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City eyes demolishing more affordable housing

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A week after the City Council approved El Pomar's $5 million homeless mega-complex, elected officials appear poised to order the demolition of 13 more houses in that same neighborhood to make room for the expansion of the Drake Power Plant south of downtown.

Though the plan had not yet been approved by the City Council or the city's planning commission, Colorado Springs Utilities has shelled out nearly $2 million since March to buy and relocate residents from the site. The utilities board -- which comprises the same City Council members who approved the shelter last week -- is scheduled to deliberate on the matter this week.

The utility company plans to demolish the homes and build a railroad spur that would accommodate additional coal cars into the area. That will enable the city to negotiate a better deal with companies that provide coal to the plant, said John Tancock, the electric manager of engineering and construction for Colorado Springs Utilities' electric division.

The city has compensated and helped relocate all but one of the residents of the 13 homes in the line of the wrecking ball's fire, and all have been at a cost that allows the former residents to upgrade their living quarters on the city's dime.

Tancock said he explored the possibility of moving the 13 homes to another site, but their age and condition has proven to be "a dead-end road."

"It's hard to find housing that is compatible with that of the Mill Street neighborhood, because that neighborhood is on the lower end of the value scale," he said.


Knocking them down

And that, says affordable housing advocate Cyndy Kulp, is precisely the problem.

"They keep knocking down housing and not replacing them," Kulp said. "This is the most recent in a long line of demolition which is causing less and less affordable housing units for people who need them."

She and other advocates are pushing for the city to establish a fund that would force the city to not just relocate people who live in the way of progress, but replace fast-disappearing cheap housing in Colorado Springs.

Steve Handen, a 33-year volunteer at the soup kitchen, hammered on the problem during last week's 16-hour long City Council discussion that led to a 3:40 a.m. decision to allow the homeless mega-complex be built in the Mill Street neighborhood.

"The facility will be nicer, but the soup will be the same," Handen said. "What is needed is housing."

Representatives from social service groups who have teamed with El Pomar argue that many homeless people are not prepared to maintain their own homes. Last week, the new center's project manager Deb Mitguard cited the need to train homeless people in "housing readiness" before they are able to maintain their own living quarters.

"Is that like reading readiness?" asked an offended Amanda Terrell during a break in the deliberations. Terrell, has been homeless in Colorado Springs and continues to eat regularly at the Marian House soup kitchen to make ends meet.

"I'm in a weird position of biting the hand that feeds me, but this strikes me as hypocrisy of the utmost degree," Terrell said.


The city's own study

Even Joe Garcia, a local attorney who is the regional director of the federal Housing and Urban Development and testified in favor of the Montgomery Community Center, noted that while job training and child-care services are important, permanent housing is the only way to permanently solve the problem.

A year ago, Handen reminded Council, the city spent $30,000 to determine the extent of the continuing local affordable housing crisis.

"Your own study said that 80 percent of homelessness can be attributed to a lack of affordable housing," Handen told the City Council. "I'm embarrassed you spent that. Shelters are not homes ... and when you get people ready to move on, once they are self-sufficient, there is no place to send them."

The city and its utility company have proven to be one of the worst offenders of demolishing inexpensive housing in recent years, said Kulp.

The utility company's Tancock said the utility company is not unsympathetic to the plight of those who are displaced. However, he said, while the issue may be one that "the city fathers and mothers may want to address," replacing cheap housing has not been their priority.

"That's not a policy we've had in the past or up until now," he said.

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