The rare celebratory press conference was held earlier this month in Sun Valley, the tucked-away Westside Denver community whose poverty has long been hidden on the other side of railroad tracks, the freeway, the river, in a gully of streets that fold in on themselves so that there is no driving straight through the neighborhood’s interior. If you enter, you do so by choice. Or because you had no other.
The latter assertion will ruffle the feathers of some who call Sun Valley home even as they will acknowledge it long has been true. Defensiveness is the justified reaction of people weary of being defined only by what they lack. In this case, it’s money and all that can come from or lead to: good educations, jobs with livable wages, safe neighborhoods, more choices, more stability, more power.
There is no denying Sun Valley’s poverty. Most of its 1,500 or so residents live in one of its 330 public housing apartments, which are arranged barracks-style along common greens where children play among the clotheslines. The neighborhood’s median household income is roughly $9,400 a year, a little less than one-fifth the median in the city as a whole.
There is also no denying that much of that poverty is rooted in the fact that the majority of Sun Valley’s residents are single women raising children. A little more than half the adults here lack a high school education and the unemployment rate is 70 percent, according to data provided by the Denver Housing Authority, the neighborhood’s largest landlord.
Numbers are slippery here. How many public housing residents are there once you count the people not on the lease? How many are working once you factor in the cash economy? Whatever the variables, the result remains the same. Take that village, plop it down in an industrial zone where there are no other residents whose wages offset the averages and the medians and you end up with the ranking of Denver’s poorest neighborhood.
From its edges, those children can see the sinuous glint of Mile High Stadium to the north and the glitter of the downtown skyline to the east. The Platte River and the railroad tracks separate neighborhood from city center, as does I-25, the clogged artery that once pumped future homeowners into the tidy assurances of the suburbs and now brings them back — if they can afford the new city life.
But to enter Sun Valley and see only the public housing and the slumping homes that are all that remain of what was long ago a neighborhood the way we’re accustomed to thinking of neighborhoods is to miss something vital. Sun Valley is a place where people are bound to each other in the way of small towns and large extended families. Through good and bad. Ups and downs. Like it or not.
It is a multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-generational community of families who share an intimate knowledge of hardship. They are familiar with the way in which poverty can shape-shift to leech the spirit and the imagination.
This understanding makes them vigilant. It makes them resourceful. It makes them suspicious of promises of better days to come. It makes them work and pray for those better days in spite of themselves.
No other community in Denver has a higher concentration of children and it’s hard to deny them the promise of a future, though for a long time the city did a good job of that.
Sun Valley is what happens when a city steers its poor, most of them black and Hispanic, into dense pockets of public housing. Time and systematic disinvestment in the surrounding neighborhood, an uncoupling from the larger world, create little islands of neglect, hothouses of deprivation.
It took years to build trust among all the players here, a painstaking building of a collective vision to reach that moment on a bright December morning when the mayor could stand before the microphones and the residents and the dignitaries and declare that Sun Valley will be Denver’s next great neighborhood.
The news, as you may have heard, is that the federal department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the Denver Housing Authority $30 million to seed the transformation of Sun Valley over the next 10 years.
The HUD grant has a specific goal: the dilution of poverty and creation of opportunity by bringing in residents with higher incomes and by reinvesting in the neighborhood and those living in public housing.
Over the next five years, 750 apartments will go up. Of those, 333 will be public housing apartments, replacing the 60-plus-year-old Sun Valley public housing complex. About 200 will be affordable housing, set aside for those who earn no more than 60 percent of the area median income (or about $43,800 for a household of three). The remaining 215 or so will be mid-market-rate apartments.
The larger neighborhood, now called the Sun Valley EcoDistrict, stretches from just north of Mile High south to 6th Avenue, roughly 400 acres of what is now, in booming Denver, prime real estate. By 2027, it may hold nearly 2,000 apartments and some homes. About half the rentals will be market-rate, though DHA says, not geared toward the luxury end.
Down will go the looming Xcel tanks that block the view of downtown. In will come businesses, occupying the ground floors of the new apartment buildings. In will come urban agriculture, micro-gardens and an international market, a youth hub and sports fields. In will come academic, mentoring, and job-training programs because the evolution of housing policy has brought the belated recognition that investment in housing alone cannot change the trajectory of a life.
DHA has many partners in the initiative – state, city and county, Denver Public Schools, the Broncos, universities, nonprofits and foundations. The $30 million from HUD unlocks all their investments, growing the fed’s funding eightfold over the next five years. Beyond that, longer-term investment in neighborhood infrastructure, including the use of renewable energy and a water management system, and greater development between 9th and 10th Avenues could bring the total investment to more than half a billion dollars by 2027.
The Stadium District on the north end of the larger EcoDistrict has its own multi-million dollar plan, long discussed, for an entertainment zone of restaurants and bars unfolding south from the stadium. In this picture, the residential neighborhood grows north and the entertainment district south, approaching each other near the spark of all this redevelopment, the Decatur-Federal light rail station.
From there, it is four stops to Union Station.
DHA has built mixed-use housing before. Where the Curtis Park projects once existed now is the Villages at Curtis Park, where Park Place public housing was Benedict Park Place now stands. The project closest in proximity and example to Sun Valley is Mariposa, once the South Lincoln project. Where there were once 254 public housing apartments now stand 562 mixed-income apartments and 45 homes, the last of which are to be finished and fully occupied by the end of 2017.
All share the goal of undoing the damage done by warehousing poor people in dense projects. But none of these redevelopments were as complicated or ambitious as Sun Valley. None compares in scale. And all were launched in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, when it was not that hard to find communities shared by the poor, the working and middle classes. The Highlands, Five Points and Jefferson Park (to name a few) had not yet reached full-bore gentrification. RiNo and LoHi were still the awkward acronyms of developers’ and realtors’ marketing dreams.
But Denver is not that place anymore. The landscape of 2010 — when the housing authority embarked upon the plan to redevelop Sun Valley, when Metropolitan Organization for People (now Together Colorado) was working to organize residents to ensure they had a say in what was coming, when the light rail station was just being built and I was hanging out in the neighborhood writing about all of this — no longer exists. The terrain has shifted.
I would have argued then that it was necessary to remake Sun Valley for Sun Valley’s sake. Its isolation and extreme poverty fed the struggles in school, the violence, seen and unseen, and the lowering of aspirations and expectations. Sun Valley had lived too long with the consequences of the larger city’s indifference.
That’s still true, but this new Sun Valley rises in a new context, that of a city with an affordable housing shortage. It comes as Denver begins on a 10-year campaign to create or preserve 6,000 affordable housing units and as it seeks ways to prevent wholesale gentrification and preserve its diversity. That means the new Sun Valley is not just about Sun Valley, but about Denver and the kind of city it seeks to become.
This new 400-acre Sun Valley, a gleaming extension of urbanity alongside a now-cherished river, is to be built as an economically integrated community in a city long segregated by race and, increasingly so, by class. (The two are linked, given that whites, as a group, are wealthier and earn higher wages than blacks or Hispanics.)
This is a familiar story if you live here. You see it happening. Census data underscore it. From 2000 to 2010, white populations skyrocketed in Denver’s traditional Hispanic and African American neighborhoods. During that period in Jefferson Park, which borders the Sun Valley EcoDistrict just north of the stadium, the white population grew 32 percent and the Hispanic dropped 57 percent. Census tracts west and east of Sun Valley also all saw double-digit drops in Hispanic population and increases in white.
Sun Valley becomes, then, a front in the city’s effort to ensure that Denver can still house its workforce and shelter its neediest, that it does not become a Denver that is mainly a province of the wealthy, but a Denver, as DHA’s executive director Ismael Guerrero said at the press conference, “that works for everybody.” Built from the ground up, the new Sun Valley represents a physical articulation of this city’s priorities.
Nothing that has happened in this city over the last 50 years has managed to touch Sun Valley, to change its form. It has existed in its own space, within and apart from the city. This is no longer the case. The stakes of its success have grown. As long as Denver booms (and a booming city is far better than the alternative), Sun Valley’s redevelopment is as much about helping Sun Valley as it as about helping Denver.
DHA alone cannot meet the city’s housing needs, Guerrero emphasizes, but it is doing its part to provide a mix, from public to workforce to modest market, affordable to those who can’t afford luxury units.
“We feel the most resilient, sustainable and thriving neighborhoods are those that have been integrated, diverse communities — ethnically, economically and generationally,” he says. “And we are losing those neighborhoods in Denver.”
The $30 million will allow DHA to break ground next year on what Broncos’ ticket holders know as Parking Lot N, just north of West 13th and Decatur, just beyond the northern boundary of the current residential neighborhood. Initial plans for this first phase call for 132 apartments (30 public housing, 35 affordable housing and 67 market-rate, though not luxury market.) Those plans will go through a community design process before being finalized.
The public housing apartments will be scattered throughout the development. As new apartments go up, the old Sun Valley Homes will come down. DHA has committed not only to a one-for-one replacement of the public housing, but to a bedroom-for-bedroom replacement so that an old three-bedroom doesn’t become a new one-bedroom. It’s a significant distinction among residents who feared a backhanded winnowing of their ranks.
All the apartments will be built to market standards, so that passersby can’t single out those occupied by public housing tenants. The social stigma of living in “the projects” is to be dismantled.
The street grid will be adjusted to make it easier to get in and through Sun Valley, knitting the residential neighborhood back into the larger cityscape from which it was severed.
I use the phrase “social experiment” in an email to Guerrero when discussing this planned integration of Sun Valley. He is not a man who bristles, but his response comes close.
“We don’t view this as a social experiment,” he writes back in all caps. It is instead an evolution, the next generation of DHA’s mixed-income communities, he goes on to say, all of which have proven to work, and in which public housing residents have thrived.
I use the phrase because when I was in Sun Valley in 2010, working alongside my colleague, then-Denver Post photographer Craig Walker, residents had two overriding concerns about the neighborhood’s future.
The first was the suspicion that the bright and shiny new neighborhood planned in their name was not really for those here but for those to come.
That fear of displacement seems to have been allayed over time, though there remain occasional tremors.
“People are starting to stress out about what does it really mean for them and are they really not going to have to move and etcetera,” Kris Rollerson, the executive director of the 17-year-old nonprofit Sun Valley Youth Center tells me. “Anything that’s a massive change like this, everyone is like, ‘Whoa. It acts nice and it sounds nice but what does that really mean?’ Any change is hard. But that’s why we have been involved in the process so long – to ensure our families have very little transition because transitions are hard, especially for people from hard places.”
A solid core of those in the neighborhood and the local tenant council have remained deeply involved in the planning of Sun Valley. Guerrero and others at DHA have continued to prove themselves trustworthy to residents, reassuring them that they come first in the new development. The grant specifically prevents any forcible relocation of residents.
In Sun Valley, residents will move out of old units as new ones become available. Each family will decide whether they want to stay or maybe take a housing voucher or move to a subsidized apartment elsewhere.
“I just want everyone now living here to be happy,” Lisa Saenz, president of the Sun Valley tenant council tells me. She says she moved in in 2010 after an abusive marriage, the loss of her home and a stint with homelessness.
“I want for families to be healthy, to see them bike riding through the neighborhood and not having to go someplace else to play, to be able to have a barbecue without wondering whether a bullet will hit them or a bottle will fly. People should be able to own their own business or go to school or work, and just be happy, not struggling, not sad, not stressed out.”
She says her greatest fear is that nothing would change. “The same type of people would still live here; they pass the background check, and the next week, they have a party, and every Tom and Dick and Harry is coming in. They say they don’t have an income, but they have drugs.”
The second concern expressed in 2010 was that people with more money — and therefore more choices — may not want to live next to a public housing tenant, that the mixing of incomes may work to build a neighborhood, but not a community. Some wondered whether the newcomers would resent them because public housing tenants pay only one-third of their incomes in rent. Some wonder if they would be judged for their poverty.
They were reminded of their doubt not a day after the press conference when a shooting in the neighborhood left an 18-year-old seriously wounded.
Saenz tells me that she hopes those who move into the new Sun Valley “wouldn’t look down on us and treat us different, and that people don’t have hatred in their hearts.
“Some of us have a lot of money and some of us make what we can and survive the best we can. We are good people, and we give from the heart.”
There is a well-intentioned way of talking about mixed-income communities that suggests all benefit confers upon the public housing residents. That the poor have nothing to teach about ingenuity or resilience or fortitude, and the middle-class are by definition role models of work, academic and family life.
These assumptions fail to recognize that in the face of great challenges, and, in large part, because of them, the people of Sun Valley built among themselves a community. It has been anchored by its school, Fairview Elementary, which long has been more than a school here, but a center of gravity. It has been sustained by the faith of its relatively newer arrivals, such as Glenn Harper, who opened the Sun Valley Kitchen across from the youth center. It has been nourished by the perseverance of people such as the youth center’s Kris Rollerson and Margaret Juaregui.
Margie has for years lived on one of the two streets that still has single-family housing. She sold her houses for a tidy sum to DHA and another longtime property owner and will be leaving soon. She tells me she bought a beautiful suburban house big enough for her, her widowed son and his three daughters. Her parents met in this neighborhood. Her grandson died in it. She leaves with mixed feelings.
“It’s time,” she says. “I just want people to know that it was never as bad here as people said it was. What comes is going to be different. I expect a lot of yuppies.”
Margie doesn’t go to the press conference. But I see Asnake Deferse, the ever-optimistic vice-president of the local tenant council. I met him in 2010, not long after he, his wife and four sons had moved in. Ethiopian by birth, a civil engineer by degree, he worked here as a taxi driver, then a Supershuttle driver before complications from diabetes and other illness left him unable to work. Most recently, he ran an international food market in Aurora. His wife, Sara, now works in a literacy program for Colorado Humanities in the Tech Center.
He tells me he cannot wait for the international market to open because he intends to open a business there. He tells me that the new Sun Valley will nurture the next generation of Denver’s leaders and his sons, Matthew, Mark, Peter and Paul (whom, naturally, I call the Apostles) will be among them.
I see Kris at the back of the crowd. Ponytail, big sunglasses, standing on her tip-toes to catch a glimpse of the mayor or senator or HUD higher-up speaking. She had her doubts in 2010 about the new Sun Valley, even as she understood that change was necessary. She has a few small doubts now, even as she understands change is inevitable. Sun Valley’s location is too prime, the city’s housing market too hot, and the stakes too high for this urban island not to rise with the city around it.
“Of course, gentrification – and I wish there were a better word – to some extent will happen if you are going to raise the income of the community,” she says. “So the question is, ‘How do you intentionally build a community when you have people with different income levels?’ That’s what I am excited about. I am excited for the future and for the families. I’m excited for the opportunities it will bring.”
Much work lies ahead. The first great challenge, Guerrero says, was getting everyone on the same page and winning the $30 million. The next is getting this neighborhood rebuilt.
But the direction is there, he says, the momentum is there, and, in Sun Valley, a new day is dawning.
Cover image: Mutaz Said, an Iraqi immigrant, has lived in Sun Valley with his family for 5 months.
All photos by Allen Tian.