Denver, CO

Denver group works to temper gentrification with equity

David Heitz

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By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Gentrification in Denver, while revitalizing neighborhoods, has displaced people from their homes. It's a reality that led to creating the Advancing Equity in Rezoning Task Force, which met for the first time Wednesday.

What is gentrification? The Urban Displacement Project, a research group at the University of California Berkeley, explains it this way: "A process of neighborhood change that includes economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood —by means of real estate investment and new higher-income residents moving in – as well as demographic change – not only in terms of income level, but also in terms of changes in the education level or racial make-up of residents."

Neighborhoods historically left for dead, which banks may have redlined in the 1960s resulting in disinvestment, now are becoming too expensive for existing residents. As urban renewal projects have led to better access to public transportation and investment in real estate, housing costs have skyrocketed.

"While increased investment in an area can be positive, gentrification is often associated with displacement which means that in some of these communities, long-term residents are not able to stay to benefit from new investments in housing, healthy food access, or transit infrastructure," according to The Urban Displacement Project.

Changing neighborhoods

This is true of Denver, where housing is in great demand. Older neighborhoods that previously housed low-income seniors now serve high-income professionals as luxury townhomes and apartments replaced aging housing stock.

The Advancing Equity in Task Force mostly heard Wednesday from city Planning and Zoning Department staff member Sarah Cawrse. Cawrse explained processes in planning and zoning and how they work.

City Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval, who attended the meeting, noted that Northwest Denver has experienced massive gentrification. She said discussions about zoning often become "wonky," or lost in a specialized vocabulary.

"Try not to use planner terminology," she said. "It does not feel equitable."

Task force challenged to simplify instructions

The task force will add language to the zoning code that makes it easier to understand. The task force will focus on reaching marginalized populations. The group will simplify zoning applications and instructions, for example.

The task force also will spend time on public engagement and education. The idea is to show people how they can become involved in decisions affecting their neighborhood.

Planning and Zoning Department customers and residents from affected neighborhoods serve on the task force.

Long-time residents should reap investment benefits

"Public, private, and non-profit sector leaders have the opportunity to implement strategies that give long-time residents a chance to benefit from increased investment in their communities, and even be a part of driving how some of the changes in their neighborhoods take place," the Urban Displacement Project explains on its website.

That's what the task force aims to do. "While the (equity) measurements cannot be effectively applied to individual rezonings, the city should consider adjustments to the applicant-driven rezoning process to better address important topics revealed by the equity concepts – including housing choice, affordability and mitigating involuntary displacement," explains Blueprint Denver, a 2019 document outlining long-term growth in the city.

"This could include developing a predictable and consistent process for applicants to commit to certain outcomes at the time of rezoning, such as developing a certain number of income-restricted units. Implementing these changes may require changes in the process and procedures and/or a text amendment."

Zoning code will add information

The task force will write that text amendment, a wonky term for adding information to the zoning code.

The task force's web page explains the project won't rezone any properties or change any requirements within existing zone districts. "The goal is to modernize the rezoning process, standards, submittal requirements and criteria to help advance Blueprint Denver's equity concepts."

The City Council ultimately will decide how to proceed on the text amendment, which could include changing who gets notified about rezoning proposals and how, Cawrse said.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

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