Denver gentrification, economic displacement among issues for new City Council

Denver is a less diverse place than a decade ago. It’s a demographic shift that has played out in many of the city’s traditionally Black and Latino neighborhoods as tremendous population and economic growth has driven gentrification in previously marginalized corners of the city.

But the makeup of the Denver City Council bucks that trend. Voters earlier this year elected perhaps the most diverse council in the city’s history, including six Latina members and two out-LGBTQ Black councilmembers. It’s a record amount of Latino representation on the Council regardless of gender, a near majority of that 13-member legislative body.

Don’t expect those diverse leaders, hailing from districts spread all across the city, to agree on everything.

But in interviews with councilmembers both new and returning, it’s clear there is substantial overlap on many priorities for the next four years. Denverites should expect a focus on efforts to stabilize low- and middle-income households, push back on gentrification and prevent — or even reverse — economic displacement in a city that has developed a reputation for rapid growth trampling people on its financial edges.

“I think something that we all are prioritizing is just our working-class constituents and a focus on gentrification at a time when gentrification has been so hard on communities of color and just low-income communities regardless of color,” said Flor Alvidrez, who was just sworn into her first term representing south Denver’s District 7. “Not just slowing gentrification but even reversing it; making it affordable for people to come back.”

Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez represented a portion of west Denver in the Colorado House for five years before being elected to the Council to represent the city at large. Her grandfather, Rudolfo “Corky” Gonzales, was a central figure in the Chicano civil rights movement.

She was the third generation of her family to graduate from Denver’s North High School but Gonzales-Gutierrez knows what it’s like to struggle to find a home she could afford in the part of the city where she grew up. It’s a struggle faced by many Latinos in Denver over the last 15 years as gentrification remade northside neighborhoods like Highland and Berkeley.

“I do see that there could be spaces where we are aligned when it comes to policies that have an impact on displacement and equity,” she said.

Still studying all the ways the Council can make an impact on these issues — including by ensuring city contracts are awarded to diverse companies and through powers recently granted by voters to approve mayoral appointees — Gonzales-Gutierrez is encouraged by some of the work that has already begun. She applauds the efforts of her predecessors, who worked with the city housing department to create a policy that gives low-income people who are at risk or have already been displaced from Denver priority status to rent or buy forthcoming affordable housing units in the city. That policy takes effect next year.

“I see an opportunity to really expand upon policies like that,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said. She sees a council made up not only of diverse faces but also allies. It’s a group she feels, “would definitely be open to working on these types of policies to stop the trend of gentrification.”

The previous Council took some unprecedented steps to address household incomes and housing affordability during its four years in power. Those included passing an affordable housing mandate that increased fees on development and requires any large new housing project to include at least 8% affordable housing or pay substantial fees in lieu. Then came to companion priority policy for low-income residents. That Council also approved a citywide minimum wage that puts pay in Denver well above the state and federal minimums.

Gentrification will be a “continued focus” for this group, Council President Jamie Torres predicted. Torres is a third-generation resident of the city’s District 3. For her, representing the people there is a deeply personal commitment. As a former deputy director of the Denver Agency for Human Rights & Community Partnerships and founder and director of the city’s Office of Immigrant & Refugee Affairs, Torres is acutely aware of gaps in support available to immigrants and low-income Denverites in general. Those are what compelled her to run for Council in the first place.

The answer to displacement is a range of policies and approaches in Torres’ view. Even measures like an ordinance the outgoing council approved in January that gave the city auditor more power to investigate and pursue wage theft claims against employers can be viewed through an anti-displacement lens, she said.

Over the next four years, she hopes to help realize some of the goals of the city’s West Area Plan including helping residents and local businesses stay in place. She’s also interested in supporting the city’s limited number of mobile home parks, an oft-overlooked form of affordable housing.

She wants to “provide some viability for our mobile home parks to continue to exisit,” she said.

District 9 representative Darrell Watson may only be in his first few weeks on City Council but he had an up-close view of the economic challenges facing low and middle-income Denverites as the founding chair of the Housing Stability Strategic Advisors. That group was appointed to help the city’s still-young housing department carry out its strategic plans.

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Watson was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands but moved to the city in 1987 to attend the University of Colorado Denver. He bought the home he and his husband live in in the Whittier neighborhood in 1997. Gentrification has been an issue in District 9 for a long time and will continue to be one, Watson said, but there are existing tools like rental assistance and eviction protection and the forthcoming affordable housing prioritization policy that can be used to push back.

Equity is the lens through which Watson plans to measure every decision he makes on the council. He knows that’s a value shared broadly across the council and expects it to help steer policies around creating more housing across the spectrum in the city — that means everything from congregate and non-congregate homeless shelters to market-rate and workforce housing.

He’d like to see land trusts and deed restrictions better leveraged to keep housing more affordable to working-class people in Denver.

“As someone who grew up in the projects and used a (Colorado Housing and Finance Authority) loan to buy his first home, I understand the impact of housing instability,” Watson said. “There are a lot of working families who can’t afford to live where they work.”

District 6 Councilman Paul Kashmann is starting his third and final term on the city hall deas this summer.

He bought his roughly 900-square-foot bungalow in the Virginia Village neighborhood for just under $100,000 in the late 1990s. If he were to sell it now, it would likely go for somewhere in the range of $550,000, he estimates.

The challenge he is hoping to confront with this council is how to create more market-rate affordable housing in neighborhoods like his. Recently completed planning documents for the area suggest allowing more gentle density like duplexes to be built in neighborhoods that, to date, are almost exclusively single-family homes. But that could backfire.

“The last thing we want to do is tear down my $550,000 home and build two $3 million duplexes,” Kashmann said. “So what can we do to add duplexes but ensure they remain affordable?”

Kashmann is Jewish but has referred to himself as “the old white guy” on the council. This group of council members excites him and he is hopeful they can pass legislation that will benefit Denverites from all backgrounds.

“I can look through the lens of my own context and while I can intellectually and compassionately attempt to be an ally, whether it be to people of color or the LGBTQ community, I have not lived their experience so I do not believe I can represent those communities as well as those who have lived in those communities and experienced the pressures that have been put on them through their entire lifetimes,” Ksahmann said.  “The more I get to know my new colleagues the more excited I get.”

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