Nonprofit hopes future urban garden will help north Denver residents stay put despite gentrification

Community leaders in north Denver neighborhoods are looking to the dirt for solutions as rents begin to rise and gentrification continues to creep into working-class streets.

As more residents consider leaving or are kicked out of their rented homes, one local nonprofit hopes to use new grant money from the state to help the neighborhoods’ families grow sturdy roots — literally and figuratively.

The $100,000 Colorado Department of Human Services grant awarded to Focus Points Family Resource Center will fund a year of planning for future community gardens in the Elyria-Swansea and Globeville neighborhoods. The gardens will create flexible jobs with a living wage, prepare participants for careers in agriculture or to launch their own food businesses, and provide classes on nutrition for parents and children alike. The nonprofit has until July to plan for the launch.

Focus Points leaders hope the program, Huerta Urbana, will help participants earn enough money to stay in their homes, keep them off public assistance and address the neighborhood’s lack of healthy food.

“You have to serve the whole family to move the needle,” said Slavica Park, director of economic and workforce development at Focus Points.

The grant is part of a push by the Colorado Department of Human Services to focus on solutions that incorporate multiple generations of families in programming. Focus Points was one of 10 programs that earned grant money after 32 programs applied for the competitive funding, said Mary Alice Cohen, who runs the department’s two-generation programs.

“This movement is looking at what the family needs and bundling those services to help the family move into the middle class,” she said. “It’s looking at the whole family and what they need to thrive.”

Geraline Hernandez, age 1, left, finished ...
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Geraline Hernandez, 1, smiles after finishing writing letters to Santa with her mother Mari Vazquez, 31, right, at Focus Points Family Resource Center.

For 25 years, Focus Points Family Resource Center has provided educational programs, workforce development and children’s programs in Denver, executive director Jules Kelty said.

Focus Points will work with a range of partners to create the urban farming program, including Colorado State University and community colleges that could help participants pursue higher education. More importantly, the planning grant will allow the nonprofit time to work with the residents of the neighborhood to brainstorm ideas.

“I guarantee the community will have better ideas than us,” Kelty said.

A survey of 500 residents in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea published in 2017 found that about half of renters have no lease, making them vulnerable to evictions and rent hikes, and about 40 percent have faced rising rents. About 58 percent of homeowners have been approached about selling their homes, where the majority have lived for more than a decade

A controversial expansion of Interstate 70 already displaced families living in 56 homes and an update of the National Western Complex, which is also a partner in the program, has stoked fears that development will only push current residents out.

Between 2015 and 2017, the median value of homes in Swansea grew between 41 and 88 percent, according to the Denver City and County Assessor’s Office. The median growth rate for Denver was 26 percent for that same period.

“Investing aggressively in affordable housing is critical, but housing-based strategies must also be paired with strategies to build existing residents’ economic capacity,” one city report examining gentrification stated.

That’s where Focus Points steps in, its leaders said.

“We know we’ve helped people keep their homes,” Kelty said.

About 90 percent of Focus Points’ clients are Latino, including recent immigrants and refugees, and most have a low level of English proficiency, Kelty said. The nonprofit’s program includes English classes to GED preparation and workforce training while simultaneously providing child care and educational programs for children.

Like other programs, the urban garden will be an “earning while learning” program, where participants are paid to attend the classes and educational programs. Free programming isn’t enough in vulnerable, low-income communities, Park said. Many families need two incomes to survive.

“Even though the class is free, either that takes them away from their children or their job,” Park said.

Focus Points leaders hope that between 10 and 15 people will be able to work in the garden in its first year with room for more once it’s established.

The program will join another neighborhood urban farm program, The GrowHaus, and the two will work together to bring jobs and food to residents. The GrowHaus has lost employees who were forced to move because they could no longer afford to live in the neighborhood, executive director Kayla Birdsong said.

“Every organization in this neighborhood is thinking and talking about (gentrification) all the time,” she said.

The addition of more jobs and growing space in the community is welcome, Birdsong said.

“There’s still a huge opportunity for food to be grown here,” she said. “I don’t have a concern for having too many resources all of a sudden.”

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