A barn raising community event took place on Saturday in Sustainability Park in downtown Denver.
Hundreds gathered at one end of the park to move an evicted community garden created by The Denver Urban Farmers and another gathered at the other end to raise tiny homes.
By evening, the homes were destroyed by police, thrown in a dump truck, while ten people were arrested and charged with trespass.
Barn raising community gatherings are a centuries-old tradition in US history. Neighbors helping neighbors build each other’s homes and barns assured that the task requiring many hands could be completed.
But at this particular plot of land owned by the Denver Housing Authority, the Denver public turned out to oppose the sale of the land to a private developer saying that public assets should not be used to “incentivize” upscale market housing.
The event began with a gathering to give historical context to the day’s activities. “That’s why we’re starting with the information about the history of this land and the indigenous people who lived here and the process of colonization and also more recently what this place was 50 years ago. This was low-income housing projects. This was housing for people of color. Housing for low-income people, for poor people. and that was displaced in 1999 when housing projects all around the country started to get taken down. So this isn’t just about coming out here and doing gardens. We have to deal with this unfortunate situation of these three urban farms that have been growing food for people for the last five years here. We want to show the resilience of our community and say ok, we can take those down the block but it’s also about us all coming together and envisioning having this conversation and saying, ‘wait a second, this isn’t just about the years of capital, this isn’t just about how the system functions, we actually have self-determination.’ We get to decide what our world looks like. We get to look at each other and say, ‘what do we actually want to see in this space.’ Do we want to see urban farms here? Do we want to see people housed?”
Nick Gruber with Produce Denver said that five years ago Denver Housing Authority came to Denver Urban Gardens who is a “silent” partner of Urban Farmers Collaborative. The Urban Farmers Collaborative joined together in an agreement with the Denver Housing Authority to build an urban farm. “We did not know the history of the land. At first there was incredible amounts of opposition. This was supposed to be a permanent urban farm. Five years later, a developer is going to buy the land. [The land] went from not being untouched, to being zoned ‘mixed use.’ Every month it kinda seems like ‘oh, now a business is going to be attached.’ We have to move. We have to move all our soil away, all our plants away, take down our green house because November 30th we have to be out. So I call that kinda being displaced again.”
By mid-morning, hundreds could be seen in Sustainability Park moving plants, planters, trees, and even soil to another farm down the road on Tremont, a vacant plot also owned by Denver Housing Authority. The DHA would only enter into a one-year lease with the farmers, “This story isn’t new,” Gruber continued, “We really need to pressure developers, Denver Housing Authority to focus and make urban farming as being integrated with housing. just think if codes mandated like 10% of the space has to be food production whether it’s a community garden or a greenhouse. Think of how much food we could produce. On one acre in Denver Public Schools we produced 32,000 pounds of on 1.12 acres.”
Dozens of addtional volunteers arrived with trucks, wood, and tools. Marcus Hyde organizes with Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL), “The developer here is going to ‘greenwash’ this development. Homelessness wasn’t this mass problem in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s. Then we started to deregulate our housing stock along with our healthcare. We turned to the free market to provide our low-income housing and we cut our affordable housing budget by 77% in 5 years. We’ve never refunded our affordable housing budget on a federal level, on a state level, or on a local level. So that’s why we’re fighting back. That’s why we’re taking this property. So this property that we’re building today, we’re calling Resurrection Village.”
Karen Seed an organizer with DHOL explained the history behind choosing the name “Resurrection Village”:
“There was also this really great thing that Martin Luther King was up to right before he was assassinated. And he was basically organizing across class lines, across gender lines to unite people who were poor or of the lower class or struggling through poverty and he was looking across these lines to address this monster of capitalism and why people were in this economic situation. So what they were planning was an encampment on the Washington Mall to ask the federal government for more affordable housing and to lift out of the economic situation that they were in. And that encampment was called Resurrection City. So while they were organizing this, King was assassinated. He was shot. So not a lot of people know about the Poor People’s Economic Rights Campaign because all of the media attention went to his death.”
After public housing had been torn down after 1999 the block that now is Sustainability Park had been sitting vacant when in 2009 the DHA invited the Urban Farmers Collective to initiate a pilot project of community gardens, “They really gave them a lot of promises about how much land they would be able to keep and whether or not it was going to be permanent, “according to Snead, “There was a lot of hope that Sustainability Park could really be a long-term food forest, and urban farm, and access point for fresh organic food for the people of Denver. So the farmers were really hoping for that from the beginning and really trying to advocate for that and trying to get the Housing Authority to support that. And the Housing Authority said they did on paper. They also said they were going to build affordable housing in the future so the farms would probably have to move but they could keep some of the land, but shocker, 2015 rolls around. The Housing Authority is like ‘we’re not going to build affordable housing here. We’re selling it for $10 million, both of these city blocks.’ They’re being sold and now all those urban farmers have to leave.
Denver Housing Authority wasn’t looking so good in the eyes of the community after they evicted everyone and forced all of these low income people off the land. So they decided they’re going to bring in this Sustainability Park as kind of like a PR move as a way to clean up their image and look more palatable in the eyes of the community, ‘We’re about food justice and food access.’
But they never had any plans to let the farmers stay here. They never had any plans to actually commit resources financially to this. They brought the farms in so that they could look good on paper and so that the land could appreciate in value. Because this is a gentrifying neighborhood. So back in the day when they tore down those buildings, it was blighted. Nobody wanted to live in this neighborhood, nobody with money. This was the hood. It was a very strategic move to bring in the farms after they kicked out of the poor people because that makes the neighborhood suddenly more palatable to upper middle class white interests because of all of the conversations around sustainability and urban farming and it’s hip and it’s very sexy right now.
I’ve seen this happen many, many times and I’m sure other people have seen it in many other cities in America where farmers basically get used like pawns on a chess board. They get placed here and allowed to grow for a certain amount of time until that time that that land is worth enough to sell and then it gets sold out from under them.
As an urban farmer myself, I’m realizing more and more to be an urban farmer, you can’t just want to grow food. You have to get political. You have to be aware of how you’re being pitted against all these other justice issues.
It’s a really interesting intersection on this land and that’s why I think this action that we’re doing is very potent at this time.
In the Great Depression there was this thing called the Bonus Army which was 43,000 veterans from the war and they were homeless because of the economic conditions and because the government at that time wasn’t funding affordable housing. And they set up a tent city on the Washington Mall and demanded affordable housing. And shortly after that FDR into power and passed the New Deal which authorized federal funding to be allocated toward housing and urban development, a sector of the federal government or HUD. So that was how they built all these projects in the 50’s, the Curtis Park Housing Projects that housed hundreds of families here. and during Reagan’s administration from 1980 to 1995, that budget was slashed by 77%. So the funds that were once available for public housing are nowhere to be found. And what we need is options. We need sustainable and alternative options for our people because we cannot continue to survive in this competitive housing market as the rents continue to go up.”
Audry Haynes who also organizes with DHOL continued with the tour as we passed by two small Conestoga huts made of white tent-like material and also by two of the tiny homes,
“One is actually mine. I think it’s great because I’ll have a place to go. All this land back here is where we’re going to have the tiny homes village, the commons area. Right where we’re standing right now, right in front of us, there’s going to be a kitchen area. We’ll have a couple of stoves in there. We have some places that will be bringing food in.
Up on this hill back here we know some people who need a place are going to be coming so we’ll probably be putting some tents up there for them to stay in and if they want a house, we may eventually have some more here as well.
I’ve been homeless on the streets for six years on and off and I got tired of not having a place to go. I didn’t want to be on a 6 year waiting list. So I heard about this and I decided to support this and i helped work at not only getting myself a place to go but other people an idea of building themselves a place to go. we may have some stuff possibly going on in Longmont soon. I think there’s a tiny home campaign kinda starting up there. I’m really excited and I’m willing to build houses for that one too.
This means more to me than anybody knows.
There’s a lot that people can do when they get together for one purpose and it’s really touching and meaningful. I’m really, really excited. I can honestly say I’ve got my own house. You don’t know how much this means to me. I almost want to cry.”
Seed went on to say that the onus remains with the DHA to serve the community as the public sees fit, “We want to put a lot of public pressure on and bring awareness. We want to bring awareness to the fact that this is public land. DHA is a public entity. Denver Housing Authority has a responsibility to the people of Denver to steward public land for the public good. And what we’re seeing is a privatization and a selling off of that land. Their excuse for doing that is if we sell this land at a really high price, then we can have money to build affordable housing somewhere else, while simultaneously claiming that they have fulfilled their quota for affordable housing. Even though the auditor’s office estimated that they’re like 26,000 units short for fulfilling the need for affordable housing in Denver. It’s like they’re selling it, but then they’re not building more. It’s pretty insidious and pretty corrupt.”
A report released in 2014 by the Office of the Auditor for the City and County of Denver concurred. The report found that Denver’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) was being utilized by the Office of Economic Development for economic development over housing.
The report found that the Office of Economic Development’s funding of affordable housing does not fulfill Denver’s affordable housing needs. Low-income residents who could not find affordable housing increased between 2005 and 2010 coupled with the unavailability of houses that were priced below $200,000 in 2011 compared to 2005. This “renters gap” increased from 25,648 to 27,253 in the same five-year period.
The auditor recommended that the Office of Economic Development dedicate more of its Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to housing rather than to economic development activities.
About 8:00 p.m. about 70 police officers including a SWAT team, a gang unit, both officers of the police and sheriff’s department, and a hovering helicopter arrived to evict the people who were planning on beginning a new life in their new homes. Ten were arrested and charged with trespass.
As we finished the tour, Seed sent the message, “They’re making a profit off of this and who are they accountable to? So we want to remind them that they are accountable to the people of Denver and the communities that already live here, not the people that they want to bring in. Not the people who want to move in but the people who have lived here for generations.”