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Hillside: The gentrifiers are coming 

click to enlarge Higher prices hit the Hillside neighborhood. - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • Higher prices hit the Hillside neighborhood.

"I’m just afraid that there is going to be gentrification and I’m going to lose my house and I want stay where I am for at least 15 more years,” a woman stated at a gathering of concerned Hillside neighbors.

It’s a reasonable concern for those living on a budget: From 2017 to 2019 Hillside’s median home values increased nearly $44,000, or about 35 percent. The woman was just one of many Hillside neighbors to express concern at a learning session with the El Paso County Assessor’s Office at the Hillside Community Center in late May. The topic was the astronomical increase in home values in Hillside — a trend citywide — and the big bump in property tax bills that would accompany those increases (News, “Sticker shock,” April 3).

For the second year in a row, Colorado Springs took the No. 1 spot (this time, along with Honolulu, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon) among the nation’s most desirable places to live as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. Living in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains means having easy access to resort towns, skiing and hiking — a big draw for yuppies and retirees. Our city is trying to take advantage of that, rushing to “revitalize” our downtown and surrounding neighborhoods in preparation for these newcomers. But those changes leave the most vulnerable long-term residents of those central areas feeling fearful.

Assessor Steve Schleiker says, “[Experts] are predicting a 17.6 percent increase in population here in this county in the next 10 years.” That won’t improve the situation for those already being pushed out of their neighborhoods. 

While many are celebrating as city workers rip up Vermijo Avenue downtown — a first step in a planned transformation of the street into a pedestrian-friendly area similar to Denver’s 16th Street Mall — others see the project as another marker of imminent displacement. 

It’s not community investment and development that residents resist; it’s the total whitewashing of traditionally diverse neighborhoods, the uprooting of generations of families, and the erasure of the culture and history of established neighborhoods. Most importantly, there is a toll on individuals who are displaced. And too often, those individuals are low-income people of color. 

Over 200 Hillside homes (nearly 10 percent of properties) sold between 2016 and mid-2018. Is what’s happening in Hillside gentrification? Is it community revitalization? What benefit, if any, does the transformation offer? The answers change depending on whom you ask. But the results of displacement are clear: People lose their homes and communities.

Here’s something to consider on our way to becoming more-Denver-than-Denver: A new National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that more Latinx people were being displaced from Denver’s fast-gentrifying neighborhoods than in any other city in the nation. And while there are a variety of reasons for that, there’s no doubt that big property tax increases hit low-income property owners hardest. (Some exemptions for seniors and disabled veterans are available: tinyurl.com/exempttax.) According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, “On average, poor homeowners and renters pay more of their incomes in property taxes than do any other income group — and the wealthiest taxpayers pay the least.” 

What are our poorer residents getting for those extra dollars? Are police response times lower? Are potholes on their streets fixed more quickly? Are their schools thriving? Is there even a school in the neighborhood? 

Gerald Miller, a 20-year Hillside resident, says what’s happening in Hillside now feels familiar — years back, the same “urban renewal” transformed the Lowell neighborhood nearby. In fact, Miller claims, at a city meeting 18 years ago, plans were presented for the future of the neighborhood. “I had gotten blueprints from the city. My house wasn’t there anymore. It looked like a group home was [placed] on Hancock and a house in the middle of Moreno and two houses in the middle of Cimarron.” After some inquiries, he says he was informed that the city had presented the wrong blueprints to him. 

In another alarming incident, Miller says that in 1985, during the savings and loan crisis, he heard that a couple families had bought homes in the area for around $50,000, paid the mortgage for some 35 years, and ended up in foreclosure when they could no longer pay the super-high-interest loans. 

It’s tough to verify these cautionary tales, but they point to a feeling of distrust in a lower-income area: a concern that the government, banks or someone else might steal away your life’s investment.

The strongest way to combat gentrification is to build neighborhood power. Writer Melissa Chadburn, with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, suggests several ways to fight displacement, like ensuring community gathering spaces such as libraries, schools, roads and community centers are not privatized. And she says it’s crucial not to settle for the pat answer of supply-and-demand ratios, which don’t take into account decades-long economic violence. We have to demand affordable housing, confront elected officials and support those working for equitable renter’s rights, like Colorado Homes for All.

And if you’re a gentrifier, Chadburn urges you to “talk to the people who are being gentrified” and vice versa. Although it may sound very Kumbaya-ish, the goal is to humanize the conversations. Or as the late journalist/author/activist Jane Jacobs once wrote, “A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people, many illiterates into skilled people, many greenhorns into competent citizens. ... Cities don’t lure the middle class. They create it.”

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