Denver’s Changing Economy: Top 7 Challenges Facing Denver Today

Part Three
by Jeff Haanen

In the past two blog posts on Denver’s economic history and thriving economy today, things look promising. New businesses, new residents, and new buildings all point to a thriving city.

But your perspective on the economy often depends on where you’re sitting. Here are, in my view, the top seven challenges facing Denver today.

Greatest Challenges to Denver

1. Affordable Housing

  • With the influx of new residents to Colorado, home prices are now the highest in state history (The Denver Post reported median home prices in Boulder are $451,250, and for Denver, $325,200 [March 2016]).
  • This produces a huge problem for low income communities in Denver: 38 percent of Denver’s renters don’t earn enough to cover rising house costs and need financial assistance.
  • For example, from 2000-2014, the poverty rate doubled in Montbello, a historically black and Latino neighborhood, yet monthly payments rose 18 percent to a median of $1,690.
  • Poverty is being pushed to the rims of the metro area, like Aurora, Littleton, Lakewood, Thornton, and Commerce City. (For example, in south Westminster, from 2000-2014, there was a 29 percent increase in households living in poverty.)
  • It’s estimated that Denver needs 60,000 more affordable units. “Affordable” is defined as 30 percent of gross household income. Therefore, if a person makes $40,122 annually, his/her housing is “affordable” if no more than $1,000/mo is going toward housing. This also means that an average rent of $1,690 is out of reach for many Front Range residents.

2. Gentrification & Racial Tension

  • Due in large part to rising housing costs and new affluent neighbors in historically poor neighborhoods, gentrification has caused racial tensions in Denver.
  • For example, in 2000, the Highlands neighborhood of Denver was 67 percent Latino; in 2014 it was 66 percent white (and one of the most expensive places to live in the city).
  • In 2014, a rise in the number of gang shootings in Northeast Denver was caused in large part by shrinking gang territory.
  • On a personal level, I know the Black Lives matters movement is a central concern for nearly all my black and minority brothers in Christ; but it is often overlooked by most of my white friends in the city. (I’d like to thank my friend Scott Lundeen at the Issachar Center for Urban Leadership for helping me to see this.)
  • Foundations like The Colorado Trust have continued to report on implicit (and sometimes explicit) racism.

3. K-12 Education

  • There are a few shining stars in the Denver Public School (DPS) system, namely Denver School of Science and Technology and an increasing system-wide graduation rate (up to 72 percent, having risen dramatically in the past 10 years).
  • However, half of DPS students who graduate need to enroll in college remediation classes and only 64 percent of African American students and 60.7 percent Latino students graduate from high school.
  • There are also concerning trends that our nation’s public schools are re-segregating at an alarming rate.

4. Pollution

  • Denver was recently ranked as the 8th worst in poorest air quality with regard to levels of ozone.
  • Though hotly debated, many are concerned about increasing pollution from hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and legislation has been passed to prevent further pollution.

5. The Trades and “Good Jobs”

  • In the building boom, Colorado firms have struggled to find enough skilled labor to build out the city’s infrastructure.
  • The Denver Business Journal reported 96 percent of Colorado firms have trouble finding skilled construction workers, and in 2013, Forbes reported that the skills gap will worsen as nearly one-third of all tradesmen are 55 and over and will retire without nearly enough young craftsman to take their places.
  • Though the unemployment rate in Colorado is low, many low-income families are stuck in low-paying jobs and are unable to overcome “the cliff effect” – earning enough to stop receiving government benefits.

6. Marijuana Industry

  • In one sense, it’s an economic boom for the city. Pot tourism has filled hotels across the state and filled state coffers with new tax revenue. (Total 2015 revenue from pot sales was $996 million in 2015).
  • Yet marijuana has had deeply adverse effects on Coloradans, especially our most vulnerable: The Denver Post reported that 1/3 of all high school students in Colorado have used pot.
  • In addition, The Denver Post reported, “Marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 32 percent. Almost 20 percent of all traffic deaths were marijuana related compared to only 10 percent less than five years ago. Marijuana-related emergency department visits increased 29 percent. Marijuana-related hospitalizations increased 38 percent.”

7. Growth of Secularism

  • Denver and the rest of the American West are increasingly secularized: The percentage of residents who claim to be “Religiously Unaffiliated” are: Portland: 42 percent; Seattle, 33 percent; San Francisco, 32 percent; Denver, 32 percent; and Phoenix, 26 percent.
  • In 2013, Gallup reported that Boulder, Colo., is tied for the least religious city in the United States.
  • In 2015, Pew reported that across the country, religious faith is steadily declining and the largest category growth is “Unaffiliated.” From 2007-2014:
    • The Christian share of the population fell from 78.4 to 70.6 percent
    • The percentage of Evangelical Protestants fell from 26.3 to 25.4 percent
    • The percentage of Catholics fell from 23.9 to 20.8 percent
    • The percentage of Mainline Protestants fell from 18.1 to 14.7 percent
    • The percentage of Unaffiliated rose from 16.1 to 22.8 percent

Opportunity for the Church?

After re-reading the past two posts in this series (here and here), in my view, one’s perspective on Denver’s economy tends to depend a lot on your own social and economic situation.

If you’re young, well-educated, and just took a new job at a tech start-up, you tend to see the rising towers around Union Station as evidence of a thriving economy and a healthy city.

If you’re Hispanic, live in Aurora or off of Federal Blvd, and are struggling to support your family on hourly wages working at a hotel or landscaping company, you’ll tend to see Denver’s economy as evidence that “the economy is rigged” (as we often hear in political discourse) or that the wealthy are unfairly advantaged against the working class.

In this post, I won’t weigh in either way on this debate, but I would pose some questions for reflection: Considering our history and current opportunities and challenges, what is the church’s economic responsibility to our city? What can be done to ensure that economic flourishing reaches all communities? What needs to change?

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Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is the Founder of Denver Institute for Faith & Work and the 5280 Fellowship. He contributes to various magazines and publications, including Christianity Today. Jeff attends Littleton Christian Church with his wife and four daughters.