The best city in the United States: That’s what U.S. News & World Report recently called Denver, the country’s seventh-fastest growing metropolis. Meanwhile, Colorado is the second fastest growing state. Judging by low employment, solid gains in emerging economic sectors, including tech, and scores of residential and commercial projects underway, our growth seems unstoppable.
Exciting? Yes. But many are feeling the squeeze. From 2015 to 2016, rents in Denver County climbed 35 percent. Gentrification has pushed low-income families from historic neighborhoods including North Denver, Five Points, and Park Hill into less expensive places such as Thornton and Aurora. Those same areas are now seeing significant increases in cost, too. Many of the city’s most vulnerable people, including those experiencing homelessness and people living with disabilities, are finding it harder than ever to find housing anywhere in the Metro area. Nonprofit organizations are also struggling to keep up as the stock of affordable office space for businesses declines.
The City and County of Denver have rolled out some solutions to these challenges, including a Social Impact Bond that supports housing for homeless adults in partnership with The Denver Foundation, Enterprise Community Partners, and others. In September, the Denver City Council approved a permanent income stream for affordable housing that will create or preserve approximately 6,000 new units over ten years. It’s an encouraging step, but not nearly enough to accommodate the 60,000 people who need affordable places to live.
In true Denver spirit, many individuals and organizations across our community are finding innovative ways to ensure that everyone benefits from Denver’s vitality-- and that no one is left behind. Here are four exciting examples.
NO. 1 Making Room for Veterans
As co-founder of Atlas Real Estate Group, Ryan Boykin knows how difficult it has become to find housing in Denver. Even when the cost is within reach, landlords are increasingly reluctant to accept Section 8 vouchers, which many low-income people use to pay rent. Not Atlas. Among the thousands of units the company manages, hundreds are occupied by tenants who use vouchers. The company also helps aspiring homeowners, even those with imperfect financial profiles, buy properties.
“Sometimes the underserved population is not always treated with the same modicum of dignity and respect as others,” says Boykin, a Colorado native, “We take a broader view of who we are and who our residents are; we take a customer service approach, no matter what resident pool they’re in.”
Last year, Boykin and Atlas partner Jason Shepherd joined Brothers Redevelopment, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, and the Metro Mayors Caucus in a campaign to help veterans get into stable, affordable housing. Through this initiative, veterans are given the first shot at rental properties before they become publicly available. Atlas then negotiates rents and lease terms with landlords and owners, who often accept a below-market rate. Landlords, in turn, have access to a small pool of funds to cover repairs and other costs that may arise.
“It’s tough to think you have someone who fought for you and the United States who can’t find a place to live,” says Boykin. “For us, this program was a really easy fit.”
“We’ve all worked together,” he says. “We, in the private sector, have the same goal as those in the nonprofit sector. We’re all trying to provide safe, affordable, quality housing. It’s been wonderful.”
NO. 2 Space to Serve
In 2016, Rocky Mountain Micro Finance Institute (RMMFI) faced its tenth move in eight years. Since launching in 2008, the nonprofit, which helps nontraditional entrepreneurs develop small businesses, has operated out of co-founder Rob Smith’s kitchen, the Nonprofit Economic Prosperity Center, Laundry coworking space, and the new United Way facility on Park Avenue, among others. The reasons vary: The Prosperity Center Closed. Some others raised rents. Mile High United Way found a tenant more aligned with its mission.
“We would start getting momentum on some trajectory, then would have to pick up and move,” says Smith. “There have been times when one of our entrepreneurs didn’t get the message that we moved. They’d gotten their bus route down, then they’d show up at the old place and we’re not there. That’s had an impact.”
RMMFI found a new home in the Denver Housing Authority’s Mariposa development in Lincoln Park, which clusters subsidized housing with nonprofits and community-minded businesses. RMMFI’s new space, which includes a storefront where entrepreneurs can incubate businesses, is close to nonprofits Youth on Record, Art Street, and the youth-run Osage Cafe. All nonprofits in the development pay below-market rent.
Denver Housing Authority’s approach to bringing community resources and diverse populations together is regarded as a national model for preempting displacement by low-income people. The agency’s new development in Sun Valley will also fold community-minded tenants into the community.
“It’s a good solution for us because we’ll be able to have a presence in the neighborhood, right on the main street,” says Smith. “Denver Housing Authority saw the value in activating a business resource for the neighborhood. For our entrepreneurs who will use the retail space, it allows them to execute their businesses without too much worry about overhead.”
NO. 3 Art Asking Questions
When Bobby LeFebre felt his city changing in ways that threatened his personal history and sense of place, he did what creative people do. The Denver poet, writer, social worker, and activist made art that provokes as it entertains.
With filmmakers Alan Dominguez and Manuel Aragon, LeFebre created Welcome to the Northside, a web series that takes a comical approach to dealing with change and gentrification in North Denver, where the Latino population has declined by 40 percent over the past decade.
“A lot of people feel very helpless,” says LeFebre. “We’re really trying to capture that conflict in a funny way. This art is one way to introduce it to people in a way that is a little different than just ranting in the street.”
In the series, LeFebre plays Mikey, a fourth-generation Latino Homeowner who’s both baffled and semi-amused by the newcomers; their begrudging guide, he’s not all that excited that they’re there. The new residents seem equally baffled by Mikey.
“Our primary audience is people who can relate to what that history has been like, people in the neighborhood who have that experience directly,” says LeFebre. “We want to make them feel like there’s a place to call home, even if it’s online. We want people who are lost to feel like they are home again, even if it’s just for three-to-five minutes.”
Welcome to the Northside, which premiered in September at the CineLatino Film Festival, will be available online early 2017.
NO. 4 The New American Dream
For thousands of refugees, Denver represents opportunity, a chance to build a life in a new home. But in a competitive economy and tight job market, pursuing those opportunities is made even more challenging by difference such as language, cultural orientation, and lack of credentials. At Community Enterprise Development Services of Aurora (CEDS) refugees from all over the world receive support, training, and encouragement to pursue those most American of dreams: home and business ownership.
CEDS helps refugees and immigrants gain financial literacy and work toward major goals. As they progress through CEDS’ many services, clients can build savings and purchase assets with help from financial planners and mentors. Over the past year, 55 people have purchased homes through the program, most located in Aurora. The organization’s website, www.cedsfinance.org, features a gallery of proud, beaming, homeowners from Iraq, Bhutan, Ethiopia, and other countries.
CEDS also helps entrepreneurs develop business plans and, through a Micro-Enterprise Development program, find capital to build inventory, acquire assets, and enter the small business economy. CEDS clients have started trucking and transportation companies, grocery stores, and cleaning businesses, among others.
“Many of CEDS’ clients have had lots of business experience and exposure in their home countries,” says Paul Stein, CEDS founder who formerly served as Colorado State Refugee Coordinator. “They have a different on-ramp into the business world here. We are very careful to respect that experience and those home country assets, so they’re not regarded as someone who has nothing.”
Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan has praised CEDS as a model for communities looking to spawn community wealth building and economic revitalization; CEDS’ programs have been adopted to serve other low-income groups across Metro Denver. “There is a huge benefit to the receiving community,” says Stein. “We’ve helped Aurora achieve goals of stable housing. Aurora has a community need, and these people have helped meet it."
The core asset of The Fund for Denver is our permanent endowment.The Fund for Denver is made up of a variety of charitable assets that have been entrusted to The Denver Foundation for investment management and strategic grantmaking. Our permanent endowment is made up of unrestricted gifts to The Denver Foundation to meet the needs of today and ensure there are resources for building a better Denver far into the future.
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