The Denver City Council incorporated several ideas from the city’s skeptical artist community Monday before approving a voluntary amnesty program aimed at addressing safety hazards in unpermitted spaces.
City officials proposed the new Safe Occupancy Program last month and portrayed it as the first of its kind in the country because it allows residents to stay in the buildings while they’re brought up to code. The program is aimed in part at defusing six months of tensions stoked by the shut-downs of two popular arts spaces in the River North Art District in December, just days after a deadly warehouse fire in Oakland, Calif.
At Rhinoceropolis on Brighton Boulevard, inspectors “red tagged” the building because of fire-code violations and because five people were living in an industrial building that wasn’t zoned for residents.
Last week, the council heard protests from arts advocates and others who expressed concern during a hearing about weak tenant protections in Denver that could hamstring some artists who want to avoid similar evictions. Speakers cited other issues that also could dissuade residents and their landlords taking advantage of the new program.
Amplify Arts and All In Denver, another group that has pressed for more solutions to the city’s affordable-housing problem, worked out several changes with the Department of Community Planning and Development and council members before Monday’s vote on the program.
The council approved the amended proposal 12-0.
To sign up for the program, which is set to last through January 2020, participants will have to come forward and agree to make safety improvements by certain deadlines set by the Denver Fire Department and other city agencies. The city will allow tenants and owners to live in building with some code violations as long as they are making progress, but they will have to fix life-safety hazards up front.
But it’s still unclear whether many owners or tenants of DIY, or do-it-yourself, venues will volunteer for the program.
“We knew this was going to pass, and we wanted to try to make it better,” said Kim Shively of Amplify Arts. “It’s not where it needs to be. Obviously, there are affordability issues throughout (Denver), not just among artists.”
Councilwoman Debbie Ortega presented the proposal amendment, which added another six months to the two-year span of the amnesty program, gave participants a full year to complete improvements (instead of nine months) and required the planning department to submit regular progress reports on the program.
The program also will be available for the buildings already closed by the city. A grace period will apply to any buildings visited and cited by inspectors in the next six months. And the council will undertake a sunset review of the program before it lapses, giving officials a chance to extend it.
Several council members had said last week that they expected such changes before they would vote for the program.
Convinced we need to work on Tenant Rights. Artists, Non-Profits and ppl of color may all go extinct in Denver if not. @RentersRights
— Albus Brooks (@AlbusBrooksD9) July 11, 2017
And council President Albus Brooks was among those who agreed last week with speakers’ worries that Denver has insufficient tenant rights. That issue wasn’t addressed by Monday’s changes.
A statement issued by All In Denver praised the changes and said a new city working group will suggest strategies to aid artist housing. The group also will seek sources of more money to fund incentives for owners and tenants to use the Safe Occupancy Program.