My recent musings on the whole “native versus transplant” issue inspired an explosion of comments the likes of which I haven’t seen before. Many of the responses were completely predictable, but a few surprised me with their rudeness, ranging from “Don’t like it? Then take a hike!” all the way to “The transplants improved it here – can’t afford it? Too bad!” And scattered among those were the real fears of longtime residents about what is happening to their home and whether they will be able to afford to stay, topics that come up in every overheard coffee-shop conversation and in the whispered buzz at art openings, where artists openly discuss their concerns regarding space. It’s undeniable: The question of “who this town belongs to" is not just about how long you’ve been here, but about class.
Many longtime residents of Denver are in an economic quandary. While our wages have been flat since 2007 and many, many jobs still pay $10 an hour and below, people moving here from the coasts come from places with historically higher wages and property values that are even higher than what we consider exorbitant here (though not for long, with the way they are climbing: Denver reportedly had the fastest housing-cost increases in the nation last year).
Yet at the same time, the law of supply and demand is a cruel mistress. There is no pressure on employers to raise wages here, because there is a steady supply of people to work. Housing rates rise at an unbelievable clip, as more and more people come here to find less and less available housing stock. Metro Denver has a 5 percent vacancy rate.
So the effects of gentrification, felt citywide, create a constant stress and pressure on longtime residents, both those who own their homes and those who don’t. Those who don’t, of course, are now thrown into the quagmire of rapacious landlords quadrupling rent, Craigslist scams asking for deposits before you see the location, and the endless hunt for a place amidst hundreds of others clamoring for the same thing. Many of those who own their homes are feeling pressured by higher property taxes but can't cash out and leave, since they would be priced out of re-buying. And while it’s nice to think that everyone can just be nomadic and move along, people have jobs, family, history and commitments that tie them into place.
It’s easy if you have not weathered these storms and instead landed on already-changed shores,to say “just suck it up” or “get used to being a real city,” but the speed with which this change has happened is dizzying. New York, L.A. and even San Francisco gentrified at a much slower rate. Though Denver was growing (and many of us were truly glad about this, myself included) prior to the legalization of weed, the explosion seen afterward has left many wishing we had learned to read crystal balls before casting our votes. Though there's no hard evidence that the influx of people are due to the legalization of weed (in fact, it’s a fair bet that the boom is a combination of many factors), it’s clear that Colorado’s increased national exposure and the many industries touched by legal marijuana sales, from tourism to power, certainly hasn’t helped matters.
Denver has always been a boom-and-bust town. From the gold rush to the savings-and-loan crash, this state has experienced the ups and downs of economic volatility inspired by everything from oil shale to weed. And in the aftermath of the boom, there has historically been cheap property to pick up for those positioned to do so. But this time, I have to wonder what will be left behind when the party rolls away to the next hipster destination…a bunch of cardboard condos, built quickly out of OSB and stucco and sold to the highest bidder, that will be falling down in ten years? At what point will Denver no longer look like Denver to those of us who have loved its endangered old brick bungalows?
And if affordable housing is all but gone from the urban core, will we again witness the rise of the brown cloud that long-time residents remember? Will the increased commutes from the outskirts of town by the low-paid workers who keep this city running hang in the air trapped by the inversion again, a toxic soup that lowers our quality of life and obscures the view of the mountains that have attracted so many?
Speaking of affordable housing, the homeless issue is not going to just go away, whether you roust people at 6 a.m. and steal their tents or bus them to the industrial outskirts of the city. What do all of these newcomers suggest for people pushed out of their homes? Are solutions offered? Or is it just not their problem? Lest we think the homelessness problem is the size of what we see on a drive through downtown, it’s important to remember that the face of homelessness isn’t always what we think it is…it’s the couch-surfers and the family-basement-dwellers, too. It’s the people who perpetually stay in motels because they can’t get the first and last month's rent together. It’s quite possibly the person sitting in the cubicle next to you or your neighbor who just suddenly disappeared.
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What is happening to the communities of Denver, the communities that have worked to make this town the cool place that attracted so many, is a form of economic violence. Please excuse us if we want to talk about our pain. You can choose to take it personally if you want to – it’s up to you. The effect for us is the same either way. Talking about the pain caused by the situation isn’t the end of anyone’s world; your hurt feels being a newcomer to this town will heal faster than a newly homeless person’s destroyed life will. If you want to be a part of this community, maybe a first step would be to care about it and have compassion for those negatively affected by the changes, rather than insist strenuously that they are all for the better.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here or here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.