Denver nonprofit looks to convert former church into affordable housing

Some neighbors concerned about adding density to the area

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A nonprofit has set its sights on an old church near Cheesman Park as the home of a new affordable housing project. While some residents think the project will serve a need in the community, others have voiced concern over bringing more density into an already dense neighborhood.

St. Francis Center, which is buying the Warren Methodist Church building for $1.25 million, will renovate the building to have 42 units. Because the building is considered a historic landmark, Denver law states that the outside of the building and its structure cannot be changed without approval. Tom Luehrs, the executive director of St. Francis said the nonprofit does not plan on filing for a zoning change since the building is already set for mixed use. This makes the project a use-by-right development. St. Francis is a 36-year-old nonprofit that works to provide housing, jobs and other services to the metro area’s homeless community.

Each unit will be 125 square feet and will be furnished. Instead of having individual bathrooms and kitchens in each unit, there will be communal ones in the building. The renovations will cost around $7 million, Luehrs said.

Luehrs said that the project will be meant for people using St. Francis services who already have a job. The housing will provide them that last step of stability to get them on track to more permanent housing options. The rent of a unit will be based off the individual renter’s income.

“The idea of the program is really to help people who are employment-eligible, and maybe working already, but can’t find housing at this point to kind of balance their job and a place to live,” Luehrs said. “We’re trying to give people the opportunity to be stable in their jobs with the housing.”

The Warren Methodist Church, 1630 E. 14th Ave., has been closed since July 2014. Since then, the building has been used as temporary event space or for other community needs. St. Francis has worked out of the building providing employment services for the last 10 years.

The affordable balancing act

Adam Larkey, a resident who lives across the street from the church, said that one of his biggest concerns is the cost of the project for so few units, particularly since tax dollars are being used. He and a group of neighbors also had other concerns about the project as well. Larkey is also the director of sales and leasing with Zeppelin Development.

“The need in our community for these services is clear,” he said in an email, “but the group has concerns about issues such as density of similar social services on the same city block, parking, zoning as it relates to a historic property and the best use of government funds for building a project of this type.”

In order for nonprofits such as St. Francis to offer units at an affordable rate, they use tax credits and other funding avenues to make up for the market-rate difference.

The problem, Luehrs said, is that land has gotten expensive in Denver. It is hard for a nonprofit to find locations that fit all their needs — the right price, the right location and the right number of units.

It can be a balancing act to find the number of units that’s feasible in an affordable housing project, he added.

Indeed, Mountain Sky Conference of the United Methodist Church, which owns the building, originally offered it to Warren Village, which neighbors the church. For the last 45 years, Warren Village, 1323 Gilpin St., has provided housing to low-income single parents who are working or going to school.

Warren Village has its roots in the church’s history, said CEO Ethan Hemming. Dr. Myron Waddell, an active member of the church, saw the needs of single parents in the community and worked with the congregation to provide them with a space to live in 1974.

Hemming said that it wasn’t feasible for Warren Village to use the church building for housing because they serve families instead of individuals. The nonprofit was unable to find a ratio of units that accommodated families with children and subsidies that would work.

Although he said Warren Village would be unable to use the building itself, Hemming is looking forward to the possibilities of collaborating with St. Francis on programming for the different communities the two nonprofits serve. He added that he prefers to “start from the assumption that partnership is possible,” rather than the differences between the two organizations.

“(St. Francis is) going after the same things we are: working with people where they’re at,” he said.

Noreen Keleshian, the treasurer and director of administrative services with Mountain Sky, said that it is part of the church’s overall mission to make a difference in the communities they are in. Because of that, she said, it was important to them to find a new owner for the church building that had a mission to help those in need.

“We were very fortunate that the St. Francis Center had an interest in buying the building to do just that,” she said.

Density concerns

In addition to costs, Caroline Schomp, the vice president of the Neighbors for Greater Capitol Hill, said they had concerns about the particulars of the zoning for group housing in this project, as well as parking concerns when bringing more people into the neighborhood.

The building is zoned as G-MU-3, or General Urban-Multi-Unit with three stories max height. Luehrs said the project will fit within that zoning, and will not require any meetings with city officials to make changes. However, it was important to him and other staff members at the nonprofit to begin speaking to neighbors about the project early on.

He said they first met with then councilmember Wayne New in February, and then began meetings with local Registered Neighborhood Organizations after that. St. Francis held the first open house for the project in August.

Travis Leiker, the president of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods, said that his RNO has begun working with St. Francis to develop a Good Neighbor Agreement for the project to ensure that neighbor concerns are being addressed. He added that he thinks the project will “activate the block and provide critical services.”

Leiker added that hopes that other residents will inform themselves on the issue so that neighbors can continue to have dialogue on affordable housing.

“It’s important for us to be solutions oriented,” he said. “It can only take place if people and parties are willing to put emotions aside.”

St. Francis has some housing projects near its headquarters at 2323 Curtis St. Those units are more traditional one-bedrooms, and have kitchen and bathroom spaces in each one. Although the units will be different, many of the services the nonprofit provides will be the same.

Luehrs said that St. Francis has staff on hand in their buildings to help residents with job and housing resources. Part of this is helping guide residents toward more permanent housing options. He added that there will not be a time restriction for how long tenants stay in the new Warren church units.

As for cars, Luehrs said that often people who were formerly homeless did not have vehicles to begin with. Only 4% of the tenants living in their Curtis Street units have cars. He said he expects the new project to have a similar ratio.

Luehrs is hopeful that the residents with concerns over the project will come around. The nonprofit will continue working with the community to address questions that they have. Increased services is the best way to help get people out of the homeless cycle, Luehrs said, but for him, the project is about providing people in need with a private space to call home.

“These type of programs are very effective,” Luehrs said. “Just being able, when you have your own place, to shower when you want to. A lot of those things are taken for granted.”

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