Gentrification can happen ‘almost overnight’

It turns out we don’t really understand the relationship between gentrification and displacement.

Denver gentrification. Courtesy city of Denver.

A recipe for gentrification: Major public investments plus transit-oriented development in historically neglected neighborhoods, next to neighborhoods that are already gentrifying.

Globeville, Elyria and Swansea have all four ingredients.

These are still some of the most affordable neighborhoods in a Denver that feels increasingly out of reach for even middle-class people, and all three neighborhoods got classified as susceptible to gentrification in a recent report released by the city’s Office of Economic Development.

Denver gentrification. Courtesy city of Denver.
Denver gentrification. Courtesy city of Denver.

Doug Holland, who performed the analysis of Elyria-Swansea as a graduate student in public administration at University of Colorado-Denver, found that neighborhood’s population is particularly vulnerable to displacement as the area gentrifies.

“Gentrification can happen in months,” Holland said. “It can happen almost overnight. And public investment, particularly in transportation, really stimulates it.”

But really, we don’t understand the relationship between gentrification and displacement.

The academic literature is surprisingly inconclusive. Gentrification doesn’t always bring displacement, and poverty itself creates a lot of instability. Chronically poor neighborhoods lose more residents over time than gentrifying ones. Most neighborhoods that had high poverty rates in 1970 are still poor, and chronically poor neighborhoods have lost 40 percent of their population in the intervening four decades. That is, people who can get out, do.

Until now, Globeville, Elyria and Swansea had been pretty stable.

There are high rates of home ownership, and it’s not unusual to meet people living in homes their grandparents bought decades ago. Some residents can trace their lineage back to the communities’ founding as industrial villages in the 1880s.

Candi CdeBaca attends a meeting of the I-70 Reroute Committee, a group committed to resist slated projects in the interest of protecting communities in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. elyria; swansea; globeville; development; candi cdebaca; kevinjbeaty; denver; colorado
Candi CdeBaca attends a meeting of the I-70 Reroute Committee, a group committed to resist slated projects in the interest of protecting communities in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. (Kevin J. Beaty/ Denverite)

That might not last.

“I came back to a very different city,” said Candi CdeBaca, a community activist.

CdeBaca left for college and then public policy work in Washington, D.C. and returned in 2014. She lives in her grandmother’s house in Swansea, but many of her childhood friends now live in Commerce City, Thornton and Aurora.

“The neighborhood looks really nice, but the people who used to live there have gone somewhere else.”

This isn’t an accident of the market, she said, but a direct result of public policy.

“In my home community, there is this attack on the community from every angle, from marijuana cultivation, from the I-70 expansion, from the stock show, from the train, just a lot of changes all at once in one community that has historically been disinvested,” she said.

This is the real problem of gentrification, which also brings benefits like higher quality of life (for the new residents) and a better tax base for the city.

“The neighborhood looks really nice, but the people who used to live there have gone somewhere else,” Holland said.

Community leaders are trying to slow down displacement.

CdeBaca is working with other community leaders to see if they can slow down displacement, for example by matching renters who can qualify for home loans with owners looking to sell.

(Some owners are older and need to get money out of their homes to pay for care they need; others are descendants of original owners and don’t want to continue as absentee landlords.)

One idea is a community land trust, an institution that owns the land underneath the houses, controlling the most quickly appreciating asset and keeping housing affordable for people earning 80 percent of area median income or less.

That’s $44,750 or less for a single person and $63,900 or less for a family of four.

Some of the more obvious solutions might not work in these neighborhoods.

Colorado Community Land Trust Executive Director Jane Harrington has had some early conversations with community activists. She said she would love to work in Globeville, Elyria and Swansea to preserve existing housing and help current residents stay in their communities, but there are real barriers.

The land trust provides safe, quality housing and only sells to people who won’t be burdened by the mortgage. Many of the older homes in north Denver need serious repairs — electric redone, sewer lines replaced, mold remediated. And mortgages that would be modest for many homebuyers could overwhelm these households.

“Flipping is basically what we would be doing, but with a severe cap,” Harrington said. “If I have to spend $300,000 to buy and renovate that house and I sell it for $150K, I have a real problem. And if we’re trying to not displace anyone, can the household afford for us to take it over and fix it up?”

And then there’s I-70.

I-70 is a wild card in the redevelopment of Elyria-Swansea.

The Colorado Department of Transportation is already buying up homes in the path of the planned widening, which is massively disruptive even though CDOT pays to relocate the families.

A huge construction project could make the area less attractive to outsiders in the short-term, but if the re-route campaign is successful, I-70 could be replaced by a boulevard along 46th Street, which would make the area even more appealing.

Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association, sees a lot of potential in the city’s reinvestment in the area, but the I-70 expansion could mean all of that is for naught.

“I really worry that this I-70 project could undo a lot of the good,” he said. “The clean-up of the Platte, the National Western, I worry all of that could be undone.”

CdeBaca wonders if the city’s long-term plan is to clear homes out of the area north of I-70 and leave it entirely to heavy industry.

Allan Wallis, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Colorado’s School of Public Affairs (and Holland’s advisor), is less convinced gentrification is coming for areas north of I-70. Active industrial uses and lower quality housing stock could keep newcomers out for a long time to come.

Even the revitalized National Western won’t attract hotels or year-round visitors to Elyria-Swansea the way Coors Field and the revitalization of LoDo spurred the development of Ballpark and gentrification in Five Points, he said. (Though that earlier phase of new Denver once seemed just as uncertain.)

It could be an entirely different kind of change, too.

“It’s a low-density area, and a lot of the housing stock is not very good,” he said. “It could be that the asset in this area is you knock down whole blocks. That’s old-fashioned 1950s slum-clearance, and the neighborhood has every reason to be leery.”

There’s — officially — no silver bullet. But here’s what the city is doing.

The first thing the city’s report does is manage expectations. The first finding: “There is no silver bullet.” Market forces play a big role in gentrification, and they are not easily contained.

The city isn’t throwing up its hands, per se. Major investments in affordable housing, banking land in neighborhoods where home prices are expected to increase and protecting older and fixed-income homeowners from property tax increases would allow more people to keep living in Denver, the report says.

The Urban Land Conservancy bought a six-acre parcel at 4800 Race St. in Elyria-Swansea for $5.5 million with the intent of developing it as a transit-oriented housing project with a combination of affordable and market-rate housing. The city gave the group a $1.5 million loan toward the purchase price.

This investment was intended in part to off-set the impacts of displacement. However, people are losing their homes now, and the project could take years to be developed. At the same time, introducing housing even for people earning 60 percent of AMI might represent gentrification for these neighborhoods.

Neighbors want spots in the new housing development to be reserved for long-time community members, something Tony Pickett, the land conservancy’s vice president for master site development, says he would like to do but may not be practical.

“The demand is too great to limit it,” he said.

The NDCC is set up to develop infrastructure, not solve social problems.

Along with affordable housing initiatives, the report recommends that Denver ensure residents can take advantage of economic development by offering modern vocational education and job training and keeping medium-skilled industrial jobs here. The problem isn’t just rising home prices, but wage stagnation.

“Keeping investment out of some neighborhoods to avoid gentrification while the rest of the city prospers is not a positive strategy for the long-term success of neighborhood residents,” the report says.

And here’s the “displacement is a concern, but…” part.

Kelly Leid, the outgoing executive director of the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, the entity overseeing and coordinating all the infrastructure projects, said displacement is a concern, but the projects also bring opportunities for education and jobs.

“There are opportunities for people to participate in and be a part of those investments,” Leid said. “Whether it is workforce development and skills that allow them to move into a new career or the opportunity for kids, that not only can you move through school and get a post-secondary education at no expense but you can walk into a series of jobs over 40 years as that corridor builds out, new job opportunities that wouldn’t exist if that corridor were not developed.”

Ultimately, though, the NDCC is set up to develop infrastructure, not solve social problems, Leid says. Affordable housing, gentrification, community change are problems across the city and the region.

“The city and county of Denver has a role to lead and bring parties together, public and private and non-profit, so that we can mitigate those impacts and hopefully people can stay in these communities,” he said. “Is there some magical wand we can wave and make that happen for everyone? No. That’s not within our power.”

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.