The fatal Ghost Ship fire in Oakland motivated cities around the country, including Denver, to take a much harder look at the converted warehouses that artists have been using for decades as homes and studios.
That was a highly visible tragedy, Shane “Bobby” Melnitzer told the Denver City Council, but a far more likely tragedy — homelessness — remains unseen.
Denver artists told the City Council on Monday that their efforts to create a way for unpermitted DIY art spaces to gain legal status carries a high risk of unintended consequences — including artists losing their housing, the very outcome the city says it wants to avoid.
“You’re asking people to take risks with their housing and livelihoods when they are in these spaces because it is what they can afford,” Lauri Lynnxe Murphy said. “And the reason for that is because the landlords have no interest in fixing the spaces up, which is why they let us have them in the first place.”
The ordinance before Denver City Council, believed to be the first program of its kind in the country, would create a two-year window for certain types of unpermitted buildings to gain legal status. Eligible spaces include such things as performance spaces with an occupancy of 300 people or less (but not restaurants or bars), residential living spaces with two stories or less with up to 16 units, offices, galleries, showrooms and retail spaces.
Normally when the city discovered unpermitted work, the property owner pays double the standard permit fees to come into compliance. This ordinance would waive those fees, and it would also provide for an extended time frame for compliance, as well as flexibility around certain code requirements.
Most significantly, the ordinance would allow for a conditional certificate of occupancy so that people could legally live in the building while the work was being done.
However, people would not be allowed to live in unsafe conditions under the ordinance. Asked if Rhinoceropolis would be open today if this law had been in place in December, Manny Almagure, Denver Fire’s division chief for fire prevention, said no.
Brad Buchanan, executive director of Community Planning and Development, acknowledged that the city has a trust problem with the artist community that must be overcome. Property owners wouldn’t get a “free pass on safety,” but residents wouldn’t be automatically evicted either, he said.
“Is the glass blowing area next to the balsa wood storage area?” Buchanan asked as an example of an issue that might be a significant safety hazard yet also very solvable.
But Murphy said this idea, which sounds good in theory, takes a lot for granted about the landlord-tenant relationship. Many artists in unpermitted live-work spaces are on month-to-month leases. They could be easily evicted for raising safety issues with the city. They could be just as easily evicted after investing their own money in solving safety issues and making their spaces nicer because the lease often specifies that they accept the building conditions as they are.
Denver City Council gave initial approval to the ordinance Monday.
However, several council members raised the possibility of amendments before the ordinance gets final approval. Councilwoman At-large Robin Kniech said not only property owners and tenants who come forward voluntarily but also those who are found out as a result of a surprise inspection should be able to take advantage of the program.
And Councilman Paul Kashmann and Councilwoman At-large Debbie Ortega both said the city needs to find some money to put toward helping artists make their spaces safe. Kashmann noted the many types of businesses that receive city assistance in one form or another.
“There is not a business I can think of that gives more to our community than our artists,” he said. “I don’t want to live in a community where that doesn’t exist.”