The downside of gentrification — involuntary displacement — has had profound effects on some neighborhoods in Denver, and now other cities along the Front Range recognize its early stages. Some have begun to formulate policy to deal with it.
Fueled by a hot real estate market, less expensive areas of cities like Aurora and Fort Collins see redevelopment moving into areas with longtime residents who have voiced concern about changes in the character — or even the existence — of their neighborhoods. Boulder, though smaller and demographically different from Denver, watches all prices trend higher as affordable options anywhere shrink in a city where “everything is a redevelopment project.”
City planners see the trend up and down the Front Range, though areas like Grand Junction on the Western Slope, which only recently emerged from the recession, have seen only the slightest traces as redevelopment regains its economic footing.
But where it’s happening, one common factor drives it.
“Price increases are happening throughout the community, throughout the Front Range,” says Cameron Gloss, Fort Collins’ long-range planning manager. “No big mystery there. I’ve been on panels with other planning directors, and this story seems to be coming up in many communities, where we see displacement going on. It’s a function of real estate prices.”
In Fort Collins, it’s seeping into an area called Tres Colonias, where three separate neighborhoods — Alta Vista, Andersonville, and Buckingham, traditionally Latino for many years — have appeared on planners’ radar screen as the elements of cost and convenient-to-downtown location attract new buyers.
In 2015, the city commissioned a Colorado State University student to look for quantifiable variables in the wake of another study two years earlier that first raised concerns about gentrification in those neighborhoods. She found, by exploring census data dating back to 2000 and plugging it into a widely-used statistical model, that the area appears to be in the early stages of gentrification.
The 2013 study, done by a CSU professor who interviewed two dozen Latino residents in the area, revealed that fault lines in relations with the city already had appeared and recommended reaching out to those communities.
Fort Collins has instituted no anti-displacement regulations, per se, according to Gloss, who adds that “the market’s going to dictate if an area ends up changing.”
“We have policy that supports diversity, but no regulations in place specifically,” he says.
For example, the city tries to protect mobile home parks, often the only option for low-income residents, from redevelopment as much as possible. There’s also a city program that helps lower-income residents control utility costs, but beyond that he doesn’t see specific programs or groups addressing this issue “in any functional way.”
But he notes that as the city has been going through the process of community engagement before adopting a new long-range plan for the next 20 years, “that issue has been raised much more than in the past. It’s a growing concern. I don’t know that it’s the same as in Denver, but it’s on people’s minds based on the comments we’ve received.”
Beth Sowder, Fort Collins’ social sustainability department director, observes that while the city isn’t seeing whole neighborhoods scraped for huge, luxury apartments, it is seeing gentrification on a smaller scale. Low-income areas with lots of long-term residents see new residents with new ideas about the architectural character of the neighborhood.
She says the city is “keeping an eye on it” and has principles about affordable housing that seek to retain equity and affordability across income levels.
“We’re seeing changes from primarily Hispanic neighborhoods to new urbanism, young white couples coming in and revamping homes,” Sowder says. “Property values are going up, and that’s concerning to longer-term residents.”
In Aurora, officials play catch-up
As rising housing prices swept through Denver, it seemed only a matter of time before demand spilled across the city limits into Aurora and began pricing out low-income tenants.
And yet, to city councilwoman and lifelong resident Crystal Murillo, the surge has somehow caught the city flat-footed and playing catch-up.
“We’re Colorado’s third-largest city, but we don’t even have an affordable housing plan,” says Murillo, who embraced public service after the 2016 election. “It’s never been a goal of the city. It wasn’t until 2017, when myself and couple other folks were elected, that we made it a priority.”
Housing in general, even in areas of new construction where Aurora can expand to the east, has only gotten pricier. But in segments of the community where diversity runs highest — such as northwest Aurora, where Murillo represents Ward I — risk factors converge to create a neighborhood vulnerable to displacement.
Murillo sees it in the neighborhood where she grew up.
“Gentrification is happening, starting with housing,” she says. “We’re on the border, so we’re getting an influx of folks priced out of Denver. It’s a regional issue. When one city doesn’t do enough for affordability, that impacts other municipalities. Multiple municipalities have to commit to creating affordability, equity and access.”
“Even now I’m the only one who lives that experience of the folks I’m talking about … The council make-up hasn’t always reflected the population it serves.”
— Aurora city councilwoman Crystal Murillo
In Ward I, which basically runs north of Sixth Avenue and west of Interstate 225 to the Denver border, Murillo sees ground zero for Aurora’s battle with displacement. The residents are predominantly Latino, often immigrants, mostly renters and have a median income of about $30,000, she says.
The area has increasing appeal to people priced out of Denver thanks to its location, which includes the Anschutz Medical Campus and easy access to bus lines to downtown Denver. Low-income residents already struggle with basic expenses like food and transportation, “but housing is what’s moving people out of the neighborhood,” Murillo says. “This hot housing market is benefitting some, but not those who’ve been in the community for a long time, who helped create the city as it is today, a very diverse city.”
In its last budget, Aurora earmarked $1 million for affordable housing — “a drop in the bucket, but a drop we didn’t have before,” Murillo notes — but so far the city has made no firm commitments on how to spend it. An affordable housing task force has kicked around ideas, including talk about land trusts, which would help preserve some properties from skyrocketing onto the open market.
“There’s no silver bullet,” deputy city manager Jason Batchelor says, echoing a common refrain about dealing with gentrification. “It requires a broad variety of tools. This council has discussed and is working on a more comprehensive policy to address displacement and gentrification.”
Aurora differs from Denver when it comes to inclusionary zoning, he adds, where a city can charge fees to developers who don’t meet certain requirements for creating affordable housing.
“We don’t have those (fees) but it’s a tool that’s available, and some council members have expressed interest in that,” Batchelor says. “As we move forward talking about affordable housing, that may come up. I don’t know how it will play out, but it’s a tool Denver has that we don’t currently in Aurora.”
The city is also grappling with another sensitive issue within the displacement conversation — mobile home parks, which for many people represent the most affordable housing option. Aurora has a dozen of them, and one, Denver Meadows Mobile and RV Park, has been at the center of controversy.
The park’s owner wants to redevelop the property and gave residents notice that they’d have to move. Many who own their homes would be unable to move them because of their age, while others haven’t found alternative spots to relocate. A lawsuit filed on behalf of residents, a moratorium on rezoning passed by the city and even an rejected attempt by residents to purchase the land (with the help of a housing nonprofit) so far have failed to produce a resolution.
“They’re looking at displacement,” Murillo says of the park’s residents. “This is a prime example of what it looks like. These are first-generation Americans, trying to pursue the American Dream.
“Never mind that we don’t have an affordability policy,” she adds. “We can’t build quickly enough to make sure we’re keeping people in the community. Preserving affordability is of utmost importance. Mobile homes should be a top priority.”
Why hasn’t affordable housing been a priority in Aurora? Murillo points to the historic makeup of the city council, which has been almost devoid of minority representation.
“Even now,” she says, “I’m the only one who lives that experience of the folks I’m talking about. I have multiple jobs, I don’t make a lot of money, I grew up there. The council make-up hasn’t always reflected the population it serves.”
Just as some at-risk neighborhoods in Denver have added a component of wealth creation to their long-range strategy to fight displacement, Murillo would like to see Aurora embrace programs that provide a path to home ownership. But the economic piece goes beyond that.
“Gentrification isn’t just about housing,” she says. “It’s about jobs that don’t lead to a life in poverty. And culture. If you only create affordability for a few, then your family, your acquaintances move away, the fabric of the community starts to change.”
Boxed-in Boulder has unique challenges
Although many cities along the Front Range are seeing early impacts of gentrification, Boulder may be unique in that it can actually make the argument that it’s further along the gentrification curve than even Denver.
The 25-square-mile city is essentially landlocked, just as Denver is, only it did so intentionally, by surrounding itself with 75 square miles of open space. And unlike Denver, its options for housing density are limited by citywide height restrictions. With no room to grow outward and relatively little space to grow upward, Boulder has boxed itself in.
“Everything is a redevelopment project,” says Jim Robertson, director of planning, housing and sustainability for the city. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but from the point of view of a developer, it adds to the complexity. Every project is in somebody’s backyard. That brings into play how a community feels about redevelopment of a parcel, expectations of how it will perform in terms of traffic and new uses. It’s a complex development environment. We’re very much operating in an already-developed setting.”
Rather than seeing gentrification follow the real estate market into specific neighborhoods, Robertson says, Boulder has watched a more general rise in housing costs throughout the city. But it does, on occasion, play out in one particular location or another — particularly when it comes to the sensitive issue of mobile or manufactured homes.
“Boulder has several manufactured home or trailer park communities, historically where a person can own a home in a relatively affordable way,” Robertson says. “They are threatened, if you will, in the sense that they’re one offer the owner can’t refuse away from being replaced by some form of housing that’s far more expensive.”
“If somebody takes an aging apartment complex and redevelops it, we’re not getting 1-for-1 replacement, but 1-for-4 replacement.”
— Jim Robertson, Boulder housing director
In one instance, the city of Boulder bought the land that contained the Ponderosa Mobile Home Park, on the north end of town, that was impacted by the 2013 floods. Now the city is in the process of redeveloping it with a zero-displacement policy that offers residents the opportunity to have an upgraded home on a more permanent foundation if they choose not to stay in their existing home.
Amid rising housing costs and land values, the city also has seen many market-rate, but relatively affordable, options replaced with refurbished — and significantly more expensive — apartment communities. In some cases, it’s not even a change of ownership that triggers the upgrade, but redevelopment by the existing owner.
“They’re scattered through the city,” Robertson says, “hundreds if not thousands of relatively affordable places because they’re not the latest shiny apartments. We’re losing those with the escalation in rent and the value of redevelopment.”
Although Boulder remains a predominantly white city in terms of demographics, Robertson notes that even its relatively small populations of people of color are an issue. Gentrification may not directly impact minority communities in the sheer numbers that it does in Denver, he adds, but it’s of no less concern.
“There are still occasions where we’re going into a community to get thoughts of redevelopment and we still translate into Spanish on occasion,” he says, “or have a translator at a meeting for people who are not native English speakers.”
Although Boulder has inclusionary housing regulations that require new construction to set aside 25 percent for deed-restricted affordable housing, even that tends to be a losing proposition in a city where seemingly endless demand collides with severely limited supply. Rather than build affordable units, developers can choose to pay an equivalent amount in cash that the city puts toward affordable housing elsewhere.
But even when those inclusionary units are built, the affordable housing supply takes a hit.
“If somebody takes an aging apartment complex and redevelops it, we’re not getting 1-for-1 replacement,” Robertson explains, “but 1-for-4 replacement. We’d be losing ground.”
The city works in concert with Boulder Housing Partners, the city’s housing authority, which has tools like federal tax credits and investments in market-rate properties that it rehabs and then offers at affordable rates. The agency notes that its limited resources hardly begin to fill demand.
“In one of our newest communities, we had eight interested parties for every home we had available,” says executive director Jeremy Durham. “Our challenge and our mission is to push limited resources as far as possible.”
But Robertson points out that displacement extends beyond affordable housing. Boulder also has struggled as the rising land values impact commercial space, prompting some businesses to leave for more reasonable rates in places like Louisville or Longmont.
“I wouldn’t say there’s mass migration, but it’s clearly a concern,” he says, noting that the city is exploring ways to make local business more affordable through a citywide retail study. “You get an iconic local business that’s been in business for decades, it’s very upsetting to people when they decide to close down or move. In terms of community character, that’s as upsetting as the loss of housing affordability.”
Apartment fiasco reminds Colorado Springs that gentrification looms
A little more than a year ago, a New York investor bought the 70-unit Emerald Towers Apartments in Colorado Springs’ Ivywild neighborhood and gave tenants, all of them seniors and most on fixed incomes, 60 days to leave so it could begin renovations.
There were no guarantees they could return to the homes where many had lived for years with manageable rents.
The evictions, which coincided with the start of the holiday season, generated widespread outrage and galvanized the community to take action, led by city council president Richard Skorman, who convened an emergency meeting to address the issue. Ultimately, all the tenants found assistance to relocate, but the incident became a high-profile reminder that gentrification had arrived in Colorado Springs.
“Affordable housing is a big issue,” Skorman says. “We did a survey several years ago that said by 2019, we’d be 25,000 units short. Now it is 2019, and I’d guess we’re at least that. Not just transitional housing for the homeless, but workforce housing, senior housing, all the categories you can imagine. We’re finally on the same level playing field with Denver. Our rents aren’t quite as high, and the cost of living is slightly lower here, but wages are also lower here.”
The redevelopment trend has caught the eye of city planners, who noticed an increase in sales of larger, multi-family properties — everything from luxury apartments to older, more affordable complexes.
“Those are the ones we pay a lot of attention to, because they tend to have lower rent and are more affordable for working folks in the community,” says Steve Posey, community development manager for the city.
The turnover tells them a couple of things, he says. First, there’s a lot of interest in Colorado Springs, which was named one of the best places to live by U.S. News & World Report. And when things like that happen, investors come calling.
“I’d say that some of the older apartment buildings with more affordable rent, no matter where they’re located, are more likely to turn over,” Posey says. “New owners want to make improvements and rents end up going up.”
Skorman figures Colorado Springs is still at the beginning stages of gentrification — maybe five years behind Denver — but he recognizes certain neighborhoods at risk, often those that are older and closer to the downtown core. He sees areas from the city’s west side, a neighborhood of smaller homes sometimes known as Old Colorado City, to communities south of downtown, where Emerald Towers underwent renovation, all vulnerable to gentrification.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more Emerald Towers out there,” he says, noting that not all the displacement generates the same kind of media coverage.
Skorman says that while the city council and mayor have been trying to promote more affordable housing, they’ve stopped short of making it a requirement for developers, preferring instead to incentivize the marketplace. But he also recognizes a need to “ramp up.” The city budget for this year includes creation of an affordable housing master plan, which he hopes could yield results in the next six months.
The city will look first for incentives like waiving utility fees to encourage developers to add more affordable units to the housing inventory. But it may turn to more restrictive land-use measures if those tactics aren’t sufficient.
“My guess is that we may have to be more prescriptive after that,” Skorman says. “We want to use the incentives we have, but we may have to get involved in inclusionary zoning.”
Some Pueblo neighborhoods primed for investment — and what follows
In Pueblo, city planners also haven’t seen anything like wholesale displacement. But they have noticed a sharp decline in rental housing vacancies from a 10 percent rate just a few years ago to 1 percent today, according to Scott Hobson, the city’s land use administrator and now, under Pueblo’s first mayor in 60 years, the assistant mayor for community investment.
That tightening of the rental market, coupled with what he estimates is a 15-20 percent increase in rents citywide, could prime certain neighborhoods for investment and — perhaps — the early stages of gentrification in the not-too-distant future. But so far the city hasn’t developed any specific strategy or programs to deal with that possibility.
The racial makeup of the city’s predominantly Latino neighborhoods hasn’t changed much since the 2010 census, Hobson says, hovering just over 50 percent. But one subtle trend he does see is areas like the Bessemer neighborhood, a historic area east of the steel mill, Pueblo West and some communities on the fringe of downtown shifting to more rentals than home ownership by roughly 55 to 45 percent — the opposite of the city at large.
The change has accelerated since 2010. But largely, applications for building permits to renovate properties have been spread out over the city in recent years, rather than concentrated in “hot spots.”
“We don’t have specific data,” Hobson says, “but from what we’re able to see through land-use applications, it appears that a higher percentage of those properties have been purchased by out-of-town speculators, and then that’s had some impact on increases in rent prices.”
A portion of that interest from investors appears to be speculation on the potential increase in values in low-income neighborhoods, he adds. So while gentrification hasn’t taken hold in Pueblo, the city nonetheless remains watchful.
“We’re aware of it, but we have not necessarily seen significant displacement of people from homes,” Hobson says. “It’s something that we’re going to do what we can to monitor. If it does happen, it could happen rapidly.”
Bryan Gallagher, the city’s acting director of housing and human services, says that what Pueblo is seeing isn’t traditional gentrification, where developers might focus on a particular neighborhood, but “across the market.”
“Investors are not concentrating, but going across the city, paying cash to invest in these properties,” he says. “With cash investment, prices are running up. It changes the makeup from homeowners to rentals. For lower- to moderate-income buyers, they’re priced out of a neighborhood they could afford two years ago. It’s been a pretty steady run.”
Ultimately, he notes, Pueblo residents may have to borrow from Denver’s playbook and embrace greater housing density and purchase a townhome where they once would have bought a house.
“We’ve been blessed in that, if you had fairly stable job, better than entry level, you could buy a house,” Gallagher says. “That wasn’t possible in Denver. Due to market conditions, it’s coming south.”
As Grand Junction sheds recession, displacement could lie ahead
On the Western Slope, Grand Junction has finally begun to feel the economic surge that energized the Front Range a few years ago. But it could still be awhile before that translates into anything approaching large-scale displacement, says Tamra Allen, the city’s community development director.
“We are not experiencing traditional gentrification yet,” Allen says. “I say ‘yet’ because we’re not sure what’s in the future. We’re in a building boom right now for this area, seeing pieces of property developed that we haven’t seen in the past. There’s an uptick and increase in pricing that we haven’t felt before.
“We’re not dealing with larger-scale displacement at this point, but that may be coming down the pike,” she adds.
Specifically, Allen points to the city’s Riverside neighborhood that contains a sizeable Latino community that, should the area’s economic fortunes continue to rise, may start to feel the pressures of typical gentrification.
“That is one area we have our eyes out for and ears to the ground to make sure it’s an area we’re sensitive to,” she says.
Colorado Journalism’s Generation Next
The Colorado Sun has been pleased to work with the University of Colorado’s News Corps, led by Chuck Plunkett, to showcase the work of student journalists who pursued various elements of our larger look at gentrification in Denver. Many of the program’s participants produced excellent work, but we present this week what we felt were the best of the best — work that promises a bright future for local journalism in Colorado and wherever these talented students land.
WESTWOOD: Staff writer Kevin Simpson explores the Denver neighborhood of Westwood and its struggle to retain its identity while dealing with the challenges of gentrification, which has become a top issue for city leaders. Freelance photographer Jeremy Sparig contributes a wide array of images. Freelance graphic artist Carrie Osgood sketches maps that show the demographic changes across Denver over the years.
PROGRESS REPORT: In 2016, the city published a report that made 12 recommendations for ways that Denver could mitigate the negative effects of gentrification. The Sun asked for an update. The city summarized its response to each of the recommendations.
SUN VALLEY: CU journalism students Amanda K. Clark and Shannon Mullane paint a compelling portrait of Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood, which city officials hope will be a model for development without displacement — though locals aren’t so sure. Mullane also produced a short audio story on a community institution, while Lara Henry created a detailed, illustrated timeline of the neighborhood. Both Clark and Mullane also contributed photos.
REDLINING: Students Anna Blanco, Anna Mary Scott and Jackson Reed examine the practice of redlining and how, as a side effect of gentrification, it still echoes today. The package includes photos shot by Blanco and Reed.
ROOTS RUN DEEP: CU journalism student Will Halbert spent time with longtime Westwood resident Eve Ulloa and produced a poignant video that details all the things that bind her to the neighborhood.
ACROSS THE STATE: Sun writer Kevin Simpson returns to look at how Colorado’s hot real estate market has triggered early rumblings of displacement across the state — and how other cities are trying to prepare to counter the negative impacts of gentrification.
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