A small group of residents with disabilities at Arapahoe Court, one of the oldest public housing properties in the Boulder Housing Partners’ portfolio, were excited to learn in January that the agency was planning a major renovation of the property.

But now, they’re instead making plans to scatter throughout Boulder and beyond after BHP said they can no longer live there. 

The housing authority pledged to provide residents with extensive moving assistance to help them relocate to other BHP properties. “There should be no out-of-pocket moving expenses for them, and their rent will stay the same,” said Laura Sheinbaum, BHP’s director of real estate development. 

Even so, “it was devastating to hear the news because we are a small community, and we all love each other like family,” said Jennifer Ochs, who has lived at Arapahoe Court for four years. Some have called it home for more than 10.

They must leave within a year because BHP learned from the federal Housing and Urban Development department this spring that the 14-unit complex — nestled at 951 and 953 Arapahoe Ave. between the main Boulder Public Library and the West Age Well Center — sits squarely within the city’s 100-year floodplain. 

Jennifer Ochs is among the residents of Arapahoe Court who will have to relocate. Ochs, an advocate who was named Ms. Wheelchair Colorado earlier this year, said of her her neighbors, “We all love each other like family.” Credit: Chloe Anderson

Arapahoe Court is owned by HUD but managed by BHP. HUD bars capital spending on properties located in major flood zones, Sheinbaum said.

That means federal dollars “no longer can be spent on the property to keep it in good condition,” she said. BHP may now only spend money on minor repairs such as a broken toilet, but not on major investments like roofs and painting.

When BHP learned that, Sheinbaum said its board of commissioners decided in May to close the property and help residents move to other BHP properties that generally are far newer and more modern. HUD couldn’t set up an interview by publication time. 

Sheinbaum acknowledged the residents’ “absolute inconvenience. We are hyper-aware of that,” adding that “it is heartbreaking for us too. We never want to displace people. We are ‘housers,’ not ‘displacers.’” But Sheinbaum added that as the property now cannot be maintained because federal dollars pay for that, “it would eventually be unable to be lived in.”

Catastrophic flooding has happened there before. During the deadly 2013 floods, water ran east down Arapahoe from Gregory Canyon Creek, which overflowed upstream. Some Arapahoe Court apartments were flooded up to three feet deep.

The adjacent library and the Age Well Center also lie in the floodplain, but no one lives there so flood risk is less critical.  They both, though, have limits on the amount of development allowed, plus detailed flood evacuation plans, said Brandon Coleman, the city’s storm and flood utilities manager.

BHP shifts plans to sell property 

Arapahoe Court was built in the early 1950s, and became one of the housing authority’s first public housing properties in the 1970s. It is set aside for people who are disabled or over age 62 with limited income. Each unit has one bedroom, living room/kitchen and bathroom. Its shady courtyard has become a community gathering place. 

But such an old property is simply tired. BHP had planned to invest about $500,000 in renovations this summer that would have included painting, new windows and Energy Star-rated refrigerators. Residents were told of the renovations in a Jan. 17, 2023 community meeting.

“I was thinking like, ‘far out,’ when I learned about it,” said resident Tim McGrath, who has lived there for about five years. 

However, at a second meeting on May 24, residents learned plans had turned inside-out. According to Sheinbaum, BHP discovered the property’s increased flood risk while discussing the renovations with HUD.

Residents were shocked at the reversal, McGrath said. “We were all like, ‘What?’ I read it twice. It just sucked, flat out.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had updated the floodplain map in 2017, taking into account the 2013 floods and climate change, which put more of Boulder in high-risk flood zones. Since the property has been on floodplain maps for a long time, Sheinbaum said that BHP doesn’t review updates unless there are changes in usage planned, because Arapahoe Court has flood insurance. 

But this year, there was a planned usage change. BHP not only intended for major renovations at Arapahoe Court but it also wanted to move the property from public housing to Section 8 housing, a different federally supported program that uses vouchers to help people afford decent housing. Arapahoe Court is the last remaining public housing project among BHP’s 37 properties.

The 2017 FEMA flood map is seen here ,with Arapahoe Court and the area around it circled in yellow
The 2017 FEMA flood map is seen here, with Arapahoe Court and the area around it circled in yellow, center-right.

BHP now intends to sell the property at market rate and use the proceeds to build additional new affordable housing elsewhere in Boulder. A new owner could then build anything there they can get zoning for. The Arapahoe Court property is currently zoned for public uses.

BHP is promising a variety of assistance in moving elsewhere. Residents will receive a lifetime housing voucher that can be used at any of BHP’s other 36 Boulder properties, noted Sheinbaum. The voucher can also be used anywhere in the nation.

Residents won’t have to go though the normal qualifying interview, and oftentimes, a lottery for available units.

BHP also will pay for relocation and support services such as moving supplies, packing and unpacking services, movers, and stipends to cover lease applications and security deposits. It will also cover counseling if needed.

Sheinbaum said BHP plans to work with each resident individually to find an apartment that fits their needs.

During the 2013 floods, some Arapahoe Court apartments were flooded up to three feet deep. Credit: Chloe Anderson

‘We can never replace what we have’

But residents say that BHP help, while needed, doesn’t make moving any easier emotionally because the small community is close-knit — so close that a number of residents initially said they’d like to move together to keep their community intact. 

Ochs, 43, for example, gets around in a wheelchair. She said she was healthy until 10 years ago when rare side effects of treatment for leukemia “poisoned my brain. It devastated my balance, motor skills, speech and swallowing.” After years of living with her parents and then in a nursing home, she was able to qualify for Arapahoe Court.

There, she found a community where “we all help each other. If I have problems, and I sometimes do, my neighbors help because they know I can’t do it myself,” she said.

Jennifer Ochs wears her Ms. Wheelchair Colorado sash in her Arapahoe Court home on Aug. 4, 2023. Credit: Chloe Anderson

McGrath said he couldn’t be in a better spot than Arapahoe Court because his neighbors are nice and it is close to downtown, the library and parks, but he is taking a pragmatic approach. “I thought, ‘do I have options?’ and yes, I do. I don’t want to get all upset at this point.”

Sheinbaum says BHP is open to “working toward” residents moving together if they wish and enough contiguous housing becomes available. But Ochs said she and others realize that “we need to jump on whatever we find that we like.” 

BHP has 36 other properties in Boulder, totaling 1,583 apartments. About 45 to 80 are usually available at a given time, Sheinbaum said. Because most are far newer, many have in-unit washers and dryers, dishwashers, ceiling fans and central air conditioning — all features Arapahoe Court residents don’t have because of the property’s age, she pointed out.

Ochs is considering a unit at a two-year-old BHP property that she says is physically far better than Arapahoe Court, but it’s still a devastating move.

“We can never replace what we have in the closeness of our community,” she said. “I hope our friendships will endure.”

Sally Bell is a former major city newspaper reporter with many years of experience, who in retirement now freelances occasionally because she misses it. She has lived in Boulder for more than 20 years.

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