North Denver’s Green Space Paradox

Will a billion-dollar infrastructure project heal a Colorado community — or displace its residents?

Editor’s note: Our colleagues at High Country News published this story in their Dec. 1, 2023, edition. They wanted G.E.S. Gazette readers to have access to it as well.

By Raksha Vasudevan, High Country News (Dec. 1, 2023)

A park on top of a busy underground highway was a first for Denver — a first, in fact, for the entire Mountain West. To outsiders, it seemed like a wonderful addition to Globeville Elyria-Swansea, or GES, a predominantly Latino community in North Denver. It featured an amphitheater, two soccer fields and a splash pad for overheated kids on hot days, though no splash pads were needed at the ribbon-cutting ceremony last November, when temperatures dipped into the 20s. About 160 freshly planted saplings, their bases powdered with snow, dotted the park’s four acres, and the Rocky Mountains rose dramatically in the distance. Plumes of smoke from the nearby Purina factory marred the view slightly, but overall, it was a peaceful scene, especially considering that 10 lanes of cars were speeding by underneath.

The facility, dubbed simply “the cover park,” represented a milestone in the $1.2 billion reconstruction of Interstate 70 — one of the largest and most controversial infrastructure projects in Colorado’s history. Freeways had long divided this community, and the project was designed to reconnect it. For over four years, residents’ lives had been upended by all the demolition and construction. The park’s unveiling was supposed to symbolize the end of a difficult chapter and the beginning of a better one.

The park itself cost $125 million, and the soccer fields’ turf was so new that it still curled up at the corners, occasionally causing attendees — mostly bureaucrats in puffer jackets and polished dress shoes — to stumble. Gov. Jared Polis was present, as was Denver’s then-mayor, Michael Hancock, a 54-year-old Democrat. At 11 a.m., the speeches began.

Hancock, the second Black mayor in the city’s history, declared, “This is a proud moment for Denver.” With more stories coming to light about how highway projects had fractured communities of color, a national demand has risen to address the consequences. In 2021, President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law set aside $1 billion to reconnect divided neighborhoods, and while that money didn’t fund I-70’s facelift in GES, which was already underway, politicians would frame the project as emblematic of the national moment. Hancock boasted that it sought input from residents and created local construction jobs. “This,” he said, “is the result of community engagement and community visioning.”

“This is a proud moment for Denver.”

Following his remarks, teachers from the adjacent Swansea Elementary School led their students into the park; the kids whirled on the new merry-go-round, shrieking in delight.

Just before the ceremony ended, Alfonso Espino, a 27-year-old GES resident, dropped by. Espino, who has a round, boyish face behind a mustache and goatee, had heard about the park for more than a decade and often jogged by when it was under construction. Now, he felt lost. “Looking around and not being able to place myself — it’s kind of weird,” he said. But GES could use more green space, Espino conceded, and it was great to see the kids playing. Previously, only about 55 acres of parkland existed in the nearly five-square-mile neighborhood. The project had also added almost seven miles of new sidewalks to a neighborhood that needed more of them.

But Espino, who works as a community organizer, feared the new amenities would come at a cost. Real estate agents were already calling GES “Denver’s next hottest neighborhood” — a chilling pronouncement for locals to hear. Espino, who was raised here as one of eight children, hoped to one day buy a house of his own, but outside buyers meant higher prices. Like many locals, he wondered: Would the revitalization project really help remedy generations of marginalization? Or would it precipitate a forced exit for longtime residents?

Across the street from the ribbon-cutting, the lunch line formed at Casa de Sanchez, a beloved neighborhood restaurant. But 47-year-old Yadira Sanchez, who’d helped her father open the place 25 years earlier, wasn’t there. “I did not make it today, nor do I care of the park,” she messaged me. “It did not connect anything.” Sanchez, who often wears her bangs swept to the side and has a high-pitched, musical voice, had spent much of her life in GES, raising her three children here. She rented her home but, like Espino, hoped to one day buy a place. A pillar of the community who was passionate about trees, she worked as a planter. Inside Casa de Sanchez, near a portrait of legendary revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who inspired the slogan “Tierra y Libertad” (“Land and Freedom”), she’d hung a poster offering free trees to residents. She worried that the new park’s stewards had planted too many vulnerable saplings just before the first freeze and “did not even take the wire off the roots.”

The park’s unveiling was supposed to symbolize the end of a difficult chapter and the beginning of a better one.

But the people in power were focused on the bigger picture. Before Hancock spoke, Stephanie Pollack, the Federal Highway Administration’s acting administrator, lauded the project as a model for the country, and Shoshana Lew, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), said, “We’re proud to be here delivering the state’s largest infrastructure project on time and on budget while celebrating the space that will bring people together.”

From downtown Denver, the bike ride north is pleasant. The wide lanes lure cyclists past glass-walled skyscrapers and Coors Field to RiNo, the River North Art District, with its breweries and CrossFit gyms. Past RiNo, though, things quickly change. The bike lanes vanish; railroad tracks close in. Highways and smokestacks loom overhead, and the air feels thicker, smoggier; GES is one of the most polluted areas in the country.

But for Sanchez, Espino and 15,000 other people, it’s home. The neighborhood’s single-family houses are lined with heirloom rose bushes, and laughter rings out from the community pools in the summer. Like most of Denver’s neighborhoods, GES sprang from a national demand for connectivity. First came the Denver Pacific railway, which linked the young gold-mining town to the Transcontinental Railroad and violently displaced the region’s original inhabitants: The Arapaho, Cheyenne, Ute and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ peoples. Not long after, a livestock market that eventually became the National Western Center was built next to the railway. Soon, smelters appeared, employing Eastern European immigrants. In 1948, the state highway department built Interstate 25 north-to-south through Globeville, dividing it; I-70 followed.

By this time, many early GES residents had relocated. In their place came another wave of immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. Espino’s grandfather left Durango, Mexico, in the 1980s and, like many recent arrivals, got a job at a meatpacking plant. Sanchez’s father had also come from Mexico in the late 1970s to work at a slaughterhouse. But after he was injured, he started selling homemade bread door-to-door. Sanchez and her siblings would wake at 1 a.m. to hold the table steady while he rolled out the dough. Eventually, they started offering meals — tacos, tortas, enchiladas — and, in 1998, Sanchez’s father opened the family restaurant at its first location.

In order to live here, Espino and Sanchez’s families had to accept the drawbacks: soil and groundwater contaminated by the old smelters, highway noise and exhaust, industrial pollution from a petroleum refinery and a coal-fired power plant. These things not only disrupted life in GES, they shortened it; researchers have found that extended exposure to pollution from traffic and industry is linked to higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease and premature death.

By the early 2000s, it was clear that new infrastructure would yet again upend daily life in GES. The hulking I-70 viaduct between Brighton and Colorado Boulevards, first built in 1964, was initially designed as a four-lane bridge. Narrow cross-streets and sidewalks ran underneath it, and murals covered its walls, including one of a panting bulldog.

Denver’s population grew by 20% between 1996 and 2001, and the section of I-70 that ran through GES and connected to I-25 became dangerously congested. Inadequate interchange spacing and on-ramp lengths made driving perilous, and the outdated design contributed to accident rates more than twice the state average.

In 2003, CDOT began seeking a solution. The approximately 90 ideas it initially considered reflected a tension in priorities: Some plans would accommodate more traffic, while others would minimize environmental impacts. The community’s own hopes were clear: It wanted other neighborhoods to share the burdens of this highway. Many GES residents pushed for rerouting I-70 north of Denver along the I-270 and I-76 corridors, an option that would move traffic out of the neighborhood but add miles of travel to vehicles heading west to Front Range ski areas. That proposal died after local leaders in neighboring Adams County objected. Another option was to push I-70 farther south — but that would displace Purina’s pet-food factory. The company opposed it, and the idea was abandoned. At one point, the state considered replacing the viaduct and expanding the number of lanes — but that would require demolishing the elementary school, and the community strenuously resisted.

By 2015, the viaduct was well past its 30-year lifespan and literally crumbling. Huge pieces of concrete occasionally broke off, endangering students walking to Swansea Elementary School. “These kids were basically taking their lives in hand, going across railroad tracks,” Mayor Hancock said at the White House last October, when he was invited there to discuss the projects facilitated by the Infrastructure Act.

But reimagining old infrastructure often invites unintended consequences. In what’s known as the “green space paradox,” residents who historically lacked access to parks are the most likely to be displaced by rising housing costs once the greenery finally arrives. In central Dallas, a similar highway-capping park completed in 2012 hastened the development of luxury apartments, leading to rents that are among the region’s highest. Mark Treskon, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said that parks are unlikely to initiate gentrification on their own, but can accelerate the pressure. “It could make the people who live in that neighborhood technically worse off, if they actually are displaced,” he said.

Sanchez attended the community consultations almost from the beginning. They were held at neighborhood hubs like the Swansea Rec Center Gym and Bruce Randolph School, and the atmosphere was often tense. Residents — including Sanchez, who lived less than a mile from I-70 — feared their homes would be demolished to make room for the highway. She also worried that her family’s restaurant would suffer from extended traffic closures, or, even worse, that CDOT would decide it needed the restaurant’s land and invoke eminent domain to seize it.

Eminent domain allows agencies to repossess private property without the owners’ consent as long as it’s done for a public good — a road, an easement, a fire station. It’s hard to compare how often it’s used from place to place, though conservative states like Arizona and Utah tend to have stronger private-property protections against eminent domain than liberal ones like California and Colorado.

Families in GES displaced by the project would receive fair market value for their homes as assessed around 2012 — generally between $50,000 to $150,000 — along with relocation assistance from several thousand dollars to the low six figures. While the payments allowed some renters to become homeowners, others have struggled to stay in the neighborhood, where the median home price rose by 47% between 2018 and 2022, according to data provided by the Denver Metro Association of Realtors.

Sanchez felt her family’s survival was at stake. She and her three children, like many of their neighbors, have asthma; between 2013 and 2017, approximately one in 100 locals were hospitalized for asthma-related conditions, a figure at least 75% higher than the state average. Sanchez’s son used to love playing soccer but stopped when his asthma worsened. She worried that expanding the highway to allow more vehicles — and increased emissions — would further complicate their respiratory issues, and therefore supported rerouting the highway to the north, away from her neighborhood.

“Are you letting us choose? Or are you just basically telling us what it is that we’re going to have?”

But by the fall of 2013, the Department of Transportation seemed to have settled on a different option. In its meetings, CDOT started calling its Partial Cover Alternative the “preferred” alternative. This option would get rid of the viaduct and move the highway underground for 800 feet. It would also expand the highway, replacing six lanes of traffic with eight, plus two temporary auxiliary lanes. Now, officials were asking what amenities residents wanted on top: soccer fields and an amphitheater, which the community eventually approved, and a venue for lawn games like croquet, which it didn’t. Sanchez felt that the cover park had been all but greenlit. “Are you letting us choose?” she wondered. “Or are you just basically telling us what it is that we’re going to have?”

But CDOT sees it differently. Bob Hays, the reconstruction’s project director, told me that the community “came to us with this idea of the partial-cover lowered solution.” He described meetings where families sketched out the park’s design, along with a 2005 petition supporting the partial cover that collected over 500 signatures. But some community leaders note that the now-18-year-old petition had been signed by just a fraction of the population and say CDOT’s emphasis on it is misleading.

“It was really a careful engineering of the narrative by picking what people said here in this year and this year, and then, like five years later, weaving it together to say, ‘This is what the community wants,’” said Candi CdeBaca, a former city councilwoman for District 9, which includes GES. CdeBaca is among those who believe the department chose the partial cover for its political benefits, given the national desire to reconnect neighborhoods. In October, Colorado Public Radio reported that the city is considering similar caps in seven other locations.

To accommodate the cover and the extra lanes on I-70, CDOT’s contractor tore down the homes of 56 families. When asked about the impact, Hays said, “It’s not that we don’t empathize, and it’s not that we’re not sensitive.” But, he said, it was impossible to please everyone on such a project and, when it came to community consultation, “We’re above and beyond what the minimum requirements are. It’s all stuff that we wouldn’t have done in the past.”

Construction started in August 2018, with demolition crews spraying down the newly vacated homes and yards. CDOT had committed to hiring 20% of the workforce from 13 ZIP codes adjacent to the project. By its own assessments, it met that requirement — but ultimately, less than 1% of the laborers came from GES itself. The crews sprayed high-powered jets of water that tamped down the dust flung up by a yellow excavator. Once the houses were soaked, the excavator began clawing out the structural roots of each home: foundation, studs, drywall. The people who’d lived there had scattered, some to suburbs like Thornton and Aurora; according to the state, 12 of the 56 families have remained in Denver.

Espino, a college student at the time, enjoyed running in the area, and he continued to do so throughout the construction. In the morning, he crossed the light-rail line as the sun lit up the weeds sprouting between the tracks. He passed Casa de Sanchez, where cooks were whipping up breakfast burritos, and single-family houses from the 19th century: a periwinkle-blue home encircled by a white picket fence, and a pink house with sun and moon signs by the door.

By the time Espino looped back to his home, the day’s demolition work would be well underway. Houses were being reduced to rubble, their driveways torn out and hauled away. Despite the sprayed water, dust hovered in the air.

Sanchez lives in a 1940s ranch-style house. It’s cozy; the living room is lined with sofas and throw pillows. But the highlight of her home is her yard. In the summer, pots of flowering plants bloom pink and red in the front; in the back, raised beds sprout zucchini, strawberries and jalapeños. Honey locust trees wrap around the house. The chalky smell from the Purina factory saturates GES, but it’s barely detectable here.

When Sanchez first moved here, in 2005, the grass was dead and the backyard was dirt. At the time, she worked as a full-time nursing assistant. Slowly, she turned her yard into a colorful sanctuary, inspired by her grandmothers in Mexico. “I’ve rented this house for 17 years,” she said. “You’re going to want to make wherever you live your home.”

Most GES residents have neighbors who had to leave because of rising rents or taxes. Since Sanchez moved here, Denver’s median home price rose from $246,613 to $649,993; from 2018 to 2020, Globeville’s property taxes increased by 44% — the highest of any Denver neighborhood. And yet, for almost two decades, Sanchez’s rent had hovered near $1,000 a month, well below market rate. She credited her “good landlord,” who grew up nearby.

Within GES, her yard is a rare oasis. In this era of rising temperatures, urban heat islands like GES tend to be uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst, contributing to “respiratory difficulties, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and non-fatal heat stroke,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2017, a group of neighborhood associations and the Sierra Club sued CDOT, claiming it had failed to adequately account for the project’s pollution. The following year, the department settled for more than $500,000, and allocated $25,000 for tree planting in public spaces and residential yards. Sanchez started working with the GES Tree Planting Project, a nonprofit set up following the lawsuit.

Since Sanchez moved here, Denver’s median home price rose from $246,613 to $649,993.

She smiled when she talked about helping residents discover their “tree personality.” Are winter colors important to them, she asks? If so, she might recommend honey locusts or maples. Do they want trees that flower? A crabapple or cherry blossom might be perfect.

Yadira Sanchez takes a break in her front yard while helping neighbors select a tree (left). Sanchez waters a sapling during a community tree-planting event in June (right).

Amanda Lopez/High Country News
Yadira Sanchez takes a break in her front yard while helping neighbors select a tree (left). Sanchez waters a sapling during a community tree-planting event in June (right).
Amanda Lopez/High Country News

After that initial discussion, Sanchez gives residents a “tree menu,” which lists the available species: evergreens like Austrian pines and Colorado blue spruce, shade trees like bur oaks, and flowering trees like crabapples and chanticleer pears. She focuses on varieties that require minimal maintenance and can thrive in GES’ acidic soils. Since 2018, Sanchez and her colleagues have helped plant over 400 saplings in GES, though not all of them survived. “We have been through round after round of tree planting in my neighborhood,” CdeBaca said. “And I watch them die.” CdeBaca believes the city should treat the trees like any other public service and subsidize watering costs.

Sanchez is aware of the challenges but refuses to be deterred. Longing suffused her voice when she spoke of Monaco Park in the nearby Park Hill neighborhood. “It is like a forest,” she said. “We deserve to have that, too.”  

She also sees the air purification effects that trees have as one way to combat pollution, which increased during the highway reconstruction. Levels of fine particulate matter spiked when the viaduct was demolished. And the noise was constant: Construction happened not only during workdays, but also on weekend evenings. The closures, dust and noise affected business at Casa de Sanchez. Though Sanchez doesn’t receive any income from the restaurant, one of her sons did until recently. Her finances are tenuous, and she worries that she might one day be priced out of her home. She copes with the stress by working in her garden.

In 2015, a group of residents calling themselves the “GES Coalition” started meeting at the Valdez-Perry library. Some were losing homes to the I-70 expansion; others had heard rumors of rent increases. “That room was full every single Friday,” Espino said.

At the time, he worked at the library while studying history and urban planning at the University of Colorado Denver. He was particularly excited by the coalition’s discussion of land trusts. Set up as nonprofits, community land trusts purchase land, build or rehabilitate homes on it, then sell them to low-income residents at below-market rates. The trust maintains ownership of the land, leasing it to homeowners who agree to limit the resale price. In 2018, the GES Coalition helped launch the Tierra Colectiva Land Trust, and in 2020, after graduating, Espino took a job with the coalition as an organizer.

The trust sells only to current or former GES residents who earn 50% to 60% of the area’s median income — between $41,000 and $49,000 for a single-person household. Sanchez, who sits on the board, finds this stipulation onerous. “If you’re going to be doing lower income, do lower income to what it truly is,” she said. She has a personal stake in the matter: Since 2021, she’s been trying to get a Tierra Colectiva house but has yet to clear the income threshold and join the waiting list of families. Buying a land-trust home is “not necessarily an investment,” Sanchez told me. “It’s more of a protection for my kids. My children will never have to be homeless.”

Recently, the coalition began trying to claim land from one of the neighborhood’s oddest landmarks: the National Western Center, which has housed an annual livestock show and rodeo for nearly a century. Back in 2014, Mayor Hancock proposed transforming it into a year-round events center and agricultural research hub. The project would have cost up to $1.1 billion, and 42 acres of public land were tentatively allotted to it. The city also acquired 38 properties from local families and businesses, five through eminent domain.

“If you’re going to be doing lower income, do lower income to what it truly is.”

Expanding a site steeped in cowboy mythology in a community long erased by such whitewashed versions of the West was itself controversial. Dispossessing more residents of their homes was even more contentious. By 2021, Hancock had failed to raise sufficient funding, and the full expansion stalled. Now, the coalition wants to get those 42 acres back into community hands.

But the city has not always been helpful. Espino recounted a meeting in late 2017 between coalition members and Erik Soliván, head of an office called Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE). The coalition asked for funding for Tierra Colectiva, but Soliván was dismissive. “This guy sat there and disrespectfully told mostly women, ‘You’re never gonna see a dime of the city’s dollars,’” recalled Espino. (When asked for comment, a city spokesperson replied that Soliván no longer worked there, and that the HOPE office has since been subsumed into another department.)

But the coalition persisted, and CdeBaca fought for it from City Hall. In 2018, as part of the partial cover’s “environmental justice mitigation measures,” CDOT awarded it $2 million to develop affordable housing. In the years since, the trust has received $5 million more and built or rehabilitated 13 homes. By next year, it hopes to increase the number to 22.

The community is not always united. Disagreements arise about whether the land trust should keep building homes for sale or focus on rentals. Equally contentious is the coalition’s relationship with the city: Some members favor protests, while others prefer quiet negotiation. Espino said that’s part of community organizing: “You don’t really have a relationship with someone unless you have tension.” 

GES residents have learned to be suspicious of amenities they haven’t fought long and hard for themselves. The cover park and the Western Center are two examples; the 39th Avenue Greenway is another. Opened in November 2020, the greenway features trails, play areas and 12 acres of open space just south of Elyria-Swansea. Espino visited with his younger sister and her son after it opened. “They were like, ‘Damn, this park is nice,’” he recalled. “‘Let’s enjoy it while we can.’” Even if not all projects are created with the same intent — parks and agricultural hubs serve different purposes — many longtime residents share Espino’s suspicion that this surge of development portends an influx of homebuyers with lighter skin and deeper pockets.

Espino and Sanchez believe there’s another way to develop green space. “We should be allowed to deserve good-quality things and beautiful things,” Sanchez said. “We don’t have to be gentrified in order to get those.” It was with this idea in mind that, on a sunny Saturday morning last October, she, Espino and others unloaded speakers, gazebo tents and 39 trees and bushes in a deserted parking lot. For months, the coalition had been planning “A People’s Plaza,” modeled after town squares in Mexico, as part of its campaign to reacquire land from the National Western Center expansion. They wanted to show that the community had its own vision for the place, something better than another gargantuan arena, and that residents saw the land as theirs to fight and care for.

The parking lot was surrounded by I-70, a few boarded-up buildings and a single home that formerly belonged to a man named David Torres, who now sits on Tierra Colectiva’s board. Until 1999, Torres’ family lived in another house. Then the government razed it to build an on-ramp to I-70. Torres and his family moved across the street — but in 2014, they were forced to vacate yet again, this time for the planned expansion of the National Western Center. Houses all around them were demolished, but after the city bought Torres’ home, it decided to preserve it as a key historic property. Though the house near the corner of 46th Avenue and Baldwin Court no longer belonged to him, he’d given coalition members his blessing when they asked to cover it with murals. 

A few days before the People’s Plaza, Espino and Sanchez went to the plant nursery. As Sanchez drove around in a small cart (“She was whipping that s***,” recalled Espino), she pointed out which trees were in season and hearty enough to sit outside. They chose eastern redbuds, Oregon pines and Tanyosho pines, along with 40 pots of mums, hydrangeas and snake plants.

By early afternoon, coalition members had enclosed the parking lot with trees and pots of mums and strung colorful pennants and paper pinwheels between the pop-up gazebos. Soon, Spanish music from the stage they’d erected drowned out the highway traffic. Families painted murals, creating a multicolored geometric design on the walls of Torres’ former home. The coalition had set up a wooden model of the area, and asked people to add to it: How would they revitalize the neighborhood if given a choice? People filled in the empty spaces with homes and patio areas, gardens and parks.

Sanchez hurried around, making sure that the mums got enough water and that the place looked “welcoming and good.” At dusk, the coalition started packing up. “All right, these plants are free,” someone announced. “Take them.” People rushed forward, and Sanchez hustled after them, shooing them away from the rented trees and making sure the other plants were handled with care.

This March, more than 200 GES residents gathered at Bruce Randolph School. English and Spanish bounced off the brick walls, and Espino wore a T-shirt reading, “Our Hood, Our Community, Our Land!” Six chairs sat onstage: The coalition had organized a mayoral debate, with the hope of putting affordable housing on the agenda of Hancock’s successor. The mayor would be termed out in July, and the election to replace him was expected to be hard-fought. Residents seemed most keen to hear from progressive candidate Lisa Calderón and from Mike Johnston, a 48-year-old Democrat, who had promised to improve housing affordability. The six candidates trickled in, as did Sanchez, sporting mauve lipstick. About 45 minutes into the debate, she got up and, with another woman, asked if the candidates would support community-led land trusts through public spending. Would they also commit to meeting with Tierra Colectiva within their first 90 days in office?

“We should be allowed to deserve good-quality things and beautiful things. We don’t have to be gentrified in order to get those.”

All six candidates answered in the affirmative. Later, Sanchez and Espino met up at the back of the room. “What do you think, Yadira?” he whispered.

“I think they all talk real pretty,” she replied. “Pero, a ver.” But, we’ll see.

Three months later, Johnston was elected. Soon after taking office, he agreed to tour the acreage once intended for the National Western Center expansion, saying his staff wanted to “look at ways to establish community ownership of that land.”

In July, during a record-setting heat wave, I visited GES’s cover park. The park’s few “shade structures” — sleek white metal formations with semi-transparent panels — were no match for the sun. The young Kentucky coffee and oak trees were now about 10 feet high —too small to offer shade, but at least the vast majority had survived the winter. Traffic rushed below my feet. For the most part I couldn’t hear it, thanks to 18 jet fans installed beneath the cover.

The park was mostly empty, but around 2 p.m., a family of four pulled up in a beat-up red car. Two boys rushed to the playground’s slides. The family, who lived in a nearby suburb, had been out for a drive when they saw the park and decided to stop. The parents were glad the kids were enjoying themselves, but doubted they’d return. The park was too close to the road, they said, and too hot. The father complained that the splash pads weren’t on, and he couldn’t figure out how to work them.

A little while later, I met Espino for tacos at Casa de Sanchez. He was cautiously optimistic about the new mayor’s rhetoric around land trusts, and he had recently experienced a dramatic change in fortune: After two years of waiting, he would soon close on a Tierra Colectiva home, a three-bedroom row house that adjoined four other townhomes. All his neighbors would be from GES. Espino was delighted, but also a little embarrassed; he felt guilty about becoming a homeowner while others couldn’t — especially Sanchez, whose income still didn’t meet Tierra Colectiva’s threshold. Worse, her rent had recently almost doubled. She feared that her landlord, who is in his 70s and had battled cancer, might eventually sell her home.

Still, she was happy for Espino. When he shared his ambivalence with her, she urged him to take the house. “Alfonso, it’s a good thing,” she said. “From the very beginning, I was advocating that we should help those that help the most first.” 

This story by High Country News originally appeared at:

Raksha Vasudevan is a contributing editor at High Country News as well as an economist and writer based in Denver. Her work has appeared in LitHub, The Los Angeles Review of Books, NYLON and more. Email her at

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