The results of the May 7 Denver election didn't settle every contest. The mayor's race between incumbent Michael Hancock and challenger Jamie Giellis will be decided by way of a June 4 runoff, and so will the competition for five high-profile Denver City Council positions, whose winners will help determine the future of the community for years to come.
City Council candidates who earned more than 50 percent of the vote in the May 7 election avoided the runoff; the pair of at-large seats won by incumbents Debbie Ortega and Robin Kniech were exceptions. If no one vying for membership in specific districts hit that mark, the two top finishers advanced to the second round on June 4. Four candidates appeared on the ballot for District 10, with incumbent Wayne New, at 38 percent, and Chris Hinds, who scored 30 percent, leading the field.
We submitted the following questions via email to the ten city council finalists: District 1's Mike Somma and Amanda Sandoval, District 3's Veronica Barela and Jamie Torres, District 5's Mary Beth Susman and Amanda Sawyer, District 9's Albus Brooks and Candi CdeBaca, and District 10's New and Hinds. All of them agreed to participate.
Get to know more about District 10 candidate and activist Hinds below.
Westword: How would you describe yourself and the reasons you decided to run for city council?
I grew up in rural Texas as the only child of a single mom. Dad didn’t graduate high school, mom cleaned houses growing up. I was the first to get a scholarship to go to college, and I went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas. I graduated with a computer science degree and went back to get an MBA in finance and strategy from the Cox School of Business at SMU. My mom was a hippie, and just like most children rebel against their parents, I rebelled by going into business.
I came to Colorado in January 2007 for a short project at a Colorado tech startup. I went snowboarding several times, and since I had always been active with sports, I decided to move to Colorado, because it’s so much easier to exercise here than in hot Texas. I got a job working in finance at Quark, a software company based in Denver.
On August 26, 2008, I was in a motor vehicle crash. I was rushed to Denver Health, and because of this crash, I was paralyzed from the chest down. Sometimes we can point to important moments where our life changed. I can point to that day — I asked myself: Am I really doing the best I can to leave this a better planet than I found it? (Hippie mom strikes again!)
Today, I fight for access. I started ten years ago by fighting for access for people with disabilities, but the more I went to the City and County Building and the Colorado General Assembly, my neighbors asked me to speak on their behalf, too, even though they didn’t have disabilities.
We all need access: access to affordable housing, access to transportation, access to fresh and healthy food, and access to our representatives. Many of my neighbors say they don’t have good access to any of those. I’m running for city council to provide access for the residents of Denver and District 10.
What makes your district unique?
Denver’s District 10 is the most compact district geographically. It also is the most densely packed district. Beyond that, it’s very much like a tale of two cities: one side of the district is very affluent, has single-family homes and is older, while the other side of the district has largely secured-access multi-units and is quite a bit younger. This means the elected official must balance the needs of diverse constituents.
What is the biggest issue affecting your district?
Two issues facing District 10 (and all of Denver) are housing and transportation.
Housing: The people who live in Denver already should be able to stay in our beautiful city, and we should be able to welcome new people, also. Denver’s housing prices are skyrocketing, and we must take action to ensure that people are able to stay while we build new housing for all those who will move here soon.
Transportation: Getting around Denver isn’t easy, whether you’re stuck in growing traffic or living in a neighborhood without sidewalks. With 200,000 more people moving to the city in the next fifteen years, we have to address our failing transportation system. Transportation must be a priority, so that Denverites can access jobs, schools, health care, groceries and entertainment.
Now that the Right to Survive ordinance has been defeated, how would you address the issues of homelessness cited by both the measure's supporters and its opponents?
Homelessness is a complicated topic, but it’s clear that Denver’s homeless population has quadrupled in just the last four years. The reason homelessness has increased in Denver is in part due to the number of people moving to the metro area. Denver’s population alone has grown by 100,000 in just seven years. As more people move to Denver, there need to be more places to house those people, and more jobs, too. People sometimes move here because of a job opportunity, but many others move to Denver because of the quality of life and our "extraordinary outdoor lifestyle."
The first two reasons we have homeless in Denver are substance abuse and mental health. Denver has provided no funding for substance abuse and mental health treatment beyond basic training for first responders and our jail system. I’m proud to say I was a firm supporter of Caring4Denver, a ballot initiative that passed in November 2018; it will provide $41 million to $45 million annually for substance abuse and mental health treatment. Even if someone doesn’t have a mental health diagnosis when they become homeless, the experiences of life on the street mean that people often suffer from PTSD once they’ve experienced homelessness.
Still, it is short-sighted to say substance abuse and mental health diagnoses are the sole causes. After all, Homeless Out Loud states that 60 percent of our homeless are employed, and that means that at least 60 percent of those who are homeless can manage their substance abuse and mental health diagnoses well enough to maintain a job.
We also have an affordable housing and low-income housing crisis. One component is the number of people moving to Colorado vs. the number of available homes. There just aren’t enough homes for all those moving here, so supply/demand shows that rents are increasing. Another component is that new condominium construction has been limited because of building defects. That’s another complicated conversation, but the gist is that external forces have kept new for-sale construction low over the last several years. We also have a lack of low-income and affordable housing, which are yet more complicated conversations that move beyond the question about homelessness. That lack is from a number of sources — from affordable-housing stock being sold at market rate to developers opting out of affordable housing and instead paying a fee to affordable-housing entities selling properties to market-rate developers instead of building affordable housing. We also just learned that affordable units have been purchased, then rented out at market rate to unsuspecting tenants.
Next, we have a lack of a living wage in Denver. To afford to rent a standard two-bedroom apartment in Colorado on a forty-hour work week, a family needs to make more than $21/hr, yet the average renter in Colorado makes about $15/hr (which means half of renting Coloradans make less than that).
Finally, Denver has some options for those who can’t afford a place to live, but many prefer to sleep outside because the various housing options just don’t work for some. Many of these concerns are already documented. Some shelters don’t allow pets, some don’t allow loved ones. Some shelters don’t let some out early enough to get to work or don’t accommodate those who work at nights. Some shelters have bedbugs, and some have requirements that don’t align with a person’s religious beliefs.
As for what to do with our homeless, there are several tactical and strategic solutions:
• Properly fund and staff existing affordable-housing programs, so that affordable-housing stock doesn’t accidentally get sold at market rate and so affordable homes comply with the covenants associated with affordable housing.
• Stop homeless sweeps. They’re expensive and they treat symptoms, not causes. Instead, use those funds to address causes such as affordable housing and living wage.
• Ensure Caring4Denver has the best possible chance for success. There’s an opportunity for that additional $41 million to $45 million annually to make a huge difference for Denver and the people who live in it, and Denver’s elected officials can pave the way for maximum success. This includes a strong partnership with Denver Health and Mental Health Center of Denver, since they already have extensive experience.
• Support $15forDIA. We need a living wage in Denver, and $15/hr minimum wage is a move in the right direction. I’ve made public my support by promoting the initiative and personally contributing. We should support other initiatives that promote a living wage.
• Support businesses in Denver that balance profitability with social responsibility. Ex: Illegal Pete’s, which provides $15/hr for its employees as well as benefits.
• Support developers who balance profitability with social responsibility.
• Work with Homeless Out Loud, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Centro Humanitario, Denver Rescue Mission, Urban Peak and other relevant agencies to find how to improve the shelters in Denver. As far as homeless efforts, this should be the focus until Denver has at least one location that works for each type of homeless.
How would you tackle Denver's affordable-housing issues?
Homelessness and housing are heavily related. I’d refer back to the above question.
In addition: Housing is a person’s single-most important expense and is often a person’s greatest expense. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development states that any person paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing is considered "cost burdened, and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and medical care." Yet in no state can a full-time worker afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent while making the federal minimum wage. In Colorado, one must earn $23.93 to afford a two-bedroom rental home and work forty hours per week — and in zip code 80202, one must earn $40.96/hr. Meanwhile, the median hourly wage for all workers in all occupations in Colorado is $19.66. It doesn’t take an MBA in finance to recognize that these numbers look bad for Coloradans.
The Urban Institute created a model specifically based on Denver’s housing market in 2016. The market has become even tighter since then.
To be clear, this is not a problem specific to Denver: Housing has become expensive across the nation.
Approach 1: wages. One of the primary causes of lack of "affordable" housing is that effective earning power has not significantly increased since the 1970s. As mentioned in a previous answer, I’m a firm supporter of $15forDIA, a ballot initiative that will set the minimum wage to $15/hr for DIA employees. While $15/hr. minimum wage still isn’t a living wage in Denver, it’s a move in the right direction. (NOTE: I’ve already spoken with several other groups with an interest at DIA, and if you represent a stakeholder group I haven’t already spoken with, I am interested in your viewpoint, too.) Many employees at DIA and elsewhere are forced to supplement their income with social services. We need to consider the effect of wage stagnation and ensure businesses make a reasonable profit while workers make a living wage.
Approach 2: #20MinuteNeighborhood. If we build housing where people want to live, work and play, we reduce demands on our transit system. It’s expensive to own and operate a car (car loan, gas, maintenance, insurance, depreciation), so the less you use it, the lower your expenses. Also, the closer people live to necessities like food, general goods, entertainment and work, the less time they spend commuting, which means more time available to spend with friends and family. As they say, time is money.
Approach 3: neighborhood-driven development. Denver is expecting an additional 200,000 people to move to the city, so we need more housing development to offset the current strain on our housing market and the upcoming additional strain from all those moving to Denver. One can love developers or hate developers, but either way, we need development to help us reduce the strain. While we’re developing, let’s ensure our new developments enrich the neighborhood around them. Let’s consider adding retail space on the ground floor so we can end our food deserts and encourage locally owned businesses. Let’s consider office/commercial space on floors two and three for small businesses, our thriving tech startups or executive suites, so those offices can be closer to where people live. Then let’s place residences on higher floors. The best way to preserve our rugged outdoor lifestyle in our national parks and ski resorts is to build in Denver. Colorado is a rural state, but if we choose one place to have urban density, shouldn’t it be Denver? Not even all of Denver needs increased urban density, but District 10’s proximity to the urban core makes it an attractive location to consider additional neighborhood-driven development in a way to accommodate growth yet preserve that which makes each neighborhood unique.
How concerned are you about gentrification in your district, and what can be done to strike the right balance?
Sixty-seven percent of Denver residents live in single-family homes. Considering an additional 200,000 people are expected to move to the city of Denver (i.e., not the metro area) by 2040, we must reduce that percentage. That means building large-scale, multi-unit buildings where it makes sense, but more important, it means addressing Denver’s "missing middle." Few areas of the city are zoned to allow units to subdivide themselves. Capitol Hill, a neighborhood in Denver’s District 10, is an example of a model that could be used in other areas of the city; 5,000 square-foot mansions could be subdivided into five units, each with 1,000 square feet, and the result would create increased housing units while preserving the look of the outside of the house — and therefore preserving the neighborhood’s charm. I had the great opportunity to meet Lisa Bender, president of the Minneapolis City Council, when she came to Denver last June. As you probably know, they just agreed to sweeping zoning changes for their city. I want to review and visit those changes to see how they may work in Denver. I am particularly interested in how they tied land use with access to non-car transportation. After all, we already have lots of parking issues in the city, and they’ll only get worse as we rezone for increased density.
Do you support rent control in Denver?
I'm not excited about the idea of the classic definition of rent control. Denver has experienced unprecedented rent increases in the last nine years (more than 80 percent average rent increase citywide in that time), and I don't see that trend continuing. Put another way, the cat's already out of the bag, and I don't see rent control being a useful tool in Denver long-term. Also, I've read articles about how it's worked in other cities, and those articles have shown mixed results. I'm not fully informed about the topic, however, and I'd want to get better informed if something similar were to be considered at the city council level.
Rent control and the Telluride decision: If I were to advocate for rent control, it would be to give municipalities like Denver additional control over how it asks developers to place housing across the income spectrum. Right now, the Telluride decision doesn't give municipalities in Colorado that flexibility. I've spoken with developers and attorneys that represent developers, and the common theme I hear is that Denver isn't giving developers a level playing field regarding housing affordability requirements. As I understand it, it's the Telluride decision that precludes Denver's ability to create that level playing field. If bills like this year’s failed SB 19-225 were more narrowly crafted to address the Telluride decision, I would be a stronger supporter.
Would you expand the tiny homes concept? If so, how? If not, why not?
Yes, and I like the idea of having them sprinkled throughout the city. I have (admittedly unscientifically) asked numerous homeless in Denver if they would live in a tiny home if they had the choice, and every one of them said yes. If we wrap housing with services and support, we can get many people off the streets and back on their feet.
Would you support a higher minimum wage in Denver? If so, where would you like to see the minimum wage set?
Absolutely; we don’t have a living wage in the city. As for the exact amount that makes the most sense, I haven’t had detailed conversations with a large group of stakeholders to identify exactly where the minimum wage should be. I’m ready to quickly start that conversation now that the General Assembly has empowered municipalities to set their own minimum wage, and that conversation would definitely include tip credits.
Is development in Denver being done responsibly?
I’ve heard our elected officials say time and time again that "market forces" guide development in the city. While I believe a healthy city is a growing city, I believe it’s government’s job to represent the people. I hear time and time again that development is happening TO the city, not FOR the city. The metric I believe in is encapsulated in this question: Does a development enrich the neighborhood around it? If it doesn’t, is there a way to change the development so that it makes the neighborhood better? Examples include: Does the develop increase access to parks? Does it increase access to fresh and healthy food? Does it support the twenty-minute-neighborhood concept (as in, is everything a neighborhood needs to thrive accessible within a twenty-minute walk)? Government is supposed to represent people, and we need our elected officials to better represent the needs of residents.
What should be done to address problems related to traffic and traffic safety in your district?
People should have the freedom to get from A to B and feel safe while doing it. Denver’s sidewalks are broken and busted, and 40 percent of Denver’s sidewalks are either missing or narrower than four feet wide. This means people don’t feel safe on our sidewalks and therefore choose other transportation solutions. People don’t feel safe in our bike lanes because 1) they’re not protected, and 2) Denver does not have a bike-friendly culture. Meanwhile, RTD is reducing service and increasing fares, making that a less and less desirable option. That means the only palatable transit option in Denver is the car. We must change that. We must change our metric from "cars moved per hour" to "people moved per hour." We must place pedestrians as our priority and fix our sidewalks. We need protected bike lanes. We need a vibrant mass-transit system. My campaign video talks about sidewalks, bike lanes, buses and trains, and it’s located on the home page of my campaign website, ChrisForDenver.com. This won’t happen overnight, of course, and we should continue to enforce traffic and safety laws for cars on our streets. But we need to move beyond the car as we have more and more people move to the city. It’s good for the planet to reduce car use, it’s good for physical health, and we can interact with our neighbors more as we get out of our single-occupant vehicles and get closer to our neighbor. As we develop community and remember we’re all sharing the same limited space, hopefully we’ll have fewer injuries and fatalities from cars.
What improvements do you believe should be made to Denver's public-transportation system?
Access to public transportation is critical. There are numerous areas in the city where many homes in the neighborhood have no car yet are more than half a mile from the nearest supermarket, and these areas tend to be low-income. A vibrant mass-transit system also gives children more flexibility to travel to and from school safely — even if the destination is home, a grocery store or a transit stop.
While Denver doesn’t have a direct influence on RTD, we can support decisions that ensure access to transit options. This includes fixing our busted and broken sidewalks, so people can get to and from the bus stop and their ultimate destination. It also includes working with the mayor's proposed Denver Transportation District, which makes sense considering the needs of the 16th Street Mall are far different from the needs of Watkins, Colorado — yet both are within a single district, RTD District B.
Would you work to expand Denver's bicycle network? If so, how?
Fixing our transportation system — including our busted and broken sidewalks and installing protected bike lanes — is also critical. We all need the freedom to get from A to B and feel safe while doing it. It is the right thing for everyone from parents with kids in strollers to people walking their dogs to seniors with walkers to veterans with wheelchairs. What is a city but the people who live in it? If people can’t get out to meet their neighbors because they don’t feel safe using the sidewalk, we lose the neighborhood’s sense of community. A strong neighborhood with a strong sense of community helps people create and strengthen relationships, and a strong neighborhood means higher home values.
Installing a protected bike-lane network allows people greater safety and freedom to choose to get from A to B without a car. Also, installing protected bike lanes allows scooter users to feel safe in a bike lane so pedestrians on sidewalks also feel safe.
Would you welcome social consumption venues of the sort envisioned in a bill passed by the state legislature in your district? If so, why?
Residents in Denver’s District 10 want social consumption venues, yet the reasons are different from one neighborhood to the next. The general reasons fall into three major buckets:
• We smell marijuana all the time in our parks and on our sidewalks, and that’s something we don’t want near our kids. Social consumption venues give consumers a place to go that’s away from our kids and shielded from immediate view of the street.
• Our rental agreement prohibits cannabis consumption in our homes. Social consumption venues allow people to consume legally while also allowing people to observe their lease/rental agreements.
• Cannabis tourism. Cannabis tourism provides millions of tax revenue for the city and state, yet there’s no legal place for tourists to go to consume. Creating social consumption venues gives our tourism industry a place to direct those legally coming to the state to experience what Colorado has to offer — and provide tax revenue for schools, education, and so much more.
What can and should be done to improve law enforcement in Denver?
If I may, I think the question you mean to ask is about public safety. I’m very fortunate to have the endorsements of the Fraternal Order of Police (Lodge 27), Denver Firefighters (Local 858), and Teamsters (Local 17, which includes some sheriff deputies). They’ve said I will do a great job to improve public safety in the city.
One way we can improve public safety is through Caring4Denver. That initiative, approved by voters last November, provides $41 million to $45 million of tax revenue annually for addiction and mental health treatment. We’ve cut funding for both at all levels of government, leaving our first responders with the obligation to act as our triage for those issues. By providing mental health and certified alcohol- and drug-abuse counselors in first-response situations, we can once again treat those who need treatment and allow our law enforcement to focus on other issues.
Another way we can improve public safety is to ensure our city is affordable for our first responders. If our police, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders live in the areas where they work, they have better access to their jobs including in bad weather — i.e., when we rely on first responders. They also are more in the community in which they serve, so they can better understand each neighborhood’s dynamic. It further allows a community to get to know the first responders in their area, and when first responders have a rapport with their neighborhoods, it reduces the "us vs. them" mentality and strengthens community engagement.
Another way is to ensure our first responders have access to properly maintained equipment. Denver Fire is currently testing the idea of a two-tier response system: full ladder/engine response for fires and smaller equipment response for calls they know are not actually involving fires (like addiction or mental health calls). This improves response times because the equipment is more nimble, reduces wear and tear on large equipment and keeps firefighting equipment available for actual fires.
Finally, our city is growing rapidly. We have more buildings, more people, and our construction is denser and taller. As our city grows, we should consider urban planning in a way that ensures our first responders have the equipment and staff needed to respond to situations quickly and that our city is designed with quick response in mind.
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Would you like the city council to have more mechanisms to keep the mayor accountable? If so, what changes would you like to see?
As I speak with former elected officials in Denver, I learn that there are items that currently exist in Denver’s charter that city council is not currently exercising. Don’t get me wrong — the benefits outweigh the costs — but term limits prevent that institutional knowledge from existing on council for more than twelve years for most Denver elected officials. I’d want to better study the full extent of council power before suggesting more ways for the mayor to be accountable. That said, I’d agree when people say that Denver is a strong-mayor town. Denver would benefit from some additional checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of government.
Are there other major issues we haven't mentioned that are important to you, and if so, what are they?
One final issue that's important to me about Denver is the concept of "community." As the Webb Building proclaims, what more is a city but its people? Denver is losing its community because 73 percent of commuters use single-occupant vehicles and aren't able to say hello to their neighbors. Our busted and broken sidewalks are keeping us from saying hello to our neighbors, too. If we get out of cars and use sidewalks and protected bike lanes, we'll get to know our neighbors better, and we'll be stronger as a community and a city. If we create access around construction and check the rampant development in Cherry Creek, Golden Triangle, and so many other places, we'll be stronger as a community and a city. I want to return our city to the people, and it shows in my message and in my supporters. Working families support me, and it shows in the twenty labor endorsements. First responders and public-safety experts such as the Denver Firefighters (Denver Fire Local 858) and the Denver Sheriffs (FOP Lodge 27) say I'm the best candidate. This isn't just a claim I'm making on my own. People who care about the environment support me, such as the Sierra Club, Food and Water Action, and Healthier Colorado. Let's ensure our communities remain in the hands of people, not wealthy special interests. I invite you to join my team as we fight for everyone in Denver and District 10, not just the wealthy few.