Is it possible to gentrify well?
That’s the question facing communities across the Denver metro area, as rents and home values climb in previously low- and middle-income areas. Gentrification can mean better funding for infrastructure and schools, and more local jobs. It can also push out elderly residents living on fixed incomes, families who can’t afford the rising rent and people who rely on Section 8 housing vouchers.
Edgewater is a city of about a single square mile in Jefferson County, squeezed between Denver to the east, Wheat Ridge to the northwest and Lakewood to the southwest.
Joel Newton moved there with his wife and two kids about four years ago. Before that, their family had lived in Littleton, and then spent two years in Illinois. He fell in love with Edgewater’s sweet main street, walkable grid and ethnic diversity.
He takes visitors on a tour that starts on Sheridan Boulevard near the edge of Sloan’s Lake, and recounts the town’s history. It started with the accidental creation of the lake in 1861 by farmer Thomas Sloan, who only meant to dig a well, which overflowed. In 1889, a vast amusement park called Manhattan Beach was built at the northwest side of the lake. Legend has it that a tall wooden wall was built to save innocent children from having to see into Edgewater, with its saloons, gambling and houses of ill repute.
These days, Edgewater is again profiting from people who are looking for a good time. Now the draw is marijuana. The six dispensaries in town stay open later than those in Denver, bringing revenue into the area. That, plus the higher property taxes that come with rising home values that have flooded in from the nearby Highlands neighborhood, have paved the streets with orderly sidewalks that march past tidy bungalows and a smattering of new condo developments.
The city of Edgewater was about 45 percent Hispanic by the 2010 Census count. That number grew in the 1990s and early 2000s, but now seems to be shrinking, based on the most recent five-year estimate.
“We’re gentrifiers,” Newton says of himself and his wife, who are both white. “We’re like everybody else moving in. How do you do that in a way that doesn’t push people out?”
For Newton, the answer has to do with building connections—listening to people’s stories and building a cohesive community. Newton runs Edgewater Collective, a nonprofit that works to connect the city’s residents with each other, and with resources in the schools and community. He was formerly a pastor, and he thinks a lot about how to be a responsible citizen.
Newton’s organization works closely with the local schools, whose students are primarily Hispanic, and often residents of neighboring Lakewood.
Edgewater Mayor Kris Teegardin notes that many of the white families send their kids to schools outside of Edgewater. Sometimes, they move out of the area because the houses are small.
Others, says Teegardin, object to “sending their kids to Title I schools,” he says, referring to a federal designation for schools that serve primarily low-income students. “That’s a hard fact. I’ve heard it many times. They want their children to go to a neighborhood school, but they don’t think the school is appropriate for their child.”
Enrollment in the local high school has been sinking, down from 567 students in the 2013-14 school year to 460 in 2015-16. That was offset, in part, by its reconfiguration from purely a high school to Jefferson Junior/Senior High School; last year, the school brought in students who would have otherwise attended Wheat Ridge 5-8, which closed its doors because of perpetually low test scores.
What it will take for the neighborhood schools to succeed is “having the determination of the entire community to invest in children who are experiencing socioeconomic difficulty,” says Teegardin.
“I think it’s important to know that poverty will never be fully solved, but there can be resources and opportunities to help balance the playing field,” he adds.
The mayor, who moved here nearly seven years ago, makes a point of sending his kids to the Edgewater schools. So does Newton. He’s been impressed with the quality of the teachers, and their ability to serve those students who face the barriers of poverty or who are new learners of English.
“I’d put them up against the teachers in Littleton any day,” he says.
Newton’s oldest daughter is in fifth grade, and is gifted. He says he sometimes worries that Jefferson Junior/Senior High School won’t be academically rigorous enough for her.
His solution has been to organize a diverse and committed group of parents—white and Latino—to agree to choice their kids into Jefferson in the fall. He would also like to see the elementary schools start bilingual programs that allow English speakers to learn Spanish, just as Spanish speakers are now able to learn English.
Olga Valadez moved to Edgewater 16 years ago. She’s from Zacatecas, Mexico, via Denver. From her perspective, Edgewater hasn’t changed much. She and her husband live with her parents, who own their house. Valadez says it’s been a good place to raise their three kids; people are friendly, and it’s quiet. She’s had the same neighbors for years.
Her two older kids went to Lumberg Elementary in Edgewater. But they both left when elementary school ended; Wheat Ridge High School has better options for sports than Jefferson, her oldest decided.
Valadez teaches Zumba four days a week, mostly to other mothers in the neighborhood. She’s been hearing worrisome things from them about the pace of cost increases—for instance, rent for a small apartment going up $300 per month in the span of a year. She believes that there should be programs to help people with their rent so that it doesn’t become unaffordable.
“Some people don’t have another option apart from staying in the same place, paying more rent,” Valadez says.
In Teegardin’s other job, he works as a health care coordinator in a Metro Community Provider Network clinic on West Colfax that offers integrated care to clients at the Jefferson Center for Mental Health. He sees the strain that rising housing costs are putting on his clients, including some who were pushed out of a large apartment complex in Edgewater several years ago when it stopped accepting housing vouchers.
“It’s a major stressor in people’s lives,” Teegardin says. “When you’re putting all your money into rent or housing, your bills are secondary, your food is secondary.”
Teegardin tries to connect clients with food banks and other resources for free or reduced-price meals. But especially for the elders, he says, “that’s increasingly not enough.”
Broad regional policy changes are needed to help mitigate the effects of what Teegardin prefers to call a “makeover” rather than “gentrification.” There are good things about it, too, he says; some of the younger people moving in are stepping up to be actively involved, volunteering and committing themselves to the health of the community.
Teegardin would like to see more use of a Housing First approach, which helps avert homelessness by giving people access to permanent shelter as a priority, before, for instance, requiring that they be sober or enrolled in a substance-abuse treatment program. He’d like to see more transitional housing put in place, more of a regional effort to preserve and create affordable housing.
Edgewater can’t do it alone, he says.
“A town like Edgewater doesn’t have those resources, apart from [enacting] caps on rent, and I don’t think anyone has the legislative stomach to do something like that,” Teegardin says. “It’s going to take the private sector, the state, counties and municipalities working in concert to solve this on the regional level.”
There’s a sense of urgency to get things right here as the pace of gentrification quickens, says Newton, referring in particular to the schools.
“We have, like, three years to do this well,” he says, “before our schools change drastically.”