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Denver Focuses On Keeping Artists Safe And In Homes With New Program

Sharon Hahn Darlin
Flickr: Creative Commons
36 people died in a fire on Dec. 2, 2016 at the Ghost Ship art collective in Oakland, California.

Denver officials have proposed a first-of-its-kind program to address dangerous code violations in artist DIY spaces and allow owners and tenants to stay while those issues are being addressed.

The Safe Occupancy Program recognizes that with the cost of real estate in Denver skyrocketing, many artists are being priced out of live/work spaces and looking to unpermitted -- and potentially dangerous -- locations as an alternative, said Brad Buchanan, Executive Director of Denver’s Department of Community Planning and Development.

“We believe this will -- we hope -- open up a lot of opportunities to individuals who don’t think they have a choice,” Buchanan said.

Here’s how the Safe Occupancy Program works:

- For the next two years, the owner or tenant of an existing unpermitted space may apply for the program.

- City code officials would inspect the space to assess its safety. The owner or tenant will work with them -- along with a licensed design professional -- to create a plan and set extended timelines to bring the space up to code. Violations could be as minor as a lack of smoke detectors or more serious issues such as inadequate exit routes.

- During this process, the owner/tenant may apply for a conditional certificate of occupancy to continue to use the building. The allowance will be granted after inspectors verify that no life-threatening safety hazards exist and a plan to bring the building up to code is in place.

- While work is ongoing, inspections will be scheduled to assess progress.

While there are similar efforts throughout the United States, if approved, the Safe Occupancy Program would be the first law to allow occupants to legally remain in a building while it’s being brought up to code voluntarily, Buchanan said.

“This is truly progressive thinking from a municipality,” said Vince Kadlubek, co-founder and CEO of Santa Fe, New Mexico arts collective Meow Wolf, in a news release. “We hope this supports alternative creative communities as they work towards safety and compliance.”

In December 2016, a deadly fire at a DIY space in Oakland, California killed 36 people, prompting increased scrutiny of artists living and working in unpermitted locations across the country, including Colorado. Days after the tragedy, residents at Denver’s Glob and Rhinoceropolis art hubs were evicted from both locations following code inspections. Meow Wolf recently pledged $10,000 to the two venues to help bring them into code compliance.

“The challenge of unpermitted spaces didn’t just show up with the Oakland tragedy,” Buchanan said. “It’s been an issue for every major city for as long as I can remember.

“But that issue coupled with the affordability challenges that many major cities -- including Denver -- are having today, has made more urgent the need to come up with some solutions for individuals who are put in a position where they feel like they need to live or work in an unpermitted space,” he added. “We’re here to work with them to come up with solutions that are affordable and are safe as well.”

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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