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An image from a video about the Denver-based Urban Land Conservancy.
An image from a video about the Denver-based Urban Land Conservancy.
Urban Land Conservancy via YouTube

Denver Is Number Two U.S. City for Gentrification, New Study Says

A recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition places Denver second among the most intensely gentrifying cities in America, behind only San Francisco.

For Aaron Miripol, president and CEO of the Denver-based nonprofit Urban Land Conservancy, this finding, which echoes the results of a 2019 analysis naming Denver number one for Hispanic displacement linked to gentrification, is deeply disturbing but certainly not a surprise. After all, he's watched the buildout of local projects such as RTD's FasTracks, among other factors, transform lower-income enclaves into trendy spots that quickly priced out longtime residents.

"I think there's a direct correlation when transit comes into neighborhoods that are ripe for displacement," Miripol says. "The values of the properties five or seven years ago were low enough for investors to come in. But now the only ones who can afford it do high-end, market-rate stuff, not other types of things that benefit the community."

"Gentrification and Divestment 2020," the NCRC report issued in June, asserts that "COVID-19 exposed deep economic and social fault lines nationwide, with profound implications for how we attract investment to our poorest communities and the impact that investment has on low- and moderate-income and minority populations."

The study's authors analyzed data from 2013 to 2017 for twenty major metropolitan areas. According to the chart below, Denver had the second-highest share of eligible gentrifying tracts at 27.5 percent — more than 6 percent more than Boston, which landed in the third position.

This table ranks cities by gentrification from 2013 to 2017, with Denver landing in the second slot.
This table ranks cities by gentrification from 2013 to 2017, with Denver landing in the second slot.

Urban Land Conservancy was specifically created to fight such trends. With the help of partners that include private foundations, government agencies, fellow nonprofits and lending institutions, the organization "preserves, develops, stewards and manages permanently affordable real estate to positively impact lives and communities in Colorado," according to its mission statement, and endeavors to help underserved populations and those at risk of displacement "live and thrive within vibrant diverse neighborhoods that have physical assets and resources necessary for individuals to enjoy a high quality of life."

In Miripol's view, gentrification "isn't just a Denver issue. It's truly a metro-wide issue." But within city limits, rising prices have certainly exacerbated the situation in recent years — so much so that ULC's efforts to purchase land for affordable housing or other community improvements have become infinitely more difficult.

"Things we were buying at $15 or $20 per square foot are, in some cases, tenfold more expensive these days," he notes. "We're just not able to buy land in Denver right now. The last piece of property we were able to purchase was La Tela, along the Santa Fe corridor around Sixth and Inca. We bought it about eighteen months ago at $100 dollars a foot, and we were able to make it work because of the density; there are going to be 92 permanently affordable condos there. But in that neighborhood ten years ago, maybe, property was $25 or $30 per foot on the high end."

A similar sequence of events is occurring in other Denver neighborhoods. "In Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, you have not just transit," Miripol points out. "You have the interstate and the National Western complex development. In those areas, properties were going for $27 a square foot as late as 2015, but now they're over $100."

Among other things, this map shows parts of Denver that underwent gentrification between 2013 and 2017.
Among other things, this map shows parts of Denver that underwent gentrification between 2013 and 2017.

To avoid having the area become even more gentrified, he says, "ULC is buying the land but not selling the land. The land is in 99-year ground leases, so what is affordable housing today doesn't get lost in the future."

Government entities aren't always helping as much as they could. "I think the City of Denver is really the only community in the metro area that's putting real dollars into addressing public housing, and looking for creative ways to make sure the folks in the neighborhood are the ones benefiting from that housing — not affordable housing being built and then outsiders getting it," Miripol explains. "There's a fair-housing component that says you can't just target and market to a specific population, but I'd argue that within fair housing, you can make sure folks in the neighborhood are getting priority."

Since the Denver real estate market hasn't yet taken a dive as a result of the pandemic, property has not become more accessible. "We're not necessarily seeing a decline in most places, and even when we do, it's not that much," he confirms. "I've seen land around the Brighton corridor that's come down 35 percent, but it's still $160 a foot — and $160 a foot is crazy."

Other forecasts suggest greater price dips next year, which could present new opportunities for ULC. "Our ability to buy property in Denver in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 was because of the Great Recession," Miripol recalls. "In certain cases, we bought foreclosed properties, where their value had decreased three- and fourfold, and we were able to afford them. But we're small potatoes compared to the large investors, who were able to buy lots of single-family homes. That's the dynamic, and that's why we really need a set of policies metro-wide that deal with these kinds of issues."

Otherwise, San Francisco might not be the most intensely gentrifying U.S. city for much longer.

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