Denver’s Inverted L paints with a broad line where inequalities persist in our city. It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, at least not anytime soon, but we wanted to know what it takes to get rid of the L with wands or, as you know, guidelines and funding.
The inverted L pattern loosely traces I-25 and I-70 and appears repeatedly on Denver maps. It usually tracks with race and income. For example, a Colorado Health Institute map of childhood obesity rates shows that low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods with more colored people are more likely to have children with an unhealthy body mass index compared to white and more affluent neighborhoods. Still, the L is an indicator, not a hard and fast rule.
One particularly strong inequality concerns housing, a key indicator of the shift from gentrification.
According to the city’s housing department, low-income areas, which often have more Latin American and black residents, are more likely to be priced out of a neighborhood.
Over the past four years, 69 percent of “affordable homes” – apartments that cost 30 percent of household income or less – that have been maintained or built have been in areas “prone to displacement,” data shows.
Britta Fisher, director of the Denver Department of Housing Stability, is cautious about simply equating lower-income homes with ending evictions. It’s not easy, she said. Inventory is important, but also to ensure that these units serve the right residents. Do you have enough bedrooms for a family of six? Is the house near any good transit?
Source: Denver City and County
Then there are the centuries of racism embodied in things like redlining and polluting highways being built and expanded by minority neighborhoods that have drawn lines of belongings.
“The systems have built around this structural racism,” said Fisher. “I think it is up to all of us to think about how we can not only think about how we can mitigate the impact, but actually break down structures.”
Waving a wand isn’t something Fisher or anyone else can do, but she does have some ideas on what could turn things around.
Some ideas are already in motion – although well after the rise in displacement – such as using more city tax dollars than ever to fund limited-income housing, condominiums, and other types of housing.
It was until 2019 that Denver had a real housing division, and it was until 2016 that elected leaders launched the first affordable housing fund in Denver, a guaranteed steady stream to maintain and build affordable housing that doubled two years later. Between 2016 and 2020, the city helped maintain and create more affordable homes – 3,768 – than the past nine years combined, according to Denver’s real estate dashboard. Developers have contributed an additional 904 units over the past four years, taking advantage of state and federal government incentives.
As you can see, these houses inside and outside the Inverted L have been spread across the city:
Source: Denver City and County
“It takes a while for these plans to get to homes through funding and construction, and now we are seeing the reality of those fruits,” Fisher said.
These efforts are backed by a homelessness sales tax passed by voters last year to expand tiny home villages and provide shelter, homes, and on-site services to the uninhabited. Aspiring zoning guidelines provide incentives for developers to build low-income homes.
Yet Denver is far from providing enough housing for the people who need it. As of 2018, Denver needed nearly 106,000 restricted-income homes, according to the Housing Department. As of 2020, Denver had 24,000. It would take until 2053 to make ends meet if builders kept the pace of the past four years and then the right level of affordability would be achieved. Data shows that Denver’s poorest residents have the fewest available housing options.
To enlarge it, Fisher refers to the federal government, the gatekeepers in the neighborhood and a “prioritization policy”.
The Biden government’s plan to expand residential vouchers – a plan that depends on support from Congress – gives Fisher hope. Coupons are federal tax dollars that fill the gap between people’s income and their rent by paying landlords the difference. Currently, vouchers only reach a quarter of the Americans who need them, according to the Urban Institute.
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“That would change things very fundamentally,” Fisher said of more coupons.
She also hopes the federal government will expand developer tax credits, the traditional incentive for home builders to bring affordability to their projects.
Fisher also shows closer to home. Denver neighborhood organizations have a history of struggle projects that include affordable homes and policies that would enable more people and places in more neighborhoods.
“I think it would be a lot easier if neighbors welcomed more neighbors,” Fisher said of the Inverted L’s abolition. “One of the ways we don’t have people pitching tents is that we have more living space in our neighborhood so that people can come inside, and it would be an advantage to have affordable housing and low-income units in one’s own development and in one’s own neighborhood. “
Also, here’s some breaking news: The Housing Department is hiring someone to create and maintain a new “prioritization policy” that Fisher says will help bring people into the right income-restricted home.
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Policy would take personal matters into account, such as whether someone has been evicted before or whether they might be evicted for the first time, to give preference to those who most desperately need the precious little apartments that are available.
“It’s not something that has been done in Denver yet,” said Fisher.
OK, on to de-L-ifying trees that the chief forester said put a burden on you and me in some way.
Denver’s canopy has an estimate of 10 or 11 percent, estimated city ranger Mike Swanson, although other numbers appear in official city documents because the science is a bit muddy. Denver aims to have 18 percent of the city covered with leaves, including in lower-income areas and neighborhoods with more colored people that tend to be less leafy than whiter and more affluent areas, although the ranger is working to make up for this.
First things first, the city government only controls between 13 and 15 percent of Denver canopy, mostly in parks, Swanson said. The rest is privately owned.
“We can’t really do it ourselves,” said Swanson.
So if Swanson could wave a wand, he would wave it so that more people could plant and care for trees – the species that thrive in Denver, a city where trees have a hard time because most of them are non-native and we do live in a dry climate in a state of drought. It also costs money, time, and effort to plant the oxygen generators and keep them alive.
Because there is no magic wand, Swanson and his team use the next best thing: money and human power. Since the city’s electorate enacted a sales tax on parks, the Department of Parks and Recreation has used some of the money to prune trees in parks on the underinvested side of the Inverted L. Pruning sounds lame and is a lot different from planting new trees, but it’s just as important because it keeps trees alive longer so they can get taller and add to the canopy.
“A lot of these trees have dead wood, they haven’t been pruned in 30 years, so if you manage them through pruning, you can help them be more resilient in storms like the youngest,” Swanson said. “Just pulling out the dead wood helps with insect infestation and we are restructuring the trees to make the crown of the trees healthier – more sunlight, more air flows through them.”
Swanson is focused on planting new trees with an inverted L lens, both in city parks and on people’s lawns, where ash trees endangered by the emerald ash drill will eventually die. Denver has been planning the infestation for years and giving away free replacement trees is part of the program.
“We’re trying to find a homeowner or an owner and we’re going to remove the tree for free,” Swanson said. “We will grind the stump for free. And then we really want replacement trees and we are ready to plant them for free. “
As you can see, recent tree plantings have focused on neighborhoods that usually fall on the underserved side of the inverted L:
Source: Denver City and County
The problem is that it only has a response rate of 40 percent. Not everyone knows or cares about trees that can make the air cleaner and cooler. So Swanson and his team are trying something new. Starting with Valverde and Barnum, urban foresters stick to concentrated areas to ensure the trees are watered and cared for, rather than just planting trees and walking. You’re trying to build relationships with locals because otherwise some trees won’t make it, Swanson said.
“I think it’s a paradigm shift for people,” said Swanson, “because they’re worried about food on the table and tires for the cars and new roofs for their homes.” It’s really about the common good. So I really wanted to focus not only on work, but also on the relationship side. “
It will be difficult to reverse the inverted L on the canopy without townspeople massively adopting the trees – and the right ones, Swanson said, not the Siberian elms and silver maples, which have a short lifespan here. Swanson said he could rely on nonprofits like Parks People, who provide free and affordable trees to residents once a year, and others like Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Lands.
“I can’t sleep at night when I think about it sometimes,” Swanson said.