Just before this past Thanksgiving, an early morning fire in an apartment in the Denver suburb of Littleton killed a man. It also forced the evacuation of the entire building, part of a complex housing seniors.
Two and a half weeks after the fire, the owners summoned the tenants, who had been camping out with friends or relatives or in hotels, to make an announcement. I cover housing for the online news site denverite.com. I joined other reporters and scores of tenants for the meeting in a church across the street from the site of the fire.
As I walked in I saw tenants poring over copies of the Littleton Independent, a community newspaper that had covered the fire and its aftermath extensively. Independent reporter David Gilbert’s stories had pointed out that the building had sprinklers only in the basement and quoted tenants who said they did not hear fire alarms. Gilbert had sent me an email alerting me to an earlier tenants’ meeting I had been unable to attend. I thanked him for the heads-up when I saw him at the church.
We settled into pews in a sanctuary already decorated for Christmas with a tree and red ribbons. A spokesman for the apartment building’s owners approached a microphone on a stand in front of the altar. The spokesman said journalists would have to leave before the meeting could begin.
Tenants pushed back.
“Why do they have to leave?”
“They’re the voice of the people!”
The spokesman was adamant, saying private matters were going to be discussed.
“Do you want to have this meeting?” he said. It sounded like a threat to withhold information. The protesting voices quieted.
And I stayed in me pew. As far as I was concerned, it was as much the tenants’ meeting as the building owner’s, and tenants clearly wanted press present to help hold the owner’s accountable. The spokesman did not take a role call to determine whether reporters were lingering. He went on with the meeting, at which tenants heard for the first time that their homes had been declared uninhabitable because the fire caused an asbestos spill.
That meant 163 seniors were suddenly without a permanent place to stay in a metro region experiencing a housing shortage. The high prices caused by lack of supply have been especially hard on the elderly who are often on fixed incomes. Some landlords are refusing to rent to people receiving federal housing vouchers. Demand is so high that landlords can be picky, and some don’t want to deal with any red tape associated with government help.
I had written earlier about homeless shelters in the area seeing more and more people in their 70s, 80s and even 90s losing housing because rents have increased. I wondered how many of the people sitting with me in the church would turn to a homeless shelter in weeks to come as money for hotels ran out and welcomes now offered by friends and families wore thin. Some people might end up living in their cars, as was the case for a 79-year-old bookseller I had profiled for another story.
These are matters of great public interest. A county government official invited to the church meeting by the building’s owners described plans for a fundraiser to help the displaced tenants and called on landlords with apartments available to step forward. Tenants also learned that public funds might be available as loans they could use for deposits on new housing.
I hold the Colorado Press Woman’s seat on the board of directors of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. CPW supports the coalition in its efforts to ensure the public’s business is done in public. Reporters turn to the coalition’s executive director, himself a former journalist, for help deploying the state’s freedom of information law. Often, non-journalists also seek CFOIC counsel.
Despite attacks on the press from President Trump and his aides, I saw among the tenants in the church evidence that ordinary people understand what journalists do and realize our democracy depends on it.
As I left the meeting, I introduced myself as a reporter to a tenant’s daughter. She said she was glad someone would be able to describe the anguished response tenants had had to the news. People needed to be able to put a face on this problem, the woman told me. Independent reporter Gilbert also stayed in his pew and tenants had raised cell their phone cameras to record the proceedings and no doubt planned to make the videos available to the media.
A TV reporter told me later that she was escorted from the sanctuary only to discover that comments during the meeting were being played in the lobby on speakers connected to the microphone the spokesman had used and another that tenants use to ask questions.
I left the meeting feeling optimistic our open society can stay open. If nothing else, I was reminded we live in an age when technology again and again frustrates the powerful’s tendency toward secrecy at the expense of the weak.