Life better for the poor in Denver, study shows

Economic benefits spread, but housing costs are thorn

By Mike Anton
Denver Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer
November 16, 1999

Denver's poorest neighborhoods have benefited from the sizzling economy, but skyrocketing housing costs threaten to undercut those gains, a study by the Piton Foundation concludes.

The report also found that gentrification and a booming Hispanic population are remaking parts of Denver in profound ways, blurring traditional class, ethnic and racial lines.

The nonprofit research group studied the city's 79 neighborhoods, but focused on issues affecting the 15 poorest. By many measures, life in those neighborhoods has gotten better since 1994, when Piton last undertook a major study of poverty in Denver.

"It's good news," Piton researcher Terri Bailey said. "We started out to see whether these good economic times are really as good as we think. What we found is, in many ways, they are."

Household incomes in west and northeast Denver neighborhoods are up. Crime and teen birth rates are down. Welfare reform is forcing people to get jobs, and there's plenty of work to go around.

But despite the positive news, Denver's poorest neighborhoods still face enormous hurdles, the Piton study found.

On average, more than 80 percent of the children in those neighborhoods qualify for the federal free school lunch program. Child care is hard to find. And while crime is down, the 15 neighborhoods still account for 37 percent of the city's violent crime.

"There's virtually nowhere in Denver where people are not working. Some people are working two jobs," Bailey said. "But there's a real sense with people that no matter how fast they run they can't run fast enough."

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Denver's poor is the spiraling cost of housing. Between 1991 and 1998, the average price of a home jumped 97.5 percent citywide; in Denver's poorest enclaves, the average shot up 153 percent.

But it's not just that low-income people can't afford to buy. Increased taxes are hitting residents on fixed incomes hard, Bailey said, while rapid turnover is depleting the number of rental units, pushing up rents and forcing people to move. Between 1996 and 1998, one of every six homes in the city's poorest neighborhoods changed hands.

"I am very frightened by the housing data," Bailey said. "The implications of gentrification -- the speed of gentrification -- is perhaps the biggest challenge we face.

"The issue for Denver is: What kind of city does it want to be?"

But Denver isn't the only city facing a challenge.

The number of suburban school students eligible for a free lunch has increased dramatically during the 1990s. To Bailey and others, that indicates Denver's poor are finding more affordable housing in the older, inner-ring suburbs bordering the city, particularly northwest Aurora, southern Adams County and eastern Jefferson County.

"Ministers in Denver's poor churches will tell you that their congregations have moved. Teachers in poor neighborhoods will tell you that their students are moving out," Bailey said. "Many of these people are moving to the suburbs, and I don't think they're prepared for them. And they're looking at just the tip of the iceberg."

But while affluent Anglos are changing the look and feel of Hispanic neighborhoods on Denver's west side, Hispanics -- many of them immigrants -- are increasingly remaking traditional black neighborhoods northeast of downtown.

In 1998, for instance, half of public school students in Five Points and 69 percent in neighboring Cole were Hispanic. Births to blacks in the two neighborhoods decreased 25 percent during the 1990s, while Hispanic births soared 252 percent.

In fact, the Hispanic population is growing across the city.

The Census Bureau estimates that Denver's population grew by 6.6 percent between 1990 and 1996 and that Hispanics made up 63 percent.

Piton researchers studied more current Denver Public School enrollment, which grew by 3,750 students between 1995 and 1998. They found Hispanics accounted for 98 percent of the increase and that nearly half of them were not proficient in English.

Hispanic enrollment increased the most in predominately Anglo neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the number of white students in DPS dropped by 526.