Denver has boomed over the past few years. Between 2010 and 2016, the city added nearly 100,000 new residents. The Core Metropolitan Area (which includes Denver and three surrounding counties) grew by 11% over that period, adding over 250,000 people.1 The newcomers are whiter, better educated, younger, and wealthier as a group than longtime residents.2 They have come for many reasons, but a key one is economic—Denver is emerging as a second-tier tech city. Tech start-ups enjoy a business-friendly urban environment without paying the astronomical rents of the Bay Area. Oracle, Google, and Twitter already have offices in Denver and nearby Boulder.
In 2004, residents voted to finance a new system of light rail lines that now transports 77,000 people a day. Billions of dollars of public investment were poured into transit corridors, which suddenly became attractive for high-density development.
Yet these same areas are home to much of the Denver’s affordable housing stock. Located near the once-deteriorating downtown and industrial core, such neighborhoods were not attractive to higher-income Denverites until now. Working-class renter households, especially the Latino households who comprise today’s low-wage service and construction sectors, settled there. Thus, the very areas most attractive to new development are the ones occupied by the most vulnerable people.
Who is vulnerable?
Certain groups are much more vulnerable to housing instability in Denver. The first group is seniors, who represent one in five homeless individuals in the Denver area. A second vulnerable group is homeowners in mobile home parks. Such parks provide an important form of affordable housing. But as the city rezones for higher density, landowners can make greater profits by selling or redeveloping the parks than by maintaining them as-is.
A third important group is families with mixed documentation status. About a quarter of residents in the Denver Core Metro Area are Latino, and they skew farther toward renter-ship, low income, and large family sizes than residents overall. A Pew Research Report estimates 130,000 illegal immigrants live in the metropolitan area—more than in the San Francisco or Seattle MSAs. Lacking documented credit histories, immigrant families aspiring to homeownership accepted riskier mortgages, with the result that foreclosures were concentrated in Latino neighborhoods during the 2007 Housing Crisis.3
As for Latino renters, fears of deportation make them hesitant to report substandard rental conditions to the authorities, causing housing to decline steadily in value. As investors look to build, Latino neighborhoods are where this is now cheapest and easiest to do.
Policy Responses and Limitations
Colorado has a strong libertarian tradition that opposes any weakening of private property rights. This has set up a challenging policy context for responses to gentrification. The 1992 TABOR amendment to the state constitution prevents localities from raising tax rates without voter approval or spending tax revenue without voter approval if it grows faster than the rate of inflation and population growth. This makes it difficult for Denver and other Colorado municipalities to capture the new wealth brought by gentrifiers and use it to fund affordable housing and necessary infrastructure.
State law also forbids rent control or any mandate requiring developers to set aside new units for certain income brackets. Denver’s ability to grow its affordable housing stock is thus severely constrained.
The Office of Economic Development and other Denver city departments have been working with nonprofit partners to promulgate a new comprehensive housing plan. The current draft proposes a suite of new renter protections, including a registry of all rental units in the city, accompanied by a standard lease and more proactive code enforcement.
The City, recognizing the issue of outdated and completely missing plans in a majority of neighborhoods, launched a new Neighborhood Planning Initiative in 2017. This will allow planners to tackle neighborhood plans in groups, with 18 months allocated for each group. This accelerated timeline may cut community engagement short, but the Planning Department appears to be making a praise-worthy effort to reach out to vulnerable populations.
A predominantly Latino community located close to Downtown Denver, Globeville Elyria-Swansea (GES) is split by elevated highways, a rail yard, and several industrial sites. Recent approval of a 10-year project to widen Interstate 70, which cuts through the neighborhood, will condemn 56 affordable homes. A pending decision to designate the area within the 100-year floodplain would also increase the cost of insurance and the difficulty of getting loans. These and other top-down decisions have left the community feeling blindsided, feeling that they lack control over their community.
Under pressure, GES residents have protested development projects as well as the predatory tactics of investors hoping to buy up properties in the area. But building real community control is more difficult. Change is occurring very quickly: one third of residential parcels in GES changed hands in just the three years between 2013 and 2016, and half of those parcels were sold to an LLC, LLP, or another absentee owner.4 This weakens the ability of remaining low-income residents to mount an effective response. In addition, land prices have already escalated so much that the upfront costs of acquiring property to create or preserve affordable housing could now be prohibitive.5
Because of its strengths as well as its weaknesses, GES is a perfect place to explore the importance of neighborhood power and capacity in responding to gentrification.
Denver as a whole lacks a strong tradition of participatory governance. The city has a strong mayor and weak city council strucutre, and the current mayor has focused on public-private partnerships that are less transparent and accountable to citizens. In addition, the city is missing the range and number of community organizing groups that exist in coastal cities, making it more difficult for residents - especially those who speak English as a second language - to participate in policymaking and advocate for their neighborhoods.6 This calls for policies that improve neighborhoods' access to and engagement in the decision-making that affects them.
GES has the advantage of an active community group, the GES Organizing Coalition for Health and Housing Justice. This group has been protesting gentrification and is trying to establish a community land trust to protect affordability. With greater support from the municipal government, it could play a pivotal role in improving outcomes for current residents, especially given Colorado's constraints on more top-down actions like rent control and mandatory inclusionary zoning.
Possible Policy Responses
Using the local policy toolkit, Denver could take several important steps to address the vulnerability and disenfranchisement of GES residents. First, the city can aid residents in their efforts to create communally-owned land and housing. The GES Coalition for Health and Housing Justice has already hired a technical assistance provider to help them build resident capacity to launch a community land-banking demonstration. The City can pitch in by providing funding and streamlined approval. Increased representation on planning and transit boards is also key for residents, who are physically and procedurally isolated from City Hall. Another key intervention would be to provide renters greater protection in the form of increased inspections accompanied by funds for repairs. This would reduce instances of predatory leasing among those who are face barriers to lodging complaints, thus improving rental housing without displacing current residents. Finally, Denver could pair housing reforms with economic development in the form of greater access to the construction industry. With high-density projects blooming just south of GES, the City has a major opportunity to enrich and stabilize vulnerable residents.
1. U.S. Census Bureau, Community Facts. 2. Net migration to the Denver Core Metro Area between 2010 and 2015 made the region roughly 3% more white, put 3% more of the population into the category of college-educated, put .5% more of the population into the 18 to 34 age range, and added $901 dollars to the median household income, adjusting for inflation (all data points are from the five-year American Communities Survey estimates). 3. Denver Office of Economic Development. “Foreclosure Filings By Neighborhood, 2005-2009,” Foreclosure Update to NCBR Committee, Presentation, February 23, 2010. 4. Urban Land Conservancy. "Feasibility Study and Business Plan for a Proposed Community Land Trust Program Serving Denver's Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea Neighborhoods." August, 2017, p.2. 5. Romine, Jeffrey, Ledy Garcia-Eckstein, Katherine O’Connor, and Laura Brudzynsky, Denver Office of Economic Development. Interview with Alana Kim and Claudia Elzey. October 6, 2017. 6. Pollack, Melinda and Brad Weinig, Enterprise Community Partners, Interview with Alana Kim and Claudia Elzey. October 4, 2017.