Everyone knows Denver is facing an affordable housing crisis. On a daily basis, families are displaced, tenants are given minimal notice to leave their space and historic neighborhoods are bulldozed for million-dollar developments. However, another group is also experiencing widespread displacement at the hands of gentrification: local business. As Denver’s economy booms and rental prices rise, many of our city’s mission minded organizations, nonprofits and small business alike are unable to keep up with the financial demands of their landlords.
Our friends and partners at Radian, a nonprofit design group dedicated to creating healthy and sustainable communities, are a recent example in what seems like a never-ending saga of rising rents and unforgiving landlords. Recently, Radian – who officed in a 550 square foot open workspace at the Laundry on Lawrence for the last 3 years – was given 40 days’ notice to accept a 25% rental increase. Radian was originally told that if they were unwilling to pay the new price, someone else would. Underhandedly, before they had the chance to accept or deny the increase, the landlord chose to terminate their lease completely. And with that, Radian was faced with near immediate displacement.
Tim Reinen, Executive Director at Radian, had less than one month to completely uproot his organization and find a new home to accommodate 5 employees. This left him with very little time to fulfill his duties at the nonprofit, as his schedule was overwhelmed with searching for available, affordable space located somewhere within the communities Radian serves.
“We recognized the value in our community fabric,” Reinen explained. “We work in Globeville. We work in Cole. We didn’t want to be displaced from the communities we serve. This is our community, and we needed to find a way to stay.”
In an all too common scenario like this, most organizations needing affordable office space have two options: drown in rent to remain centrally located, or find an affordable space in an inconvenient, geographically challenging location. Reinen realized that if Radian wanted to stay in the community, neither of these options were plausible. Reinen started countless conversations with local businesses and property owners, and came across an incredible opportunity. Westbrook Development Partners, a local business owner in the RiNo neighborhood (less than 10 blocks from Radian’s office at the Laundry on Lawrence), had 3,800 square feet of rentable space available.
While the space is far too large for Radian alone, Reinen knew the opportunity was too good to pass up. Not only did he find an open workspace to meet Radian’s needs, but found a local property owner who genuinely cares about community and had been holding out on leasing the space until a nonprofit or mission minded organization could take on the space. Reinen explained that his relationship with Westbrook has been more about developing a partnership rather than negotiating a deal as is the case with most real estate transactions.
Radian was fortunate in that their mission includes creating spaces that positively impact communities, so they quickly had a vision for their new home. The nonprofit is also home to “Community Spaces” which focuses on helping other nonprofits find a space that fits their needs. Many nonprofits and mission minded organizations desperate for work space do not have the skillset and/or capacity for this type of undertaking. This summer, Radian will begin creating this new space to accommodate multiple organizations. Radian will work from the 1,000 square foot mezzanine, and eventually lease out the remaining 2,800 square feet to nonprofits and mission minded organizations at an affordable rate. Radian’s goal is to provide office space at 30-50% below market value which for many organizations will be the difference between staying and leaving Denver.
Reinen explains, “We started out just looking for a space to work from and what we now have is the opportunity to create our own model for affordable space for other community organizations that couldn’t otherwise afford space in RiNo. We are creating this new space from the grass roots level and we are excited to be part of a collaboration of service providing organizations that make such a big impact in this community and across the region.”
In order to ensure other mission minded businesses do not suffer the same fate, changes must be made in the way businesses think about development. Radian was fortunate to have found a steward who sees the value in supporting community-based organizations and hopes that local business owners start to think of development as a multi-faceted approach. It is time for developers to ask, “How can we make a substantial financial return, while also supporting the community?” According to Reinen, both are possible.
According to Reinen, “the reality is that nonprofits and mission minded businesses are not only being displaced, but they are also not able to enter the market due to rising costs. We are hoping to change that.”
As a close partner, ULC felt it was important to share Radian’s story as part of our resident series. Since 2003, ULC has witnessed thousands of Denver residents struggle to find an affordable place to live, as well as nonprofits who need affordable space to run their important programs. ULC recognizes the need for affordable nonprofit facility space in Metro Denver, and has created and preserved over 700,000 square feet of nonprofit facility space to date. In Denver’s booming real estate market, the story of nonprofit displacement is all too common and unfortunately the challenge is only becoming greater.
When we ask organizations like Radian for advice they could share, the response is the shaking of a head, a look of frustration and the shrug of shoulders. There is currently no solution to address this issue. As a city, region and state, we need to do more to preserve the affordability of nonprofit, school, small business and service providing space in addition to affordable housing as these go hand in hand in providing equity in our communities.