Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Tragedy of the Housing Commons

During my extensive traveling for Green Corps, I came across and fell in love with the city of Denver.  I had to move to the Mile High City and was fortunate enough to be offered a position there with the Sierra Club.  Appreciating the security of inheritance from my father's death several months earlier, I decided to splurge and rent a two-story studio apartment for about $1,150 per month in the fall of 2011.  

The view of the Uptown neighborhood in Denver. (Credit: Bryce Carter)
Fast forward a year, I started to hear from my neighbors trying to renew their leases complaining about being priced out, essentially evicted, seeing several hundred dollars increase in rent.  By the time I left, similar studios as mine were going for $1,500+ for month.  Evidently, I wasn't the only one who fell in love with Denver.  

I'll be the first to admit I'm a privileged white male who grew up in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, Fairfax County, but I understood what I experienced in Denver as a consequence of rapid immigration and growing wealth was just a mere hint of the challenge lower-income communities have facing gentrification.

Gentrification is the transition of a neighborhood, and thus community, through the buying and renovation of homes and stores by those with higher wealth.  From scraping lots to intricate remodels, the property values in the neighborhood go up and often displace those with lower income.  The process is a double-edged sword, as more resources are invested in a community there is an increase in quality of life.  The other serrated edge is, just like I was priced out for my apartment, families who may have been living for generations suddenly find themselves forced to move-- usually to places where there is less available services, less social capital, and higher environmental risks like toxic power plant emissions. 

What It’s Like To Lose Your Home To Gentrification
Posted by BuzzFeed Video on Thursday, January 15, 2015

BuzzFeed's Video on Gentrification in San Francisco.
When it comes to accessible, affordable housing, I believe Denver is facing a humanitarian crisis.  Rents are skyrocketing, rising 10.2% over the last year with vacancy rates as low as 4%.  To support a modest two-bedroom home in 2014 Denver, the minimum wage needed was $18.46/hour.  Some advocacy groups say fair cost-of-living wages should be up to $23/hour.  

Either way, a minimum wage earner in Colorado would have to work at least 90 hours per week to keep up with the market from their $8.23 wages.  Those dramatic hours are less time for someone to invest in their family, education, community, and a potential home down payment while putting a heavy toll on mental and physical health-- thus, those with less income become the first causalities of inequality in a gentrifying region.

In recent months, families have been put on the streets because of notices to vacate.  Take this dramatic story from the Sloan's Lake redevelopment project:

Did you notice the math?  Denver Mayor Michael Hancock committed to build 3,000 affordable housing units in three  years.  In one year, applications for housing subsidy vouchers increased from 18,000 to 23,000.  At this rate of growth (assuming the housing boom doesn't let up in the same time), there could be upwards of 40,000 people applying for 3,000 to 4,000 affordable housing units in a few years.  For what is available, existing units can often be dilapidated, as my unfortunate friends Kathay and Jason have learned the hard way.

If this isn't a crisis, I don't know what is.  The question is as we wrap up municipal elections: what will the city do about it?

My blog coming up-- from food co-ops to neighborhood cleanups, how I'm taking action against the negative costs of a gentrifying neighborhood while finding ways to promote intersectionality.

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