NewsIthakaUpdate.jpg

The property at 411 W. Bijou St., called the Bijou House.

Land trust sells off housing for the poor to finance new complex, and not everyone is cheering
CSFD deputy chief asked about son's involvement in land trust house sales

Steve Handen and others in the Bijou Community have proposed that Ithaka Land Trust repurchase 411 W. Bijou St., called the Bijou House, and deed the property to the Bijou Community via Mesa Housing Inc., a nonprofit run by Handen.

The proposal comes on the heels of the Indy’s Jan. 27 cover story, “Price of progress,” which reported that Ithaka is selling all but two of its 21 properties to developers. The plan calls for using the money to construct a new facility southeast of downtown to house low-income families.

The story also reported that Ithaka has carried out the plan in relative secrecy, a claim a former maintenance worker tells the Indy is true.

The Indy reported that Ithaka has sold 10 properties so far without obtaining appraisals for the properties, most of which date back 100 years or more. Some were sold for less than the El Paso County Assessor’s Office’s market value.

Bids were not obtained from other developers; rather, Ithaka came to terms with one developer, Denver-area firefighter Drew Gaiser, 40, and floated that developer three no-interest loans on at least two properties. The plan calls for selling all but two of the other properties to Gaiser as well. Ithaka will retain two large buildings that house a dozen people or more.

Gaiser, who teamed up with Colorado Springs firefighter Ryan Royal, 38, plans to renovate the properties and rent them at market rates. In one case, Gaiser bought three homes on North Spruce Street that had rented for $500 a month. They now command monthly rents of $1,500 each.

Ithaka’s sell-off plans mean some long-time residents, many of them in their 80s who pay less than $300 a month in rent, must find new housing. That’s tricky in a market in which a one-bedroom rental can cost more than $1,200 a month. 

Handen and other members of the Bijou Community, which was dedicated to the common good and to fighting for peace and justice, want Ithaka to repurchase the West Bijou Street home to house the poor and preserve a columbarium on the property in perpetuity. Housing the poor was Ithaka’s original mission when founded in 1981.

Ithaka’s director Anjuli Kapoor, 39, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Gaiser tells the Indy he’s not aware of the proposal so couldn’t comment.

Handen, 80, and others oppose a shift in Ithaka’s emphasis from housing the poor to delivering social programs so that low-income residents can transition to market-priced housing.

Handen’s proposal, submitted Jan. 27, stems from Ithaka’s earlier invitation for the Bijou Community to propose a way to deal with the columbarium where the ashes of homeless people and others are buried. That house is now owned by Gaiser, who paid $315,137 for the property in October 2020, less than the assessor’s market value of $336,516.

The columbarium is the site of The Longest Night vigil at winter solstice, when the community honors homeless people who have died.

“My heart is broken when I think of a big tractor going in and plowing the whole thing up,” Handen tells the Indy by phone.

Handen, Ithaka’s founder and director for nearly 20 years, until 2000, now runs Mesa Housing Inc., which owns three homes where homeless men are housed.

He and others who worked with and for Ithaka in the past oppose the sales, which Kapoor says will help fund a low-income complex to be built at the site of the former El Paso County Public Health building, 301 and 305 S. Union Blvd.

Ithaka pitched in $1 million to help another nonprofit, Hillside Community Preparatory School, run by Legacy Institute’s director Zach McComsey, buy the property from the county for $2.5 million in October.

Asked if he thinks his proposal has much of a chance, Handen says, “I’m a man of faith. Of course, it’s got a chance. These developers are men of conscience and want to help the poor. It shouldn’t even be an issue. They should just let the dead rest in peace. We would return the Bijou House to three nice affordable apartments.”

In his letter to the Ithaka board of directors, which is chaired by Amner Carmona Molina, who’s in his 20s, Handen said the Bijou Community is unanimous in opposing moving the columbarium but rather wants the entire property donated back to the Bijou Community.

“Ithaka would return the purchase price to the developers and then give the property to the Bijou Community. Obviously this will depend on the philanthropic sentiments of the developers,” Handen said in the letter. “We understand that Anjuli has a close relationship with them and would be able to persuade them to sell it back. If the developers wanted a reasonable premium added to the original sale price, the Bijou Community could help subsidize that.”

Another contingency would be for the property to be transferred with a deed restriction requiring the return of the property to Ithaka (or its successor or similar organization) when and if the Bijou Community could no longer care for it.

“As a primary condition of any change of ownership, the deed restriction would include the reverent disposition of the Columbarium to a location agreeable to Mesa House Board of Directors,” the letter said.

One point of contention amid the sales of the Ithaka properties dealt with the secrecy with which the plan was carried out. Two residents, Bill Sulzman, 82, and Esther Kisamore, also in her 80s, weren’t told that the nonprofit planned to sell the homes they’ve lived in for 30 years. They discovered this only after the sales took place last year, they said.

Christopher Webber, who worked as Ithaka’s maintenance manager from October 2018 to October 2020, when many of the sales took place, corroborates there was a concerted effort to keep residents in the dark.

As Webber carried out Kapoor’s instructions to assess the properties’ maintenance needs and escort Gaiser and Royal to look over the homes, “During this whole time, many different times, we were warned,” he tells the Indy.

He quotes Kapoor as telling the staff, “If anything is said to anyone about this transaction, you will be fired immediately.”

“I kind of had to walk around on pins and needles when I was in the houses,” he says, referring to residents asking him why developers were looking them over.

“This was done under cover,” Webber says. “It’s wrong to the community and the people we take care of.”

Webber, who says he maintained some of the properties even after they were sold,  says he and Kapoor had a falling out that led her to fire him. 

Senior Reporter

Pam Zubeck is a graduate from Emporia State University. She worked at the Tulsa Tribune before coming to Colorado Springs, where she spent 16 years at the Gazette and in 2009 joined Colorado Publishing House.