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Battling Gentrification: Preservation Can Target Communities As Well As Buildings

As Denver undergoes an unprecedented amount of growth and development, its urban neighborhoods are rapidly changing.

A public housing project is still standing despite the gentrification of Denver's Lower Highland neighborhood.

Neighborhoods that once were home to the city’s African-American and Hispanic residents are now filled with fancy coffee shops, trendy restaurants and modern new homes that have attracted more affluent homebuyers who want to live in urban areas, often pushing out existing residents.

“Gentrification is not a natural process,” Project VOYCE Executive Director Candi CdeBaca said during a panel discussion on gentrification at Colorado Preservation Inc.’s Saving Places Conference last week. “When we remember the racist housing policies and practices, the land-use and zoning codes to keep people separate, we can denaturalize this thing called gentrification. Policies got us here, so we can use policies to get us out of there.”

Kentwood Real Estate Broker Associate John Hayden, Denver Public Schools Manager of Public Affairs Shontel Lewis and Project VOYCE Executive Director Candi CdeBaca discuss Denver's gentrifying neighborhoods.

Kentwood Real Estate Broker Associate John Hayden, a longtime resident of Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, said zoning codes have chopped up the nation’s cities, dictating certain areas where people shop, work and live.

“We’ve zoned our cities to segregate people by class,” Hayden said, noting that developers have a responsibility to ensure their projects do not promote gentrification, but rather promote the culture of the people in the places where they are developing.

“Think of your projects in terms of places where people live, work and have a history of culture,” Hayden said. “With preservation, preserve not just the building but the people and the culture. Look at your project as a cultural place.”

Large, modern homes are replacing older housing stock in Denver's rapidly gentrifying urban neighborhoods.

When developers start making improvements in neighborhoods that have historically been home to vulnerable populations, the increase in real estate values pushes up property taxes, forcing people to relocate.

“Involuntary displacement is a function of improvement that causes an increase in property taxes,” CdeBaca said. “It’s a domino effect. If property taxes go up, insurance increases, so the landlord has to increase rent whether or not he wants to. It’s that cycle we create when we’re trying to do good and make places aesthetically more appealing or walkable.”

Trendy restaurants like Root Down are contributing to the gentrification of Denver's previously Hispanic LoHi neighborhood.

Denver Public Schools Manager of Public Affairs Shontel Lewis said when people talk about affordable housing, they are usually referring to rental property. She suggested changing the conversation to for-sale housing would be more productive.

Lewis lived in Five Points all her life until she was ready to buy a house, but had to look elsewhere because of escalating real estate values in the historically black neighborhood.

“If you are renting, you don’t have ownership in the community,” she said.