The East Area Plan was passed through Denver City Council on Nov. 16, with a 12-1 vote. I was the lone “No” vote, just as I was the lone “No” vote in October on the East Central Area Plan, which is in my district.
Here’s why I voted no: the East Area and East Central Area Plans simply do not do enough to protect vulnerable communities, which are disproportionately Black and Brown and which have historically been disadvantaged through the legacy of redlining. Further, Denver is the second most-gentrified city in the nation, the result of planning processes set in motion years ago by land speculators working in conjunction with self-interested politicians during economic downturns. This is why I warn constituents who are recruited to participate in city-initiated planning processes that “first comes the plan, then comes displacement.” This is the story of gentrification and development in Denver.
The East Area Plan is a framework for growth and development for East Colfax, Montclair, Hale, and South Park Hill. One of the controversies around the plan is the development of new housing, which drew pushback from two communities in particular. First, residents of color who were no strangers to unbridled development in their neighborhoods. They know that gentrification means displacement for their families that have been here for generations. Unfortunately, the burden falls on them to protest up-zonings that increase density, with little or no affordable units because developers are not legally mandated to provide them. We cross our fingers and spend our tax dollars to employ entire departments to negotiate with developers with no enforceable results. It is an exhausting process that yields few results, and only prolongs the inevitable extinction of our historic communities of color. Despite our best efforts, the East Area Plan did not include enough protections for these Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.
Another group that pushed back against development, but for a different reason, were residents of single-family neighborhoods. At one point, the East Area Plan considered development of more affordable types of homes, like duplexes and triplexes, in neighborhoods that are currently occupied by single-family houses. But single-family residents, which demographic data shows are predominantly white and wealthy, were adamant about maintaining the status quo.
Consistent with the single-family unit preference, my colleagues upheld a sentence in the plan that effectively reaffirms inequality by discouraging multifamily residences from being built in single-family neighborhoods. Once again, the interests of Black and Brown communities were diminished, while the interests of white wealthier residents were elevated. In a year when gentrification and displacement are accelerating due to luxury development, an economic crisis, and the COVID-19 epidemic, we need to be protecting those residents most at risk of displacement, and not permanently pushing vulnerable populations out of Denver. Now is the time when we should be embracing deeply affordable workforce housing, not discouraging it. Instead, the East Area plan insulates relatively secure residents from shouldering the burden of an expanding city.
City Council members are quick to advocate for densifying neighborhoods in districts that are not their own. Often, they want to densify District 9 — against the will of my constituents, many of whom are people of color who are struggling economically. But when it comes to certain parts of their own Council districts, densification becomes inconceivable to them. These same members invoke deference for their decisions when it comes to projects in their districts but refuse to provide the same courtesy to me when I push back against luxury development that increases property values and taxes. The East Area Plan is yet another example of a development plan that sacrifices vulnerable communities and coddles secure ones.
Even if the East Area Plan distributed development burdens more evenly compared to other plans, like the East Central Plan, there is no guarantee that burdens will be distributed evenly within the district. The East Area Plan is severely lacking in antidiscrimination protections. Without mandated protective policies, density does not equal affordability. We do not have a single proven, nor guaranteed antidisplacement policy in the East Area Plan. We don’t even have a concrete definition of community benefits that lists and prioritizes affordability. The East Area plan lists potential antidisplacement policies but provides no guarantee that such plans will be implemented.
Whenever a preference for one community is given over another, I will always stand with economically and politically disadvantaged communities who get erased in these processes. That is why I voted no. And I will do it again until we have equitable policies and equal access to housing for all.
Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca represents Denver’s City Council District 9.