Denver Artists for Rent Control (DARCO): An Interview with Roseanna Frechette
Brice Maiurro • March 3, 2017 • Progression •
Every now and then I go for a walk around my neighborhood. I do this to check in on what is now Denver, the city I love. As of lately, one thing has been especially striking to me: the cranes. I can’t remember the last time I looked north to our skyline, skyscrapers shadowed by holy mountains, and didn’t see at least a couple construction cranes. This is the state of Denver: a big boom that keeps on booming. Gentrification and urbanization run rampant in this once-cowtown. And with this boom, the artists of all kinds who have called Denver home and have helped define its culture are finding themselves in a fight to be able to keep their community alive.
The good news is that the artists care. Rather than bend over and take it, many artists have stepped up to help create a voice for the voiceless. Last May, I attended what proved to be the first of many meetings for the new organization: Denver Artists for Rent Control Organization, or DARCO.
Denver Artists for Rent Control is an organization of citizens concerned for Denver’s independent art culture and its legacy of artistic beauty. We dedicate ourselves to responsible positive action for the preservation of a culture that preceded us, includes us, and we hope will continue far beyond us. We understand this is a humanitarian issue: Our efforts are on behalf of all people’s right to attainable space in which to live, work, create, express, and gather.
The meeting and organization were put together and founded by Denver-based artist Roseanna Frechette. I originally met Roseanna at the Full Moon poetry readings in Boulder where I quickly learned that she was a Jill of all trades: a poet and a yoga instructor, a dancer and a program director, and soon thereafter the leader and head organizer of DARCO.
The first meeting was on May 23rd, 2016 at Deer Pile, a gathering space and venue located above City O’ City restaurant at 13th and Sherman in Denver. Filled to the brim with artists sweating their thoughts out as Roseanna pulled the group together excited for what was in store. The frustration and anger were matched well with the fire and passion to move towards a solution. Now, as Roseanna and DARCO committee members prepare for their Plan-of-Action Forum on March 5 at 2pm at Mercury Café in Denver, I decided to check in with Roseanna on how she felt about the state of things.
BM: DARCO’s inaugural meeting was in May of 2016. What all has DARCO been able to accomplish over the course of the last nine months?
RF: It was right about this time last year that I noticed, rather suddenly, a radically intense amount of new building development in Denver at the same time as hearing friends’ stories about losing leases and/or having rents escalate overnight. At first, I was hit with grief over the sudden impact, of seemingly irresponsible uncontrolled growth, on my beloved bohemian independent art culture. But then I had a crystallizing thought: When worried individual concern becomes confident community action, an entire energy field can change. So I decided to organize about this, and then scheduled a first public meeting for May of 2016. Our committee formed from that, and we have been meeting regularly over the past nine months. In that time, we have researched what has turned out to be a complex range of interrelated issues concerning what we have come to call “attainable space.” We have set out to build, ground-up, a well-organized plan-of-action for pursuing the core value of our mission, which is the very humanitarian belief that ALL people have a right to attainable space. We use the term attainable because it covers a range of meaning. Becoming educated about all that’s involved in securing this most basic human right has been an immense challenge.
We have established that there’s a statute in Colorado that bans rent control being set by municipalities for housing. We became aware that ours is a humanitarian organization whose efforts are on behalf of ALL peoples’ right to attainable space in which to: live, work, create, express, and gather. Without these five things, it’s hard to think a city/region/state can have powerful culture and meaningful community of any kind. So our effort really supports much more than the ability for alternative artists of this home we call Denver to survive. We are talking about the richness of Art and Culture, and that includes a large population in what has always been a thriving community. Since establishing our mission, we created a Facebook public group that now has over 600 members. We co-organized and participated in a National Day of Action for Renters’ Rights (9/22/16). We launched a comprehensive website, including area for public blog posts. We researched, interviewed and endorsed several candidates for Colorado Congress (two of whom won office: Rachel Zenzinger and Edie Hooton); endorsed the Right to Rest Act, under the Colorado Homeless Bill of Rights; and shared our platform for quite a lot of awareness raising.
We also are very much in the spirit of supporting fellow organizations that are taking on various aspects connected to this very complex range of issues regarding attainable space for all. To name a few: Colorado Homes for All, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Homeless Out Loud, 9 to 5, Fresc, We Are Change Colorado and Amplify Arts.
Now, after nine months of research and strategizing, we are ready to host our second public event: a Plan-of-Action Forum, to take place at Mercury Cafe on Sunday March 5th, 2-4:30pm. Our committee will make a comprehensive presentation, and we will hear from guest speakers as well as roll out the immediate plan for a mass art project in the way of a good old-fashioned, ink-on-page letter writing campaign. There are also plans for an “Art of Activism” educational series.
BM: Rising rent prices is something that affects a lot of artists in Denver. What has been your experience as the cost of living continues to rise?
RF: I, like pretty much everyone I know, struggle with that. But it has given me cause to be even more creative about space use. And to shift my (very American) notion that I need so much personal space. To me, being single has always meant to live alone and embrace the solitude a writer so needs, but for the first time since I was in my early 20’s I have a roommate. When my last romantic partnership came undone I thought, well yeah, find a smaller space and live alone, but it turned out that all the smaller spaces in town were suddenly considerably more expensive. Where I am now is a duplex and is too much rent for me to handle alone without going into debt. So yeah, there were no ideal options. I look at this two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow with its small basement and think well, ya know, maybe in Japan this could easily house a family of four or five. In India it might be considered a great home for three generations with some extended family. I am allowing myself to have a shift of perspective on sharing space, and it’s healthy. And I am now using the space to help fix our space problems by holding committee meetings for DARCO here. So that’s cool.
BM: What has been the experience you’ve observed of those around you?
RF: I’m not happy at all that some of my friends are seriously stuck in the quagmire of buildings coming down, rents doubling, and landlords being awfully prohibitive about what it takes to get in. Some of my friends have needed to get into their cars and move along to other places. Of course, we have an urban camping ban and no right to rest, so it hasn’t been an option for friends to temporarily sleep in their cars while exploring who in the world might be able to share with them an actual living space. I have witnessed a whole lot of anxiety and stress over this. And I’m proud of my friends and comrades because they are ever indomitable about creating new ways of dealing. But we need the support of our policy makers and politicians. Through this work I’ve become involved much more with the greater community, and I am utterly appalled at the fact that whole families are becoming homeless overnight. Literally. This is not acceptable. And many folks at all levels are working very hard to make change sooner than later. But for some people it’s already desperately too late, and that saddens me greatly. Still, we must roll up our sleeves, hold our heads up, and stand our ground for what’s right. It’s the human thing to do.
BM: There has been a long-standing rent-related statute in Colorado making a unique challenge: to take on creating affordable living in Denver. What does this statute entail?
RF: Like most law, it’s complicated. Let’s just say that it basically bans municipalities from setting their own rent control laws regarding housing and that it’s been in place for a very long time. Some have tried to overturn it through the years, obviously unsuccessfully. But I do believe that with our recent population explosion in Colorado and Metro Denver causing such distress for our current population, the pressure to overturn that law feels great. But such an action involves a long, drawn out, and expensive process, so we’ll need a member of state congress to sponsor a bill, and it can’t happen this congressional season. We will see what can be done in the future. I do have a positive feeling that we can bring it about. All I can really say is stay tuned cause we are going to need a lot of support on that action when the time comes.
Colorado is small-business friendly and known to be an advocate for the arts. For business, art, and the business of art, we have plenty of existing multi-use space in which to thrive, and the rent-related statute does not hold weight on this. That law is about housing. I have learned that there are creative- and community-use property owners who really dig being part of a richly diverse and integrated culture. Humans are made for so much more than to live and work. So we need those spaces in which to create, express and gather. I think the key is in helping developers and property owners consider a responsibility to not only being profitable but to also be supportive of the shared ground, so to speak. A part of our Plan-of-Action is to put a spotlight on these sort of entrepreneurs and also connect with them for our awareness-raising campaign. We can show up at city planning and zoning meetings to underscore a need to save quaint historic space from the wrecking ball as well as be responsible about usage ratio, impact, and sustainable quality of new development. We will hopefully see our government giving property owners incentives so the burden of profit does not completely fall on the renter. I do believe we’ll see more affordable options, as well as renters’ rights, that will encompass a lot of supportive change beyond what the changes to our current rent-related statute can bring.
BM: When we talk about fighting for rent control, we’re not just looking at housing but also businesses and creative spaces in general. What creative spaces have you seen impacted?
RF: Well, Hinterland, which inhabited a rather large warehouse at 33rd and Walnut for a good many years and won Westword’s Mastermind award is a great example of a richly diverse and wildly interesting, very well-done art space needing to move due to a property being sold so that a ridiculously large apartment building can be erected on that spot. Thankfully the Hinterland founders, Sabin Aell and Randy Rushton, are spirited and creative enough to have dealt with a seismic shift into Morrison, and we can all get excited about what they will pull off for our community there. But it’s going to be different. And Denver lost them as a very rich artistic gem that not only stimulated our local culture but brought travelers from afar to participate in exhibits there – in our town. Paris on the Platte is gone, and so is Gypsy House, to name an important few. Change will take place in any town but what’s so alarming right now is the pace at which these changes have sped up and the volume of creative spaces and housing units that are becoming unavailable to our community right now, only to be replaced by that which seems financially out of reach, or structurally out of character – or both!
BM: Critics of rent control may say that it is ineffective, most often referencing that rent control creates “slums” or areas of poverty. What would you say to those critics?
RF: There is a logic to that thinking, and it is definitely a thing to be concerned about. But it’s not necessarily true. A lot depends on the integrity of how a new law is put into place. It can be a good thing for tenant and landlord alike. There could be a workable “win-win” formula. Your question begs my question that if landlords need rent hike incentives to keep a place up why do we have a good many overpriced, rundown buildings in our metro area right now? That logic seems more to be a handy excuse for rampant greed. Rent control or not, there must be ways to foster a healthy housing community. And this is a good civic discussion to be having, for the long haul.
BM: What actions can artists and advocates take in Denver to help?
RF: We can stay tuned, on a daily basis, to the collection of grassroots organizations that are working hard to inform, educate, plan, and take action. And then, show up. In person. As much as possible. DARCO is linking forces with Colorado Homes for All and benefiting from a good deal of information being shared in an organized way. For one, that organization is hosting a series of trainings about legislative process, including giving testimony at hearings, for new bills that may or may not become law. We can show up at hearings for new developments as well.
All of this takes education, and our activist organizations are working together to share the load of responsibility on that. As for our arts orgs we now have Denver Artists for Rent Control informing and leading, as well as Amplify Arts that is bringing light to the needs of our DIY community and hosting town hall meetings. We can all study the state and local government websites and get to know our representatives. Let’s get to know our city council people. These are elected officials that work for us. They are most often approachable human beings that actually do want to hear from us. We can join educational seminars and summits. We can write letters for the DARCO campaign. There are letters to editors too and blog posts as well. And, this is key, we can support our fellow artists.
BM: Anything more you’d like to say?
RF: Our website says, “Imagine Denver without Poets, Artists, Musicians. We Can.” Yea. We can, but we don’t want to. A town without the rich culture its artists bring is not a town any of us want to live in. I daresay it’s not a town the greater percentage of Denver’s population wants to live in. Okay then. Up to us. To hold our ground. And stay.
Denver Artists for Rent Control (DARCO) will host a Plan of Action Forum, free and open to the public, Sunday March 5th, 2-4:30pm at Mercury Cafe, 2199 California. DARCO was formed in May, 2016 as a response to metro Denver’s immediate housing crisis and escalating rents for all space including creative space for practice, performance, and community gathering.
The March 5th public forum will include presentation by members of DARCO committee that explain the organization’s findings and basic strategy, including awareness raising as well as distinct actions that can be taken over time to good effect. Also included will be guidelines and details for a letter-writing campaign and words from a few guest speakers. The March meeting will be followed by an April Plan-of-Action Rally to include live bands and a creative collaborative information fest. Frechette passionately points out that: “We dedicate ourselves to responsible positive action for the preservation of a culture that preceded us, includes us, and we hope will continue far beyond us.”