Denver Tries To Minimize Gentrification’s Pain Points In ‘Dynamic’ Neighborhoods

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Photo: Denver Office of Economic Development director Paul Washington in Westwood July 2016
Paul Washington, executive director of Denver's Office of Economic Development, stands on the site of an affordable housing development under construction in the Westwood neighborhood.

City leaders estimate that 1,000 people move to Denver each month. And local leaders want to slow the rate at which legacy residents, often people of color, are getting priced out of their neighborhoods when well-educated, often White families move in.

To do that, Mayor Michael Hancock's administration recently studied which neighborhoods are on the verge of becoming trendy.

One of the neighborhoods Denver identified is Westwood, west of I-25 along Alameda Avenue, which has relatively high poverty and crime rates but is, in city parlance, "on the verge of dynamic change." Residents say they have noticed new buildings pop up, and new people move in over the past two years, though not all think the changes are bad.

The city doesn't, either, finding earlier this year that there are good and bad effects of gentrification. When people have to move because they can't afford to live in the neighborhood anymore, it's bad, says Paul Washington, executive director of Denver's Office of Economic Development. But gentrification can also bring better schools, more job opportunities, and better amenities to an underserved area, he says.

To ensure that the effects of gentrification are more good than bad, Washington says Denver's city government is making investments in affordable housing, parks, neighborhood health services, and infrastructure in Westwood. In effect, the city is trying to engineer the next phase of change in neighborhoods like Westwood that are still within the range of affordability for people of modest incomes -- but may not be for long.

Washington spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner. Highlights from their conversation are below.

Photo: Construction work at affordable housing site in Westwood Denver
Construction of an affordable housing site underway at the corner of West Alameda Ave. and Irving St. in Denver's Westwood neighborhood.

Washington on what would happen if Denver didn't intervene in Westwood:

"If the city of Denver did not intervene, we don't know what this neighborhood would become. And the reason we make these investments if we have some influence on delivering development that addresses the neighborhood need."

On whether neighborhoods such as RiNo, the Highlands, or Washington Park have become too pricey for the city to be able to develop affordable housing there:

"We certainly are not giving up on any neighborhoods for affordable housing, though our strategies certainly change. In neighborhoods that are more expensive, we may think about for-sale affordable housing, but we are going to make sure we have affordable housing throughout Denver, in every neighborhood."

On whether a new city plan to create a dedicated funding stream for affordable housing can keep up with Denver's growth:

"No one will argue that the $150 million over the next 10 years in this affordable housing fund is enough to keep up with demand... You can't build your way out of this. But you certainly can't sit there and do nothing. And so I think this affordable housing fund is a very bold attempt to start the process of building and preserving affordable housing, and we will do more."

Map: See Where Denver's Affordable Housing Units Are:

On whether the city will guarantee that new affordable housing in Elyria-Swansea will be available to residents displaced by construction on I-70, Brighton Boulevard and the Stock Show complex:

"Other cities have those types of policies, where there's some preference if you're from a neighborhood or your family's from a neighborhood. That requires an ordinance change and it requires new laws, and that's certainly something we'll look into."