Mike Johnston Wants to End Homelessness In First Term as Denver Mayor | Westword


The Contenders: Mike Johnston Plans to End Homelessness in One Term

He's been a champion ski racer, a principal, a state senator and the head of a major nonprofit. Now he's focused on the mayor's office.
Mike Johnston has a detailed plan to tackle housing and homelessness issues.
Mike Johnston has a detailed plan to tackle housing and homelessness issues. Mike Johnston for Mayor
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Mike Johnston is one of two mayoral candidates in the Juneoff. Read his answers to a Westword questionnaire sent to every contender in February, and see PBS12's "Humanizing" piece on Johnston below.

A Colorado native and resident of Denver for the past twenty years, Mike Johnston has spent his career in education, the nonprofit world and politics, specifically as a Colorado state senator representing northeast Denver.

In his most recent gig, as CEO of Gary Community Ventures, Johnston spearheaded the passage of Proposition 123, a statewide measure that aims to raise around $300 million per year for affordable housing in Colorado. And that falls in line with Johnston's major campaign focuses: housing, and ending homelessness in his first term as mayor.

Johnston made unsuccessful runs at both a U.S. Senate seat and the Colorado governor's office.The former Yale soccer player and state champion ski racer is hoping that this time around, he'll be able to win the most powerful political office in Colorado: Denver mayor.

Why are you running for mayor?

I’m running for mayor to build Denver into America’s best city, because I know these problems are fixable and together we can end unsheltered homelessness and make this city affordable, safe and vibrant for everyone.

What is your plan to tackle homelessness?

We know that the current approach to homelessness is not working, because people who are experiencing homelessness have no place to go. We can address our homelessness crisis by addressing three overlapping crises: the lack of affordable housing, the absence of mental health support, and an explosion in the severity of addictive drugs. My plan to end homelessness in my first term will do the following: 1) Build 1,400 units of safe, stable and dignified housing in ten to twenty microcommunities throughout the city that will provide wraparound services, including mental health and addiction care and workforce training. 2) These micro communities will be made up of forty to sixty tiny homes or hotel conversions, both practices that we know have worked in Denver. 3) Create a sense of community by moving people who live together in encampments into the same microcommunities and offer a diverse array of microcommunities to meet
individual needs. 4) Stop eviction and displacement by investing in prevention to reduce the number of residents who become homeless. 5) Appoint a Senior Advisor to the Mayor on Homelessness who will coordinate city efforts on homelessness across all departments of the city. 6) Lead compassionate enforcement of the camping ban for those who are unwilling or unable to move into microcommunities.

Would you end homeless encampment sweeps?

The sweeps are not working because we do not have any place for people to go. This is why my first step is to build the 1,400 units of housing through micro communities of tiny homes or hotel conversions that would offer the transitional housing we need to get people safe. That is a very different approach than the current administration. However, I have not said I would end the sweeps because there still may be limited situations in which we have safe, dignified, built housing available and people would not choose to use it, or when there are health and safety risks in an encampment, that you would still need to move tents or encampments. But in this situation, you would have someplace to move people to, either a micro community or a Safe Outdoor Space that would be dignified and protected.

We have a moral obligation to provide safe, stable, dignified housing so we have a place to move people to. My experience working on this issue for the past several years has shown that when you offer people experiencing homelessness the opportunity to receive housing, they overwhelmingly choose to take it, which is why I am embracing a housing-first policy to address homelessness in the city. However, it’s undeniable that there will be some situations where people cannot stay where they are camping, like if there is a safety concern or health risk, and the city has to be able to enforce the ban in that scenario. But the solution to homelessness is offering access to housing first, and enforcing the camping ban should not be the only or primary strategy.

What is your plan to improve public safety in Denver?

Our city faces a crisis in public safety that must be addressed. I will protect Denver by putting 200 more first responders on the streets, including mental health professionals, EMTs and police officers walking the beat, so that we have the right first responder responding for the right situation. Not every situation requires a police officer, and in many situations a police officer is not the right person to respond to someone in a mental health or physical health crisis.

We will reform the police department to provide more community-based policing, where officers build relationships and rapport with neighbors. I will also convert two pods of the Denver Jail to mental health and addiction treatment facilities, which will allow us to use diversionary courts to get low-level offenders the treatment they need. Too often we are putting people into the correctional system when their real need is treatment. I will also create an Auto Theft Unit for the first time at the Denver Police Department, so we have the people and the tools to prevent and investigate auto theft. As mayor, I will also restore civility in our public spaces by ensuring that public drug use, harassment and assault will not be tolerated. I will push for common-sense consequences to crime, including moving motor vehicle theft back to a felony, and aggressively enforcing our state’s gun laws to prevent needless gun violence.

How will you work with Denver Public Schools to improve education and safety in schools?

The City of Denver should continue to work closely with DPS to ensure our students are receiving the best education and our teachers and staff receive the support they need. As mayor, my goal is to work closely with teachers, administrators and parents to make sure the city is supporting DPS while using my position to push for better outcomes.

I have three priorities for my partnership with Denver Public Schools. First is ensuring equitable access to out-of-school learning opportunities by providing funding for students receiving free and reduced lunch to access high-quality after-school and summer school programming to help close achievement gaps and find their areas of passion. Second, I would expand mental health services for school-based health clinics by expanding our partnership with Denver Health. And third, I would publicly advocate for the election of thoughtful, experienced Denverites to the school board, who are committed to doing the essential job of providing high-quality teaching and learning to the students of Denver. We can’t have a great city without a great school district, and can’t have a great school district without a functional, professional school board.

When it comes to safety, we need to invest in prevention, early intervention and common-sense gun laws. That means making after-school and summer programs accessible to all kids and allowing schools to have a school resource officer if they want one. It means investing in interventions and counseling when a kid is caught with a gun. And it means enacting common-sense gun laws, like a waiting period and strong enforcement of red flag laws to reduce gun violence.

What is your stance on the Park Hill Golf Course development proposal?

I will vote yes on the proposal. I had an office in North Park Hill for ten years, and saw the two most urgent issues in Park Hill are the gentrification driving out Black residents through the disappearance of affordable housing, and the fact that the neighborhood is currently a food desert that needs better access to groceries. Park Hill deserves open space, affordable housing and a grocery store, and this project can provide all three. This project allows us the chance to build a public park larger than Central Park, with more than 500 units of affordable housing, outdoor and indoor recreation space, local businesses and transit-adjacent housing. Voting no provides neither housing nor open space; it only returns the use to a golf course, which everyone agrees we don’t need.

How can Denver significantly expand its affordable-housing stock?

I spent the past two years traveling around the state and the country working with housing experts and visiting cities that were doing a much better job solving the housing crisis. I realized there were three problems:1) regulatory obstacles that slowed down permitting, 2) sustainable public funding for affordable housing, and 3) amplifying the voices of the silent majority that wants to bring down the price of housing.

With housing supply failing to keep pace with growth, Denver is quickly becoming a city that only the rich can afford. As mayor, I will make affordable housing one of my top priorities so the nurses, firefighters and workers who serve our city every day can afford to live here. My plan for affordable housing will utilize funds made available through Prop 123 to do the following: 1) Create over 25,000 permanently affordable units so teachers, nurses and firefighters can live in the city they serve. 2) Cut the regulatory red tape by requiring the City of Denver to approve affordable-housing permits within ninety days. 3) Prevent rent increases so that eligible Denver residents won’t pay more than 30 percent of their income to rent. 4) Build mixed-income developments that ensure a healthy mix of market rate and affordable units and create diverse neighborhoods. 5) Put money in people’s pockets by helping renters in eligible units save up to $100 every time they pay rent. 6) Provide down-payment assistance to help working families buy homes and support community land trusts to make buying a home more affordable.

Denver has historically been a car-centric city. Should the city take significant road space from cars for other forms of transportation (walking, rolling, biking, scootering, bus, etc.)?

We need to ensure that Denver’s streets work for everyone, whether you commute by car, bus, bike, or you walk. That starts with reimagining the way people move around our city by building both market rate and affordable-housing units near transit-oriented developments so folks have access to public transit and increased walkability. As mayor, I will ensure the city works to make bike lanes safer and easier to use, which will help reduce the number of pedestrian and biker injuries and deaths, decrease traffic, and help the city meet our climate goals

What would you do if the Denver Broncos demand public dollars as a requirement for keeping the stadium in the Mile High City?

I would negotiate hard to keep the Broncos in Denver. If there is any proposal that requires any public dollars, I think it should go to a voter-approved referendum to decide if taxpayer dollars should fund Mile High Stadium.

Violence during let-out in LoDo has been an issue for years. Would you support a staggered
closing time that ends at 4 a.m.?

I do believe this violence is a serious issue and could be avoided by a better closing policy, and I would support the idea of a staggered closing time.

What question do you wish we'd asked?

"What differentiates you from the other candidates?"

The city is looking for a mayor who combines three critical skill sets: the ability to set an inspiring vision for the future, a track record of bringing broad coalitions together, and a demonstrated capacity to run and lead large organizations. I’m the only candidate who has all three. I have a big vision for the city, but more important, I have built diverse coalitions to tackle the city's toughest problems, from bringing 260 organizations together to tackle affordable housing and homelessness through Prop 123, to bringing Black leaders, banks and institutional investors together to tackle the Black wealth gap through the Dearfield fund, to building tri-partisan coalitions to repeal the Gallagher Amendment, I have taken on the toughest issues, built large coalitions and repeatedly delivered historic results. We should expect a mayor who has a big vision for our future, a track record of delivering real change and the experience to lead an 11,000-person organization. I am that candidate.
See answers from Kelly Brough.
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