Ithaka Land Trust, which came under fire earlier this year for its stealthy liquidation of low-income housing and shift away from long-term sheltering of the poor, is seeking a zoning change of 8.83 acres southeast of downtown.
The site, 301 S. Union Blvd., is the former location of El Paso County Public Health, which moved about a decade ago to 1625 Garden of the Gods Road. The buildings have been unoccupied since.
The Planning Commission gave a unanimous thumbs up in April to the 128-unit apartment complex and office center immediately east of Memorial Park.
On Tuesday, May 11, City Council will decide whether to rezone the property from public facility use to residential and office to accommodate the housing complex and additional uses.
In January, the Indy reported about Ithaka's recent focus shift from permanent housing for the poor to "transitional" housing, meaning people are provided social services to enable them to enter the housing market.
But long-time Ithaka residents said they weren't told anything until they discovered their homes had been sold out from under them to a Denver area firefighter who runs a string of limited liability companies that redevelops properties. For example, among the properties from Ithaka acquired by that developer, Drew Gaiser, were three houses on Spruce Street that Ithaka used to rent for $500 a month. Gaiser revamped them and now charges $1,500 a month.
The changes were orchestrated by Ithaka's executive director, Anjuli Kapoor, hired in October 2017, and a board comprised largely of younger people, despite Ithaka's 1981 founding based on nonviolence, peace activism, environmentalism and long-term care of the poor.
People in their 80s who've been involved with Ithaka for decades fear losing their homes — when the sales of their homes came to light, Ithaka assigned them social workers but said they would not be forced to move.
Now, Legacy Institute, a local nonprofit run by Zachary McComsey that teamed with Ithaka to purchase the property for a new complex, is taking the next rezoning step. (Ithaka put up $1 million from the sales of the Ithaka properties, and Legacy put up $1.5 million.)
Ithaka's name isn't mentioned in the rezoning application, but Kapoor wrote an explanation for the project as part of the backup materials presented to Council.
In it, she states Ithaka is no longer in the business of housing poor people indefinitely.
"All families pay a program fee of 30% of their gross monthly income, which is re-evaluated at least once a year or upon income change in the household. As we typically work with families who either (1) do not have access to other services in the area due to their barriers; or (2) have exhausted services elsewhere, typically in shorter-term programs that cannot meet their needs, we work with families at an average of 2 years a piece," she wrote. "We also specifically look for people who are ready to move forward: we will walk alongside and offer support (including through our community), but they need to be willing and able to walk the path themselves."
She also mentions that Gaiser will be involved in the redevelopment. Some apartments would be developed for rent at market rates, Gaiser previously told the Indy, but the application doesn't say how many.
As one long-time Ithaka resident Bill Sulzman has said, he doesn't know how he could ever afford a market rental given that he lives on a fixed income of $850 a month, not unlike other Ithaka residents.
In any event, the Council backup materials say both buildings on the property will be demolished and that plans call for construction of up to 128 units in 21 buildings ranging in size from 2,700 square feet to over 49,000 square feet, with a maximum height of 36 feet tall.
Another portion of the application materials say only 60 units will be built: three dozen three-story townhomes with an attached parking garage; 12 two-story townhomes with street parking access; 10 one-story commercial suites; and one two-story story transitional group living facility with 15 "pods" of three to four bedrooms each that share living spaces.
The application materials state all neighbors were notified of the project and no comments were received.
"The Memorial Park neighborhoods are in a state of renewal and the S. Union project is designed as a catalyst for quality development in the surrounding area," a description of the project on the city's website says.
Steve Handen, 80, who founded Ithaka and served as director for 20 years, sought in February to recapture the Bijou House, 411 W. Bijou St., for the Bijou Community, as the Ithaka residents came to be known. Ithaka sold the house in October 2020 to Gaiser for $21,000 less than assessor market value.
There's been no recent report on Handen's efforts.
Kapoor has said the Ithaka properties needed to be sold because the nonprofit couldn't afford to pump $1 million or more into deferred maintenance, but several Ithaka residents told the Indy the properties' conditions are not as poor as represented.