The recent report released by A+, Learn Together, Live Together: A Call to Integrate Denver’s Schools, brings to light the issues Denver Public Schools (DPS) are facing with the dramatic decline of integrated schools since the end of busing in 1995. We should however not be surprised by the growing segregation of our local schools since the end of busing, many Denver neighborhoods, like many neighborhoods across the United States, are not racially integrated and never have been. Institutional racist redlining housing policies of the 1930s created and enforced by federal agencies the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), in partnership with local banks, mortgage companies, realtors and appraisers, defined homes located in or near neighborhoods of color as high risk investments (redlined), eliminating the availability of standard home loans and mortgages with lower interest rates and longer terms for those areas.
Eighty years later we see the direct damage of these policies, with some of the most segregated schools in Denver today located in many of those same neighborhoods that were redlined. In the nationally acclaimed The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America, author Richard Rothstein describes how American cities became racially divided as the public and private sector systematically imposed residential segregation. The impact of these policies directly ties to present day school segregation. Not only did these policies prohibit equitable wealth building for families of color, but denied them the right to live where they wanted and send their children to their choice of schools.
The A+ report also highlights how families of color are today disproportionately moving out of Denver due to rapidly increasing housing costs. Research has verified that housing quality and long term stability directly affects a child’s ability to learn, less residential stability and frequent mobility minimizes opportunity for success in school. Increasing housing costs are pushing lower-income families out of their traditional locations within Denver neighborhoods; as a result the goal of equitable educational opportunities within integrated schools is increasingly unattainable based on the resulting racial and socio-economic isolation.
It is common knowledge that as the affordable housing supply dwindles, families are displaced. Displacement leads to what educators call mobility, when students change schools during the course of a school year. Moving often leads to disastrous consequences for our youth, who risk falling behind their peers academically and socially.1 If we truly want to reduce displacement of our families, it is on us to find viable solutions. And as we strive to become a more equitable city, let us pose this question: what is less equitable than passively observing while families are increasingly priced out of their homes, and fully understanding the resulting limitations for a child’s ability to learn and grow regardless of their income status? School Choice is another factor in the acceleration of neighborhood gentrification, as white families move into neighborhoods of color, but are not sending their children to the local school. As noted in the Atlantic, “the ability to opt out of a neighborhood school increases the likelihood that a black or Hispanic neighborhood will see an influx of wealthier residents”2
We want to be a city of diversity of incomes and races rather than becoming another San Francisco, where there are no affordable housing options. Until we address the unmet need for housing affordability and achieve integrated neighborhoods, it will remain extremely difficult to ensure equality when referencing a child’s ability to succeed in school. Currently Denver’s affordable housing crisis is at a 60,000 home shortfall, with 1/3 of all Denver households (+100,000) house burdened, paying more than 33% of their income on housing.
Denver’s median rent increased 23% between 2005 and 20153 whereas Denver household income only increased 5%4 over that same 10 year period. This significant disparity between the rental rates and income creates a number of overwhelming obstacles for low and moderate income families, including significantly limited educational advancement opportunities. The graph above shows the annual for sale, rental, and wage growth over 15 years (2001 to 2015) in Denver, again magnifying the growing disparity between housing costs and income. We can see that in 2015, the Case Shiller annual home price increased by 9%, rents increased by 7%, while wages only increased 1.5%. With housing costs far outstripping wage growth this is a major factor for working families being forced to leave Denver.
Preserving and creating new permanently affordable housing options in Denver supports the goals of DPS having integrated schools. As a nonprofit real estate organization with a long history in Denver of making strategic investments in the preservation and development of permanently affordable housing through our community land trust (CLT), Urban Land Conservancy (ULC) recognizes the damage the current housing crisis is creating in the neighborhoods we work in. To date, ULC has invested over $80 million in Metro Denver, leveraging an additional $600 million from public and private partners to produce stable quality affordable homes for over 1,000 families in addition to more than 600,000 square feet of nonprofit facility space and schools. Examples of ULC’s affordable housing development are below, all with immediate access to public transit including rail and high-frequency bus. The location of affordable housing is critical as access to transit allows families to have additional educational choices and job opportunities that may not otherwise be available.
Despite these successes, ULC and our affordable housing partners are unable to mitigate the massive shortfall in Denver’s affordable housing needs. According to Exploring Colorado’s Housing Affordability Challenges in All of Their Complexity, the latest study published by Shift Research Lab and Colorado State University, “housing unaffordability is becoming the most significant threat to family economic security in Colorado.”5
We believe that a city which allows its affordable housing supply to dwindle also weakens its schools, as it is proven and stated in the A+ report; “integrated school systems benefit both low- and middle income students alike”. Lack of affordable housing is also detrimental to both educators and students. Early childhood educator salaries for example, are nearly 50% below Denver’s median income, with the median salary for a preschool teacher in Denver at $30,000.6 The housing affordability impact in the educational sector is full-circle. Families cannot afford to remain in communities with quality preschool options, and many teachers cannot work in these schools because they cannot afford the housing within the neighborhood. With the median rent for a one-bedroom Denver apartment at $1,070 in 2017, the average preschool teacher must spend 50 percent of their take home income to afford rental housing. Home ownership is a distant dream for many of our educators and families, as for sale housing is beyond their financial means. Currently, one must earn $79,180 per year to afford a median priced home.7
In the fall of 2016, the City of Denver approved the largest affordable housing fund in Colorado, making a $150M, ten year commitment to preserving and creating 6,000 affordable rental and for sale homes. In 2018 the City of Denver approved an additional $105M to support affordable housing preservation and development through a partnership with Denver Housing Authority (DHA). These are excellent steps the City has taken, but we need to achieve greater housing production with a goal of 20,000 affordable homes (33% of the currently projected shortfall) over the next decade to make a significant impact. Denver must continue to create additional resources while ensuring the new housing developed and preserved is permanently affordable, rather than current short-term deed restrictions of 15-30 years.
Colorado is one of only a few states without a permanent source of funding to support affordable housing. If we truly want to reduce displacement of our families, and better integrate our schools, regional and state sources of funding must be part of the solution. ULC believes the solution lies in permanent affordable rental and for sale housing using the Community Land Trust as a means to prevent displacement, and we strongly encourage community members, parents, teachers and students to advocate for the creation and preservation of permanently affordable housing. An example of this is a new ULC development with Medici Consulting Group, who is constructing 66 permanently affordable units, focusing on 2 and 3-bedroom units to accommodate families living at the Blake Station in Denver. This new development will be part of ULC’s CLT through a 99 year land lease to ensure affordability for 198 years.
The solution must also come from a variety of institutions including Denver Public Schools. How can we as community members help bridge the existing gap between our school systems and municipalities that can result in additional affordable housing development? How should school accessibility bring more weight to the decision making process of where affordable housing is developed? How can DPS play a larger role in supporting the homes where their students and faculty live? How should DPS be using its real estate to further the development of new affordable housing options?
When we look at four quadrants in Denver where ULC has partnered to develop new affordable rental housing that includes 2 and 3-bedroom units, DPS student enrollment is much higher and up to 40% of the units are housing DPS students. As we recognize how many studio and one-bedroom units are being developed across the city, there is a much larger conversation that needs to happen about the need for family units. For example, according to Shift Research Lab, in the roughly 4000 rental units built over the course of the last five years in the neighborhoods North of downtown Denver, approximately 25 students are enrolled in DPS.
The State of Colorado continues to be presented with opportunities on how provide resources, but there is a lack of cooperation between political parties that prevents the creation of a dedicated and permanent source of funding to support rental and for-sale affordable housing options. As we know the needs exist beyond Denver and the Denver Regional Council of Governments could play a significant role in the creation and preservation of housing across Metro Denver as well.
ULC firmly stands behind the recommendations A+ included in their report, specifically recommendation 6: Support new diverse by design schools. Although ULC agrees that new high quality schools should be placed in low-income neighborhoods that would appeal to higher income families, success would occur only if there was also an inclusion of new affordable housing. If new affordable housing options are not included in the bigger plan, all we do is put a new school in a neighborhood that will gentrify and the low-income families will be displaced. The link to schools and housing is significant, and if integration is the goal then families must be provided the opportunity to remain in place. For every high performing school coming into a neighborhood, ULC recommends 500 affordable homes, including rental and for-sale options, be included as part of the school development.
We as a city must identify ways to strategically invest in neighborhoods facing the greatest threats of displacement, and DPS needs be at the table for those discussions. If the City, DPS, housing providers, and stakeholders could work together in determining how Denver’s dedicated affordable housing fund and DPS might be jointly invested, we could positively affect communities of color and low-income neighborhoods so they truly benefit from additional high quality schools in places where affordable housing options exist.
These questions must be answered now. The inequity of our City is a growing problem and it will take strong collaborative efforts to shift long standing policies and regulations, ultimately bending the arc of Denver’s moral universe toward justice for more integrated schools and neighborhoods. Who’s in?