How Can Denver Ensure Longtime Residents Benefit From Better Transit?

Mile High Connects hosted a panel in Westwood on Tuesday that included people affected by rising housing costs, as well as decision makers who say they’ll try to do something about it. Photo: David Sachs

There are two Denvers, Mile High Connects Executive Director Dace West said Tuesday: The one portrayed in the media as the best place to live, and the one that’s now too expensive for longtime residents to afford.

West spoke during the transit advocacy group’s “regional call to action to address our gentrification and displacement crisis.” The event included a panel of speakers who have been affected by rising housing costs around Denver.

“Displacement and gentrification are some unintended consequences that can happen from really important development that’s going on all across our region,” West said. “We know that this is a hard topic to talk about, it’s a multilayered topic, and there’s not a simple answer. There’s not even a simple question.”

One of the complex questions to address is how transit can make the region more affordable, not less. Great transit reduces the cost of living by giving people more affordable transportation options than owning, fueling, maintaining, and insuring a personal car. But if housing by good transit is in short supply, the cost of living nearby can escalate as demand for homes with convenient transit access grows. In some cases, longtime residents who fought for better transit can’t afford to stay in their homes and benefit from better bus and rail service.

Maria Ceballos used to live in Westwood, where she and her kids could get around somewhat easily by bus. When the land she lived on was sold to build new apartments, she had to move, and now the closest bus stop is 10 blocks away. “In Westwood, I worked with Westwood Unidos to reinstate the No. 4 bus, but now I can’t benefit from that victory,” Ceballos said through a Spanish translator.

The scarcity of quality transit — reliable, high-frequency service that connects people to jobs and other destinations — is a big problem, said City Councilman Paul Lopez. If good transit were everywhere, he said, there would be no such thing as haves and have nots.

“We shouldn’t have to wait until a neighborhood becomes white and wealthy before you make sure there’s more access to transit for everyone,” Lopez told Streetsblog. “The people who live in my district’s neighborhoods, they use transit to get to work. They use bikes to get to work. They use buses to get to work. That’s the most important piece.”

Tuesday’s event was an introduction to the issues at play. Mile High Connects will delve into specific policy solutions at a workshop on May 7.