A Hillside neighborhood plan to expand an affordable housing project is evolving into a textbook example of the increasingly frequent conflict in Colorado Springs between community needs and neighborhood preservation, between compassion for the needy and the inevitable NIMBY battle cry.
In a tradition that goes back to 1972, Payne Chapel, a church situated in Hillside since 1875, has been practicing an outreach ministry centered on the building and management of affordable housing for low-income single mothers, elderly retirees, persons with disabilities and the working poor.
In 1997, the neighborhood in southeast-central Colorado Springs, was honored with an "All-American City" citation. The prestigious national award was presented after the community labored for years to clean up the urban blight and crime that had overtaken their racially mixed neighborhood.
Now, a not yet approved plan to build an additional 63 affordable housing units in a lot adjacent to the church's already existing 32-unit project on the 1000 block of South Institute Street is drawing criticism.
Warehousing the working class
Members of the Hillside Neighborhood Association and Promise Lee, a longtime neighborhood activist and pastor of another Hillside church, Relevant Word Ministries, are criticizing the project, claiming it would turn the Hillside community into a warehouse for low-income rentals. Lee owns a large parcel of property directly across the street from the proposed project where he eventually plans to locate his ministry.
The critics say that 104 affordable housing units on one block is far too many, and that the housing program in its present incarnation serves more to perpetuate than to alleviate poverty and chronic homelessness.
"This project is overloading Hillside with apartments," said John Frazier, a member of the Hillside Neighborhood Association board. "We badly need the stability of single-family dwellings, not additional multi-family rentals."
Lee agrees. "If our goal is merely to provide a roof for the homeless and indigent, the Payne program is doing that," he said. "But if our goal is to break the cycle of systemic poverty, we have to do more than warehouse the needy.
"Affordable housing recipients should get counseling, mentorship and empowerment programs that move them from dependency on the system into self-sufficiency and even home ownership. Instead of giving them fish, we should be teaching them how to fish, and the Payne Chapel program isn't doing that. Some of the people living in those facilities are third and fourth-generation residents. That, in a nutshell, is our concern -- the perpetuation and enablement of systemic poverty."
Safe, decent, affordable
But Payne Chapel pastor Jesse Brown rejects Lee's assertions. Their current affordable housing rentals, he said, are well-kept. Tenants, he said, represent all age categories and come from all walks of life. Troublemakers, he said, are evicted.
"We do not allow abandoned cars or rowdy activities," he said. "Our ministry provides decent, safe and sanitary housing at an affordable rate. That's a positive for the community."
If approved by the Planning Commission in its September meeting, the facility will house 63 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments in five buildings. According to city planner Bonnie Olson, approximately 40 of the units will rent at market rates, and the others will rent on a sliding scale determined by the size and income of the residing family.
A city-commissioned study found last year that homelessness in Colorado Springs has skyrocketed by 234 percent in the past five years, with at least another 1,200 people verging on homelessness.
More than half of this city's homeless and at-risk homeless, the study found, have a high-school degree and some college or vocational training. By far the largest cause of homelessness, according to the study, is this city's dearth of affordable housing.
Another study commissioned by the Colorado Springs City Council found that 37,000 new affordable apartment units are needed to meet this city's low-income needs. According to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, a person working a 40-hour week has to earn at least $11.98 an hour to afford the average Colorado Springs rent of $630 a month. A minimum-wage earner would have to work 93 hours a week to meet that rent.
It is statistics like these that lead Payne Chapel pastor Jesse Brown to insist that the affordable housing units his project provides are critically needed. "The truth is, some folks will never own a house," he said.
Rife with stereotypes
Cyndy Kulp, a longtime activist for affordable housing in Colorado Springs, agrees. "A lot of low-income Hillsiders live in rundown, inadequate housing run by slumlords," she said. "For them, this facility would be a step up.
"On the other hand," Kulp added, "Pastor Lee and the Hillside Neighborhood Association have worked very hard over the years to build up the neighborhood, and for them the word 'affordable' is rife with negative stereotypes."
Larry Ash, who owns Hillside Gardens, a nursery directly across the street from the proposed project, said the problem is more tangible than arguable stereotypes.
"I think that Reverend Brown does a pretty good job of managing his projects," Ash said, "but it's asking for trouble to cram another 63 affordable housing units next door to 32 already existing units. We already have problems with things like people parked on the street out front, lying on their car hoods with their boom boxes blasting."
City Councilwoman Sallie Clark, who attended a July 12 neighborhood meeting about the proposed project, is hopeful that the neighbors and project proponents can find common ground.
"The Payne Chapel program meets a genuine need, but the needs of neighbors have to be respected, too," Clark said. "Pastor Lee and Pastor Brown have devoted years to improving their neighborhood. I hope they can work out their differences so that the neighborhood is the winner."
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