The groundbreaking for Providence at the Heights (PATH), an affordable housing project in Aurora, will take place this month. PATH is the latest initiative of the Second Chance Center, which is focused on a campaign for housing accessibility. But their journey with PATH shows just how difficult that road can be.
By Erin Coleman
“It’s my understanding that what we’re approving here is a site plan, not the type of tenants that might live in this apartment building,” said Aurora Mayor Bob LeGare following the introduction of Agenda Item 12A. LeGare spoke at a September public hearing in support of the Providence at the Heights (PATH), an affordable housing complex that the Aurora Planning and Zoning Commission had unanimously shot down in July.
The appeal was submitted by Second Chance Center (SCC), a non-profit organization with a mission to provide rehabilitative services for formerly incarcerated individuals. A 6-0 decision of the Planning and Zoning Commission denied SCC’s proposal for a new supportive housing complex. PATH would be a three-story, 50-unit, multi-family apartment complex providing affordable housing for SCC’s clients, as well as other individuals earning at or below 30 percent of average median income, who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, or who have a disability.
The site, on the southwest corner of Aurora Parkway and Joplin Street, shares space with neighbor Elevation Christian Church, sitting on a vacant portion of the church property. When the project was denied, the commission cited concerns about parking space — SCC had arranged a shared parking agreement with Elevation — and size of the site.
“Given the site’s proximity to amenities and mass transit, this location would be entirely appropriate for multi-family development,” said BlueLine Development representative Christian Prichett. “It fulfills the city’s site plan criteria of transit-oriented development, as well as adequacy, accessibility, [and] connectivity of traffic patterns.”
“The Planning and Zoning [decision] was a gut shot,” said Hassan Latif, executive director of SCC. “We had followed all of the guidance we got from the city planners from the beginning. It was clear that [the commissioners] responded to the overwhelming opposition that was there that night. Twenty-two people testified — none of them were talking about the site plan.”
Seventy-three council meeting attendees submitted speaker slips in order to address the item during the public hearing over the decision.
A piece of the housing puzzle
PATH is just one part of a larger campaign for affordable housing started by SCC.
Latif and his staff identified access to affordable housing as a service priority because, he said, “Many [incarcerated individuals] are homeless when released [from prison]. Going to a job every day, maintaining appropriate hygiene and all that, is difficult when not properly housed.”
SCC leases apartments at South Valley Highway in Unincorporated Arapahoe County through a partnership with Unlocking Equity, as well as a quad plex located at Chambers and 13th. Plus, SCC is partnering with Interfaith Alliance to encourage other churches to make open space on their properties available for affordable housing development.
“A fact we’re very proud of is that we’ve never had a negative police contact at any of our sites,” said Latif.
Beyond providing residents with physical necessities, SCC aims to give them the confidence required for rehabilitation.
“They start to think ‘I do deserve this,’” said Latif. “They can stay as long as they want [at PATH] — that’s the concept. But, my feeling is, when their lives stabilize, there will be some traditional transition. The people on SSI and SSDI, I think, will be the ones who continue to stay there.”
Second Chance Center’s original vision for PATH was that the complex would provide housing exclusively for SCC clients. However, when the organization learned of challenges to acquiring Low Income Tax Credits, it expanded resident identification to include other demographics, such as the impoverished and disabled, in order to have a more competitive funding application.
Latif noted that the change in resident identification and selection “has given some of the community the feeling that we have been less than forthcoming about our intent.”
The rocky road to approval
Under Aurora’s building and zoning code, there are 11 criteria for approval of a site plan, none of which the Planning Commission identified as concerns in its initial decision.
“What one sees in reviewing the Planning Commission meeting minutes is that the bulk of the time — the bulk of the public comment and the bulk of the commissioners’ comments — focused on considerations that are not legally relevant to the site plan approval criteria or the waiver criteria,” said Munsey Ayers from Ottten Johnson Robinson Neff + Regonetti Law Firm, the firm representing SCC.
“I think it’s becoming abundantly clear that there are people who get waivers and that there are people who don’t. And that there are ‘haves’ in this city and there are ‘have-nots,’” said Kristen Mallory, a resident of Aurora Ward 5, during her testimony. “At the end of the day, the poor people in Aurora are still Aurorans, and they still need housing.”
Among the highest proportion of speakers in objection to PATH were members of the Cobblewood Creek Home Owners’ Association, who expressed a range of concerns including fear of the property being too small for the scale of the project and having been excluded from discussions regarding the development of the project. Resident Kathleen Taylor expressed concern that some homeowners were left out of the discussion, while resident Alison Waters stated that some of her neighbors “say if the project is approved they would move.”
“I heard a lot of those concerns as we slowly organized to come together in regards to this project,” said Joseph Wittig, the Cobblewood Creek Home Owners’ Association president. “The proposed location is simply inappropriate because the structure is too large for this location, posing numerous safety concerns for the community, as well as potential future residents for the proposed building.”
Another community member, Rick Mayor, said, “I have no issues with helping homeless people, but what has not come up is what type of people are going to be in here. This has been misrepresented from the get-go — it was basically homeless people, disabled people, mental people, but it’s not talking about how many of these people are felons. At any time this whole complex could be full of felons… I just want to ask ya’ll if you’d like to have a building like this in your backyard with your children and your families.”
“We looked for nine months for something — land that was available — that was zoned appropriately for multi-family housing. When we finally connected with Elevation Christian Church and saw the site, we knew right away that there were changes we needed to make — alterations — we never wanted to be invaders, we always wanted to be neighbors,” said Latif.
Following a motion by Council Member Crystal Murillo to approve the site plan with two waivers, and a second by Council Member Allison Hiltz, the council voted 6-5 in favor of approval.
Latif hopes the developers will be able to break ground Nov 15. They estimate it will be 13 months from that date when SCC can start leasing, putting the official opening of PATH in Dec 2019.
“I spoke to the owner of BlueLine, Nate Richman, who has done 19 projects like this, and he told me, ‘I never put one in the wrong place,’” Latif said. “My hope is some of our neighbors will wonder what all the concern was about.” ■