping out on the private property. Despite occasional visits from the cops and some blistering cold nights, the encampment was mostly a light-hearted and hopeful community that attracted new homeless residents by the day.

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Activists have been living in tents at Sustainability Park. They say their encampment is safer than the shelters. The property owner calls it a “shantytown” and a “squat.” Photo: DHOL

 

All that changed last week night when, at the request of the developer, police ordered them to move along. Rather than risk more arrests, they packed up and left.

Getting the boot surprised activists who were counting on a deal with TreeHouse Brokerage and Development, made by City Councilman Albus Brooks, to get a two week extension to stay on the property. That deal fell through.

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“Move Along to Where?” has become a rallying cry for homeless people protesting Denver’s urban camping ban.

 

TreeHouse partner Clem Rinehart resents the rabble-rousing on his company’s private property and all the heat it brought the development he was working on.

“We didn’t create homelessness” Rinehart told The Colorado Independent. “We’re just an innocent bystander that got dragged into this.”

Rinehart said that his company had been “very accommodating” of the encampment, despite “threats and blackmail from these crazy people.”

And it’s not just DHOL’s tactics that Rinehart took issue with — it’s the group’s entire premise.

“All they have is some weird utopian hope, not a real plan. If you talk to anyone who lives in the neighborhood who has to look at this shantyville everyday, they don’t want it there.”

TreeHouse’s project is called S*PARK — “ultra-green” housing slated for construction in late summer.

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TreeHouse Brokerage and Development plans to build S*PARK, an “ultra-green,” trendy housing development on the site where Sustainability Park once hosted urban farms. Before that, there was a public housing project on the plot.

 

The company will comply with the city’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, Rinehart explained, under which 10 percent of the units must be “affordable.” Based on median area income, that means 22 of these new units will be priced for individuals making between $22,000 and $44,000 a year. Larger homes slated for development are valued in the mid $600,000s.

Rinehart said his company “doesn’t have a position on affordable housing in Denver. Some people think (the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance) is insufficient, but it’s not our lot in life to fix the city’s policies.”

At the same time, Rinehart said he understands why this property makes a good target for activists. “I mean, this is a prime piece of real estate. But turning it into a squat? People who actually work for a living just don’t understand what they’re talking about.”

TreeHouse owners wanted the encampment gone, but without having to call the cops and force arrests. Oddly enough, DHOL shared some of the company’s desires — namely, to avoid jail and find welcoming land to live on. So that’s when City Councilman Albus Brooks, who authored Denver’s urban camping ban, stepped in to broker a deal between the two.

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Albus Brooks has worked to broker a deal between TreeHouse Building and Development and Denver Homeless Out Loud. He aims to find the activists a permanent site for a pilot tiny house program.

“Obviously we come from different places and are going to disagree on some things,” Brooks said about the homeless activists. “We provide other resources (like shelter beds) that they choose not to use because they want to sleep outside.”

DHOL member Ryan Lyall said of the city’s shelters, “They’re warehouses. Just a place to put bodies. And these people don’t deserve that.”

Despite tension between the Councilman — who has been criticized for being a pawn of developers — and some homeless activists in Denver, an unlikely partnership took tentative shape.

DHOL asked for a two week grace period during which TreeHouse would agree not to have cops clear out the encampment. Brooks would have had those two weeks to figure out a safer place for Resurrection Village to take root.

That deal was looking pretty close to sealed mid last week. Though two weeks would have been a narrow window, the group was excited to have bought more time.

Mike Hildenbrand, a newcomer to the village, explained DHOL’s goal: “We’re just trying to get land somewhere safe to rest our heads without freezing or worrying about cops coming to arrest us.”

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People sleeping outside rally for Resurrection Village and permanent housing. Photo: Nat Stein

 

But optimism about the agreement with TreeHouse wavered last Thursday when it became clear pen never hit the paper. Cops drove by the encampment all afternoon.

At around 8 p.m., police ordered the campers to take down their tents and move along. They had until midnight to comply. After serious deliberation, the group decided to heed the order.

Only three remained to sleep at the site. There was one arrest.

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Police set up a perimeter around the property after pushing the homeless activists off of the land they had been sleeping on for more than a month. Photo: DHOL

 

Even though their interaction with cops Thursday night was peaceful, activists felt betrayed by the developer and the Councilman.

The following day, Denver Homeless Out Loud member Terese Howard said, “We are still sleeping outside but now without tents and in worse spots.”

Brooks, on his part, said “it was unfortunate it had to go down like that. We had a verbal agreement, but then it became clear (the extension) wasn’t feasible.”

The Councilman acknowledged Denver Homeless Out Loud members are upset with him, but affirmed his commitment to helping them anyway.

“My focus remains on trying to get them a location or try to do a temporary tiny house pilot project somewhere we have a sympathetic landowner.”

Brooks emphasized that the city is putting $8 million toward affordable housing starting in January, with 106 units designated for homeless people slated for construction in September.

In a recent survey, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative counted 6,130 men, women and children sleeping Denver’s streets.

Friday morning, Clem Rinehart of TreeHouse was surprised to hear that DHOL was caught off-guard — the agreement for a two-week grace period was never finalized.

“We’re just happy to put this behind us and get back to our busy lives,” he said.

TreeHouse built a fence that extends further out to the edge of the property last week.

 

Photos via Denver Homeless Out Loud, Nat Stein, TreeHouse and Albus Brooks’s website

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About the Author

Nat Stein

Nat Stein is a Denver-based reporter. Check out her other work at Cipher magazine, KRCC public radio, Jacobin magazine and In These Times.

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