By Julia C. Martinez
In October 2014, David Torres’ life took a painful detour when a stranger in a bolo tie, cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed hat strode into his living room in the Elyria neighborhood of Denver and announced: “We’re taking your house.”
The family’s corner lot was a prime piece of real estate for expansion of the outdated National Western Complex, and Denver intended to seize the private property under its power of eminent domain, if necessary. The cowboy-garbed man giving Torres notice was Kelly Leid, former executive director of the Mayor’s Office of the National Western Center. His message was that the family needed to pack up their lives and belongings, and get out of Dodge ahead of the city’s bulldozers.
“I felt like crying. My mother was in a daze,” recalls Torres, 31, the youngest son of Rose and Salvador Torres, who bought the house in 1987. “It was the house we grew up in.” While a lot more was said that day, Torres said the public taking is what stuck in the minds of those present.
What followed for Torres were three stress-filled years during which he put his life on hold.
“I became very irritable. I couldn’t sleep,” Torres says. He cut his work hours to deal with the planning, packing, house-hunting and piles of paperwork from the city. He and his mother joined the ranks of an estimated 350 people forcibly displaced from northeast Denver’s Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods to make way for a massive revitalization and gentrification project, of which the National Western Complex redevelopment is just one part.
Torres’ story reflects a familiar narrative in U.S. cities from Portland, Ore., to Brooklyn, N.Y., where older, traditionally underserved neighborhoods are undergoing significant change. In some cases, it’s primarily because of renovation or expansion of public-facing infrastructure, like this particular project in Denver. Yet such transformation is also often due to surging demand among wealthier, mostly white newcomers for trendy urban neighborhood living. Either way, the process often results in long-established, mostly non-white residents being forced out of their homes and communities.
Leid said he had not looked forward to delivering the news, but elected to go in person to the 38 homes, businesses and commercial establishments displaced by the Western Complex makeover. “I think it is an obligation as a public official to stand before people and have those tough conversations,” he says.
Leid said his focus was on the message, including “the rules of engagement that we were going to use.” He does not remember his words and manner as Torres describes.
“No, I never used that tone,” Leid says. “I certainly felt like I was being direct and forthright with folks, and if that came across as being unemotional, certainly that was not the intent. Those were not easy meetings to attend.”
Torres’ physical and emotional responses to displacement are not uncommon. A 2014 report by the advocacy group Just Cause and the Alameda County Public Health Department in California said that gentrification has serious public health consequences that can harm a displaced person’s physical and psychological well-being.
“Gentrification results in displacement, which causes stress for people, which can exacerbate existing health conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease,” says Muntu Davis, MD, a physician and director of Alameda County’s public health department. The emotional toll can involve sleep disorders, anxiety, depression and other conditions, he said.
The California analysis found that “gentrification may increase health inequities,” or disparities in health caused by social and economic disadvantages.
In Oakland, Calif.’s highly gentrified neighborhoods, displaced people experienced financial distress, longer commutes and loss of health services that, in turn, had direct impacts on their mental and physical well-being, Davis said. Some people became homeless. Others were forced into living conditions in which they struggled to make ends meet, having to choose between buying food or medicine, he said.
The Torres house is among 111 residential, business and commercial properties to be bulldozed in northeast Denver—38 by the city, 73 by the state, according to numbers from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the National Western Complex. This includes the Colonial Manor Motel on East 46th Avenue, whose guests are largely people with low incomes, according to motel day manager Yong Huh. CDOT is acquiring the motel property and will help relocate 20 adults and children who have lived in the motel for at least 30 days, CDOT spokesperson Rebecca White said.
The forced removals are part of an ambitious effort to reinvent and enlarge the National Western Complex, a 112-year-old vestige of Denver’s Wild West past; rebuild a nearby portion of Interstate 70; and add commuter rail lines and stations in the Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods. While the projects are separate, the City of Denver, State of Colorado and the Regional Transportation District are partnering on scheduling, pollution monitoring, road closures and other details.
“It’s compelling that you have two, billion-dollar projects in a very small geographic area,” says White. “I don’t know that that’s ever happened in City of Denver history.”
CDOT’s responsibility, in addition to submerging and capping part of I-70, is to remake neighborhood streets near the interstate and add eight-foot sidewalks, lighting and tree lawns with up to 150 trees. CDOT is also building bicycle lanes on designated streets and providing $2 million for affordable housing, to replace some of the demolished residences, White said.
Some area residents speculate that the city’s underlying goal is to help pave the way for an Olympics bid, with a wider interstate from the airport and a National Western Center campus whose master plan calls for designing space to accommodate an “Olympic large-track speed skating oval.” The Denver Sports Commission has publicly expressed interest in bringing the 2026 Winter Olympics to Colorado.
CDOT’s White brushes off the Olympics speculation as “conspiracy theory.” Erika Martinez, spokesperson for the mayor’s National Western Center office, says: “There could be a building that would fit an Olympic-size event, but that’s not why we’re building it.”
Regardless of future uses for this area of northeast Denver, Elyria and Swansea residents are feeling the impacts. Candi Cdebaca, a community leader and fourth-generation Swansea resident, has witnessed firsthand the negative health effects of forced removals since residents learned of the city’s revitalization plans.
“The physical and psychological harm of displacement is real. Nobody seems to understand the toll it takes to deal with this level of stress,” says Cdebaca, whose close friends have been among those forced out of their homes.
Under Dr. Davis, the Alameda County Public Health Department is among the first in the country to treat gentrification as a public health concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified gentrification as a “housing, economic, and health issue.” Displacement has health implications that contribute to disparities among those living in poverty, people of color and other populations, the CDC says.
Still, Davis said he isn’t opposed to development or gentrification. “There are good things that come with mixed-income communities,” Davis says. “Sometimes, schools get better. Grocery stores start to show up.
“The bad part is when people are forcibly displaced.”
Most studies linking displacement to health inequities have focused on mass displacements due to natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina; or economic upheavals, such as the 2008 financial crisis, when millions of people lost their homes to foreclosure. While gentrification has been a popular subject for study, its impacts on people it displaces are not as well-documented.
Dawn Godbolt, PhD, a health equity research fellow at Global Policy Solutions, a nonprofit think tank in Washington D.C., believes the true face of gentrification remains hidden from the public due to limited data on displaced people.
“Nobody follows them. Nobody knows the story of how those families end up,” Godbolt says.
“We have to imagine they end up in similar situations or worse off. This assumption is based on the fact that these people lived in areas ripe for gentrification, and were forced or priced out.”
Officials in Denver say they are not tracking residents forcibly displaced from Elyria and Swansea, and are not aware of health impacts. “Our focus is on getting people to where they want to go,” says Martinez of the mayor’s National Western Center office. “If they need services, they need to tell us.”
In Oakland, capturing data on the health and social conditions of displaced people has been challenging, Davis acknowledges. “It’s typically hard to follow people who have been displaced. It’s not like there is a registry of (such) people,” he says.
Some of the data collected in Oakland was obtained through an affordable housing survey by Davis’ office and the county’s behavioral health department, conducted to determine client needs. Many of those surveyed had been displaced from gentrified areas and had health, housing and other needs, Davis said.
Thus far, forced displacements in northeast Denver have been relatively low-key. While eminent domain is the law under which the government has the sovereign power to forcibly take private property, state and city officials have tried to soften the blow by approaching affected property owners and renters under the federal Uniform Relocation Act (URA).
The URA, passed by Congress in 1970, establishes minimum standards for the fair and equitable treatment of people being forcibly removed by projects involving a federal agency or funding. The Federal Highway Administration is overseeing the I-70 project, which also receives federal dollars. Leid said the city voluntarily opted to use URA guidelines, even though the National Western project receives no federal funds.
“It is the difference between open, willing negotiations, versus the government imposing its authority to take the property,” said CDOT’s White.
Among other things, the URA requires at least 90 days notice and payment of moving expenses and fair market value for residential and business properties. Displaced homeowners in northeast Denver are being paid the difference between the market value of the home being demolished and what it will cost to find something equivalent elsewhere. Displaced renters are being reimbursed the difference for higher rents up to 42 months, or they can bundle the payments into a down payment on a home purchase, if they qualify, CDOT and National Western officials said.
Both state and city officials underscored that eminent domain would be used as a last resort on property owner holdouts by asking a court to condemn the property in favor of the government. Thereafter, URA rules would resume.
Under eminent domain, renters have no rights, other than to be reimbursed for their deposits. Property owners are entitled to timely notice and “just compensation.” The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which became the law of the land in 1791, stipulates: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Fourteenth Amendment extends the takings clause to states and local governments, while its due process clause says that before depriving a citizen of life, liberty or property, governments must follow fair procedures.
Fair market value generally determines just compensation. Colorado is among more than 40 states to reform state laws in recent years to give owners more protections.
Former Elyria residents Judy Delgato and husband Scott Poindexter opted to take a lump sum payment for a modular home in Adams County, but it has not been an easy transition. The couple was unprepared for the longer commute to Poindexter’s work near their old neighborhood. And their expenses have soared—from about $300 a month for rent and utilities in a one-bedroom, federally subsidized Section 8 duplex in Elyria, to roughly $1,500 for lot rental, utilities and insurance in their new home.
“It is very stressful. We wonder: are we going to have electricity this month, or no electricity?” says Delgato, 49, who said she suffers from diabetes and is unable to work due to a disability. Since moving, “we struggle to buy food,” she adds. “Sometimes we have to go to a food bank.”
CDOT’s White said renters received financial counseling before the state purchased homes for them. “There’s no situation in which we are putting people into a house they can’t afford,” White says.
Artist Don Callarman, 78, is among the oldest of the recently displaced Denver residents. He was fearful and stressed when CDOT forced him out of his Swansea rental at 46th Avenue and Josephine Street, but he is now settled into a small house a few miles away in Globeville.
“The only problem with all this is I sure wish it would have happened 20 years before,” says Callarman. “I’m almost 80. I’m not as strong as I used to be, and I can’t get around so easy. It made the move more difficult.”
CDOT made a hefty down payment to help Callarman buy his new property, paid to upgrade the plumbing and covered his moving expenses.
“Overall, I’m pretty happy,” he says. “My mortgage payment is almost equal to what I paid before. And there’s a new King Soopers about a mile from me.” Callarman relies on both social security payments and proceeds from the sale of his artwork for income.
For some displaced families, the effects of relocation can be “both positive and negative at the same time, and sometimes may well cancel each other out,” says Adam Lippert, PhD, an assistant professor, sociologist and demographer at the University of Colorado, Denver. It depends on several factors, including where they end up and their circumstances, Lippert says.
It is too early to say whether the positives and negatives of the Torres family’s forced displacement will cancel each other out.
The day the family got the news that their house would be condemned to build the new National Western Center, Torres, his mother, brothers and sisters were mourning their patriarch, who had died two weeks earlier. Salvador Torres had bought the two-story Victorian house 27 years earlier, worked hard to pay off the mortgage and owned it free and clear at his death. It wasn’t the perfect location—with a busy boulevard and interstate nearby, and the National Western Complex across the street—but it was home.
“We have said that if he had not passed before this happened, this process would have taken him,” David Torres says.
Fifteen years earlier, Salvador Torres lost his auto repair business in nearby Globeville in another public-taking urban renewal project to widen another section of I-70.
“It pretty much put my dad out of business,” David Torres says. The relocated business never bounced back, and his father struggled to support his family. Salvador Torres’ death at age 69 was due to a sudden heart attack, Torres said. Whether the health impacts of losing his place of business played a role, the family will never know.
What they do know is that Salvador Torres would not have given up the family home without a fight. David Torres decided to resist the city’s efforts to relocate him and his mother to an adjoining suburb or the outskirts of the city. They wished to remain in Denver, and his mother wanted to continue to pick up her grandchildren from school five days a week without having to drive a long distance through heavy traffic.
They also fought the city’s efforts to acquire their historic home for $200,000, which their real estate broker Steve Kinney said “was not remotely appropriate or fair,” given that real estate prices in the area are soaring in anticipation of the revitalization projects.
Torres hired a lawyer, enlisted Kinney’s help and stitched together a plan. For months at a time, there were no homes for sale in his price range; those that were available were not comparable to the family’s four-bedroom, two-bathroom house. Meanwhile, Kinney battled with the firm managing the city’s eminent domain relocations, to raise the valuation of the house in line with a private appraisal. (The URA pays for residents to have their own appraisals.)
This past spring, exhausted from their ordeal and with the city’s final offer of $499,999 in hand, including moving expenses, Torres and his mother tearfully handed over their Elyria house keys to the city, and purchased a ranch-style brick bungalow in the Whittier neighborhood a few miles away.
It was not comparable to their historic home. But it was a lucky find in a good neighborhood, given Denver’s red-hot housing market. Torres is near his job at the Purina plant, and his mother is just three miles from the school where she picks up her grandchildren.
“We did not want to leave our house and our neighborhood. I cry every time I think of it,” says Rose Torres, 70, wiping away tears as she leans on a bay-like window ledge in her new dining room. “It’s where we raised our kids. It has so many memories.” Rose Torres said she cannot bear to visit the remnants of her old house, and is trying to like her new one.
David Torres’ persistence did not come without a hefty price tag. He now has a mortgage and is increasing his work schedule to 60 hours a week to make ends meet. Still, he is not as irritable or stressed, and is sleeping more.
“I just want to block out that part of my life. It has been very painful,” he says. “It sure took years off my life.”