A group set on ensuring that the wave of gentrification that has swept through many parts of Denver doesn’t engulf their communities, too, urged city planners Thursday to strengthen protections in a draft neighborhood plan.
“For far too long, we have witnessed urban revitalization efforts predictively end in the gentrification of neighborhood after neighborhood throughout Denver, with rising rents and home prices making these neighborhoods unaffordable for the poor and working class,” Nebiyu Asfaw, with the Ethiopian American Development Council [EADC], said in a press conference at an apartment complex in the East Colfax area of Denver.
The EADC is part of the newly formed East Colfax Community Collective, which is pushing the city to add protections for low-income residents and small businesses to keep them from being displaced by new development envisioned in its East Area Plan. The plan, which sets goals and recommendations for new development and infrastructure, covers the neighborhoods of East Colfax, South Capitol Hill, Hale and Montclair. About one-third of the residents — about 4,700 households — pay more in rent than they can afford, according to Denver’s Office of Community Planning and Development.
Taken as a whole, about seven in 10 residents of the area identify as non-Hispanic white. But in the East Colfax neighborhood alone, that number is almost flipped. About six in 10 identify as other than non-Hispanic white. Almost a quarter of the residents of the East Colfax neighborhood were born in another country and 33% speak another language besides English.
The East Area plan is broken into four parts. The most contentious portion involves adding new housing and making sure existing housing is affordable. Members of the collective want to see more guarantees that housing will remain affordable and accessible, including binding affordability standards in new developments. Less controversial portions of the plan are focused on updating transportation infrastructure, adding additional parks and green space and preserving the neighborhood’s historic buildings and unique character, though some want to see transportation projects completed quicker.
A separate plan to modernize the transportation infrastructure along Colfax is already in the works, targeted at doubling the areas busing capacity to move 50,000 people per day along the busy corridor.
The early recommendations acknowledge that the area is in need of 1,400 units of housing priced at about $500 per month or less. New zoning recommendations from the planners would require developers in the East Colfax neighborhood who convert single-unit housing to multiple units to include at least one unit of affordable housing. Planners also recommend that landlords are given incentives to keep rents low, that existing affordability agreements roll over when they expire and that new multi-story developments include affordable housing, along with other affordability recommendations.
Curt Upton, a city planner and co-manager of the East Area Plan, said that it’s important to keep in mind that city plans serve as guidelines for new development and don’t control detailed regulations.
The goal of East Area plan is the same as the larger goals of Denver’s development for the next 20 years: to create a more inclusive and equitable city, Upton said. Planners want the community’s help and feedback to achieve that goal, especially on the issue of affordable housing, he said. The planners recognize the need for affordable housing, Upton said, but also have to account for limited city resources.
But more detailed regulations and resources directed at affordable housing is exactly what community members like Towanna Henderson want. She said the affordable housing measures need to be more concrete and that the language of the recommendations is too vague.
“If you can’t guarantee us affordable housing, don’t tell us we’re going to have affordable housing,” she said.
The plan is in the feedback stage, and planners will be drafting a final version next year. The East Area plan is part of the larger Neighborhood Planning Initiative the city approved in 2017. That initiative breaks the city’s neighborhoods up into 19 areas, each with targeted development plans. It will be rolling out in multiple phases over the next 10-12 years.
The newly formed collective includes groups ranging from the East Colfax Neighborhood Association to the Ethiopian American Development Council and the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition.
Tim Roberts, president of the East Colfax Neighborhood Association, railed against the city’s feedback process, saying the community was shut out of the planning process and only now is being asked for input.
“We stand here then for many things, first among them, that East Colfax have a neighborhood plan that in no uncertain terms eradicates involuntary displacement,” Roberts said.
City planners are looking at a January workshop with the collective to hear its concerns. The recommendations in the draft plan are publicly available on the Denver city planners’ website, and the planners invite community members to leave comments and take surveys.
Brendan Greene, a member of the collective, said the group will reach out to communities in Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and West Denver to coordinate their concerns over displacement and share strategies moving forward.
Update: This story has been updated to clarify that the zoning change recommendations requiring at least one affordable unit of housing in a rezoned, previously single-family, lot only apply to the East Colfax neighborhood.