AURORA | After bouncing around and living in cars for about 15 years, Lori Dunn kicked her shoes off Wednesday and flopped onto the bed.
It was in her own apartment.
Dunn, 56, is one of scores of residents now housed permanently at the Providence at the Heights, a brand-new housing complex with 50 low-cost units set aside for disabled, homeless people and their families.
New residents signed their leases this week and moved into furnished and spacious one- and two-bedroom apartments near the intersection of East Alameda Avenue and South Chambers Road.
On Thursday, Dunn waited for a bus pass at PATH’s front desk. Sun streamed in through big windows on all sides of the common area.
She said she’s long suffered from ADHD, fetal alcohol syndrome and drug addiction, leaving her scatter-brained and unable to pay rent. She preferred sleeping in her car over any shelter in the Denver metro. She often missed appointments with probation officers and resource providers. She’s been painted as lazy and flaky, she said.
“Once you are down, it’s almost impossible to get back up — especially if you have a mental illness,” Dunn said.
But Dunn said her new one-bedroom apartment at PATH is opening a door. She’s committed herself to staying sober, staying out of trouble and taking better care of herself.
“I keep getting up, and I keep trying. I’m taking the beatings and I’m not giving up,” she said.
Dunn and about 50 people have moved in and signed leases for a year, which they can renew if they continue paying rent and respecting their lease agreement. The air still smells of paint, tools lie around offices and rooms, and the complex is still a little rough around the edges.
Residents pay what they can, no more than a third of their income. The rest of the rent is made up of federal housing funds.
The week has been emotional for Hassan Latif, executive director of the Second Chance Center. That group, which builds community through resources for convicts after leaving prison, is behind the once-controversial housing project. Elevation Christian Church, next door, also boosted the project to fruition by leasing its land to Second Chance Center.
Rooms were only made available to area residents earning less than about $20,000 a year, Latif said.
That’s somewhat affordable for Alvin Mustafa, 63, who is paying $225 a month in rent for a furnished and open one-bedroom apartment. Mustafa got out of prison about a year ago, serving a stint for possession of drugs and counterfeiting. He couldn’t find any apartments that would accept a felon’s application.
“I don’t know who designed this place, but they sure did a good job,” he said of his new apartment.
Mustafa is receiving government disability payments and uses a cane.
Latif said the new residents include a mother and young daughter who lived in their car for about six months. The mother, who worked full-time, could not afford rent.
Tenants can take advantage of in-house mental health providers from Aurora Mental Health. There are also bi-monthly grocery shopping excursions to Elevation. There are cooking classes and life skills courses. It’s part of a comprehensive approach to getting people back on their feet.
Latif said the resources will help residents address root problems that landed them in the streets, such as Dunn’s physical and mental health issues.
“Let’s face it. We got some folks in here that need some help,” said Wanda Harrison, senior care manager at Second Chance Center.
Applicants went through multiple screenings, including background checks. Harrison said PATH’s doors are closed to people convicted of arson, meth production and sex crimes.
Although scores of people are now housed, the housing plan drew controversy from the outset.
In September 2018, the city council eventually approved the project on a 6-5 vote.
Some area residents said they were worried the complex would bring crime and parking issues to the neighborhood.
Latif said his staff is being proactive, adding that new residents also share a responsibility to make other tenants, and their new neighbors, feel comfortable.
“We put the onus on them to be good tenants and good neighbors and to make liars out of the people who said they didn’t deserve to be here,” he said.
But the complex isn’t a concern for Ellen Belef, president of the nearby CentrePointe neighborhood homeowner’s association.
“In my opinion, this was to give these people a second chance, and I thought it was good that this project would be going forward,” she said.
She wasn’t aware of any neighbors raising concerns about crime, although the original discussion in 2018 garnered a flurry of arguments for and against the project on social media platform NextDoor, she said.
The $13 million apartment project also came with barely any cost to Aurora tax coffers, said Katie Simons, a financial consultant advising the Second Chance Center. She said the City approved a $150,000 tax abatement.
But about $6.5 million in federal housing funds will flow into PATH in the next 15 years, helping subsidize rent for its low-income residents. The developer and property manager, Montana-based Blue Line development, has taken on the brunt of the financial burden by purchasing the tax credits and taking on liability.
Simons said housing low-income residents like those at PATH actually lowers the costs they might pose for taxpayers. She said providing permanent housing, health and financial stability reduces recidivism back into jails — lowering expensive prison and judicial system budgets — and lowers healthcare costs.
“We know it costs our system — whether folks are cycling through emergency rooms, jails, detox rooms, it costs about $40,000 a year to keep someone on the streets homeless and cycling through those systems,” Simons added, compared to an estimated $22,000 governments pay for programs like PATH.
The project has already gotten scores of people off the streets, but they still face hurdles.
Ben Bryan, a commercial real estate developer, has volunteered at the Second Chance Center and also helped them finance and finish the project.
When visiting a similar project in Colorado Springs, he found that apartments were designed spacious enough for people to pitch their tents in. Some residents weren’t comfortable sleeping anywhere else for a while.
“I understood then how difficult it can be,” he said.
He said that’s going to be true for some people at PATH.