Segregation, Integration and Punishment in Denver
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April 21, 2016
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Denver Gentrification Extends Its Reach

By Alan Gottlieb and Kristin Jones

After Resettlement

By Kristin Jones

Tougher Punishment for Students of Color in DPS

By Jackie Zubryzcki

Gentrification Reaches Into Denver's Former Havens

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Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

By Alan Gottlieb and Kristin Jones

As the Denver metro area booms, with thousands of new people moving in every month, the pace of displacement caused by gentrification is accelerating, causing consternation among low-income residents and organizations that advocate on their behalf.

Sections of the metro area that historically have been havens for those pushed out by gentrification are now themselves gentrifying, our analysis of census and rental data shows. Some of the neighborhoods with the steepest rent increases over the past year are also those where the residents are least able to afford them, including neighborhoods where poverty has grown and where a fifth or more of the population lives under the poverty line.

Montbello, for instance, is a historically black and Latino neighborhood where the poverty rate doubled to 28 percent from 2000 to 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau data compiled by the Piton Foundation’s Community Facts site, as affordable housing became sparse in the rest of the city. And yet renters there saw their monthly payments increase 18 percent to a median $1,690 over the past year, according to data from the real-estate website Zillow.

In North Aurora, where 23 percent live in poverty, rent increased 17 percent in the past year. In Westwood in southwest Denver, the poverty rate is 37 percent and the rent is up 16 percent. In Denver’s East Colfax neighborhood, where the poverty rate is 39 percent, rent went up 12 percent.

All of these neighborhoods had seen an influx of low-income renters forced to leave other parts of the city, and are now themselves having affordable housing fall out of reach at a fast clip, pushing poor people to the outskirts of the metro area and beyond.

Much of Aurora has already become unaffordable for many families, while unincorporated Adams County is moving in that direction, says Stephen Moore, a senior policy analyst with FRESC, a progressive advocacy organization that works on social and economic issues, and a Trust grantee. “Anything within a mile of a light rail line is going to gentrify, and the closer to Denver, the greater the degree of gentrification.”

Sandra Morales knows this from first-hand experience, as a volunteer for Globeville Elyria Swansea Right to Live Well who helps advocate for affordable housing and renter protections, and more recently as a victim of gentrification herself.

Morales, her husband and three children lived in a small house in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood of north-central Denver for two and a half years until a series of sudden, steep rent increases forced them out at the end of last year.

Elyria-Swansea has long been a high-poverty area; more than a third of its population lives under the federal poverty line.

Morales’ house there had originally been a small two-bedroom, one-bathroom home, built in 1905. Recently an owner had added walls to convert it to four tiny bedrooms. Despite the small rooms, Morales says her family liked the configuration because her sons, ages 12 and 17, and daughter, who is 14, each had their own room.

The Morales family moved into the house in mid-2013 and paid $750 per month. The rent held steady until last summer, when the landlord started bumping up the rent each month.

“One month it was $80 more, then $100, then $75,” until suddenly the family faced a monthly rent of $1,400, Morales says. The increase in their rent was unusually steep, but many of her neighbors also felt a painful crunch. Median rent in Elyria-Swansea increased 8.9 percent in the past year, according to Zillow data, to $1,485.

Morales hadn’t worked outside the home, and her husband’s annual salary as an electrician was just $28,000, so they knew it was time to move. They found a slightly larger, recently remodeled home in Commerce City. The rent, $1,054 per month, is a bit high. But the family has an option to buy the home at market rate, currently $210,000.

Morales has started cooking food to sell at nonprofit organization events, and hopes with what she brings in and her husband’s salary, they might be able to make a down payment within a couple of years.

She knows this is uncertain at best. Adams County is already showing signs of gentrification, and Morales doesn’t expect the price of the house to remain within reach. Commerce City housing costs are also on a sharp upward trajectory; home values are up 15 percent in the past year, and rent has gone up 6.7 percent, according to Zillow.

Her two youngest children have settled into Commerce City schools, and she has gotten involved in her community, so she’d like to avoid another move anytime soon.

“I have to live with these worries, but I do worry every day,” she says.

Inexorable economic forces are part of the explanation for rapid gentrification and large-scale displacement; a strong economy and a low unemployment rate have brought a massive influx of people to the Denver metro area and depleted its housing inventory. Builders have so far focused on high-margin luxury housing that’s unlikely to do much for low-income renters, according to Zillow senior economist Skylar Olsen.

Home prices in the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood metro area rose 11.4 percent in the year ending February 2016, according to CoreLogic, a company that tracks housing trends. Income in the metro area rose, too, but not nearly as quickly, leading some economists to raise warning flags.

Currently, individual municipalities run their own affordable housing programs. Last year, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock boosted the city’s affordable housing program, in part by launching a $10 million revolving loan fund to create and preserve affordable units. Derek Woodbury, spokesman for the Denver Office of Economic Development, says that from July 2013 to July 2015, a total of 1,458 units were created under a community housing initiative, and an additional 844 units are currently under construction.

“That’s just one element as far as production,” says Woodbury, calling affordable housing “a huge priority” for the city.

But advocates say that local governments could and should be doing more to coordinate efforts to ameliorate the impacts of gentrification.

When it comes to affordable rental housing, “we are so behind as a region,” says Aaron Miripol, president and CEO of the Urban Land Conservancy (ULC), which acquires, develops and preserves real estate in the Denver area for use as affordable housing and by schools and nonprofits. (In 2015, The Trust made a program-related investment to the Calvert Foundation to help underwrite a ULC credit facility.) The metro area “lacks any regional vision, and there are no regional resources,” he says.

Miripol says the Denver metro area currently has 58,000 affordable rental units, but needs 60,000 more to meet demand. In Denver proper, there’s a 30,000 affordable-unit shortage.

A widely accepted definition of manageable rent is that it takes no more than 30 percent of gross household income.

To be considered an affordable unit to a family of modest means—for example, earning 60 percent or less of area median income, or under $40,122 annually—the unit would need to rent for no more than $1,000 per month.

Good luck finding that in Denver. Median rent in Denver in February was $1,945, according to Zillow.

“The shortage of affordable rental units is almost too big to comprehend,” says Dace West, executive director of Mile High Connects, a partnership of public, private and nonprofit organizations working to increase access to housing choices, jobs, good schools and essential services via public transportation.

The acute shortage gives landlords an upper hand, and some property owners, like Morales’ landlord, are jacking up rents at a rapid rate, exacerbating the displacement problem, West says.

“We hear so many stories about landlords raising rents by $200 or $300 with no notice.” This can happen multiple times at the same property, until renters are forced out, adds West: “Not only affordable housing protection but renter protection as well are huge emergent issues.”

As the forces of gentrification radiate outward from their Denver nucleus, where are people moving?

“It’s hard to track because people pick up and leave so quickly,” FRESC’s Moore says.

Interviews with a half-dozen experts and advocates suggest that lower-income sections of Adams County are receiving an influx of new, low-income residents. Aurora used to be a popular destination, but there is virtually no rental housing available there anymore.

The Apartment Association of Metro Denver publishes a quarterly apartment vacancy and rent report. The most recent report, from the third quarter of 2015, shows Aurora’s rental vacancy rate to be 3 percent.

Elizabeth Gundlach-Neufeld, deputy executive director of the Aurora Housing Authority, says a vacancy rate of 3 percent might as well be zero. “It just means that at a particular point in time, some people were moving out and someone else is about to move right in,” she says. “It’s probably just two or three days while the unit is being painted and recarpeted.”

Moore says the southern section of Westminster has been one place people could reliably find affordable places to rent or even buy (usually in mobile home parks). As a result, South Westminster has seen its poverty rate jump 29 percent between 2010 and 2014 to total a fifth of the population, according to census data. But with a light rail line that slices through the area opening next year, big rent increases have already started hitting residents.

“There’s beautiful transit-oriented development happening in the area,” Moore says. “New housing, rebuilt roads, bike lanes, new sidewalks, even a trendy amphitheater. But none of the people living there now are likely to experience any of it.”

Moore says municipalities have done a poor job coordinating efforts or authentically seeking public input.

“Cities have done public engagement processes, in air quotes,” he says. “They do what they need to do to check off a box.”

Other advocates says they have heard of an exodus of low-income people to Brighton, and even farther afield, up toward Weld County and Greeley. Others say some people are abandoning the Front Range altogether and are heading west, to places like Delta and Cañon City. And some families have been forced into homelessness; Denver Public Schools saw a 41 percent jump in homeless students between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.

Jennifer Newcomer, director of research at Gary Community Investments, which includes The Piton Foundation, says gentrification has led to a “shattering of what had historically been” close-knit African American and Latino communities.

Ending racial and socio-economic segregation is a worthwhile goal. But to the extent that gentrification fosters integration, it is often a temporary phenomenon. In northwest Denver’s Highlands neighborhood, for instance, the integration that immediately followed gentrification was short-lived. In 2000, the neighborhood was 67 percent Latino, according to census data. Then, as gentrification progressed, the population was about half Latino. By 2014, it was 66 percent non-Latino white.   

What gentrification has meant, in Denver, is that patterns of segregation are rearranging themselves. As the more affluent move back into the center of the city, low-income people of color are being pushed farther out to the margins.

Correction: This article originally misidentified Sandra Morales as a community organizer for Focus Points Family Resource Center. She is a volunteer for Globeville Elyria Swansea Right to Live Well.

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For Refugees, Difficulties Persist After Resettlement

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Photo courtesy of Ron Levis

By Kristin Jones

In a swearing-in ceremony late last fall, Su Baw and her husband Lah K’Paw became American citizens.

“I feel great,” Su Baw said later, on her break from a babysitting job at the Asian Pacific Development Center in Aurora. “I never have citizenship before, in any country. It’s the first time for me and for my family.”

Born a member of the Karen minority in Myanmar, Su Baw spent much of her childhood on the run in the jungle. A simmering Karen nationalist movement brought the wrath of the former ruling junta down hard on her community, and one of her early memories is of fleeing her village during a military strike, when she was nine years old.

“When they bomb the village, the old people and young kids die,” she remembers. The ones who couldn’t run fast enough. Su Baw thinks a lot about the people who died—a cousin, an aunt, friends—but she tries not to. “We try to forget it.”

It’s been more than five years since Su Baw, her husband and their four children arrived in Denver. For 15 years before that, she lived in a thatched-roof hut in a refugee camp in Thailand.

She had never seen a bus before landing in the U.S., had no idea how to cook with a stove or an oven, and didn’t speak English.

The words “refugee crisis” are coupled so frequently that it’s hard to remember that many refugees experience statelessness and eviction as a chronic condition. After the pain of fleeing their native land come the years and sometimes decades in a camp, the logistics of resettlement, the practical obstacle of getting a job—or even just getting on a bus—and the slow burn of trauma.

Given all that, it’s impressive how quickly many refugees are able to integrate into American life, says James Horan, who heads the refugee program for Lutheran Family Services, which helps provide many first-line services to refugees in Colorado.

“The general public isn’t aware of how successful refugees are in becoming employed,” says Horan, who says his organization works to counter the perception that refugees are a drain on public resources.

A study commissioned by the state refugee services program found that after four years, 76 percent of the Colorado refugees assessed were highly integrated. The study defines integration by factors like how connected refugees are to people in their communities and other communities, how economically sufficient their families are, and whether they feel safe in their homes. According to the report, released in February, most refugees make consistent gains by measures like household income, English language ability and civic engagement.

That’s not to say that their conditions were indistinguishable from those of their neighbors. About 24 percent of the refugees surveyed lacked health insurance, the study found. That’s in contrast to just 6.7 percent of the general population in Colorado that’s uninsured, according to the Trust-supported 2015 Colorado Health Access Survey. Many refugees struggle with English; four years after moving here, only about 58 percent said they were comfortable using English in work and social situations. Meanwhile, 61 percent said their family income was too low to cover necessary expenses.

But the study, which surveyed its participants upon their arrival in Colorado from 2011 to early 2012, and followed up with them each subsequent year, emphasized the refugees’ overall progress.

“Overwhelmingly, people are—even with all the obstacles of livable wages, increased housing costs, affordable child care, health care—even with all those barriers, they’re on a really good track to integration,” says Joseph Wismann-Horther, integration program supervisor for the Colorado Refugee Service Program.

Still, some groups of refugees struggle more than others. In particular, refugees older than 55 are more likely to have a harder time learning English, making friends outside their ethnic group or navigating the hurdles of their new lives, the study found. Stay-at-home mothers, too, who lack the regular social interaction associated with employment, said they felt isolated.

One of the study’s older participants described feeling afraid of people who didn’t speak her language; another said he couldn’t go out by himself; others said they didn’t know how to call 9-1-1.

This generational divide is something Harry Budisidharta has witnessed at the Asian Pacific Development Center, where he is deputy director. The Aurora-based center, a grantee of The Colorado Trust, provides all kinds of support to refugees, from medical care to mental health services to English and citizenship classes.

“Young people have an easier time integrating to American culture,” says Budisidharta. “This is actually causing a problem within the refugee community since a lot of the elders are feeling that the younger generation are abandoning their culture and tradition.”

One day last December, two friends sat in an office at the Asian Pacific Development Center discussing this dynamic in their own lives. Setu Nepal, who works there helping to provide refugees with health care, and Hari Uprety, who is a community organizer with a nonprofit called Rise Colorado, have both integrated successfully since arriving here as refugees.

Each was forced to leave Bhutan in the early 1990s, threatened by violence and repressive government policies that targeted ethnic Nepalis like them. Each spent decades, stateless, with restrictions on rights and movement, in a refugee camp in Nepal.

“I lost my prime age as a refugee,” says Nepal, who was 22 when he arrived in the camp, where he spent another 22 years.

And yet both were college-educated when they arrived in Denver—Nepal received his bachelor’s degree in Bhutan, and Uprety got his in eastern Nepal—and received additional advanced degrees after arriving here.

Both also experienced hurdles in adjusting to their new lives here.

Photo by Kristin Jones

“The system of education here is so different,” says Nepal. “I was lost for six months. But I got my master’s in clinical psychology. Now I’m getting a doctorate. My feeling is never give up hope.”

Uprety recalls the shock of encountering diversity. He was 12 when he entered the refugee camp, and spent his lifetime surrounded by people of his own culture, until he was resettled in Denver along with his wife, two children, parents and brother.

“I had never been to a place like this. It was totally new to me. I was seeing different colors of people around. It seemed like they were from different countries,” he remembers.

“I was a little confused as well. I was thinking, what am I going to do now? Everybody is a stranger to me. I don’t know if they’re really good people, if they’re really helpful.”

Now, that same diversity is his favorite thing about Aurora, where Uprety recently bought a house.

“Aurora is kind of a small United Nations, with 130 different communities and 120 different languages,” he says. “I’ve had a very nice moment getting to know other cultural communities and norms.”

At his job for Rise Colorado, he works with Burmese, Somali and Nepali refugees to provide them with tools to organize and demand change in their communities.

That work of building connections with people across cultures and communities is key to integrating in American society, the state’s study found; those refugees who can find a way to bridge cultures are also more likely to integrate swiftly.

“The most successful people are the ones that are willing to step outside of their comfort zone and make friends with people from other cultures,” says Budisidharta, who is not a refugee but has noticed this, too, among his fellow immigrants from Indonesia.

Sometimes willingness isn’t enough, though. Fears about neighborhood safety can be well-founded. The state’s report found that 97 percent of refugees studied felt safe outside their home, but Budisidharta says that doesn’t track with what he’s heard from Asian Pacific Development Center clients. Some of the metro area neighborhoods with the largest numbers of refugees, including the East Colfax neighborhood where the center is located, have higher than average crime rates. And older refugees—especially those without any formal education—may find it difficult to learn enough English to make friends across cultures.

Discrimination can also be a barrier to full participation in American society. Uprety has applied for education jobs (he attained a master’s degree in teaching after coming to the U.S.), and felt that he was turned away by potential employers because of his ethnicity.

“Every time, they said, ‘you are a good resource of the Nepali community,’” he says. “They think I am only good for the Nepali community, not for other communities.”

Uprety and Nepal both say that resettlement in the U.S. has been hardest on the elders, though. Uprety’s mother has tried unsuccessfully several times to get citizenship, a necessary condition to continue receiving federal benefits. His father, he says, isn’t trying. He is a skilled carpenter, but hasn’t been able to get a job. They rely on their children.

“My dad says, ‘I’m almost 60, I don’t know how much longer I’m going to live,’” says Uprety. “Many people feel like they’ve lost something, even though they have Internet here.”

“Those who didn’t have a bicycle, now they have a car,” says Nepal, completing Uprety’s thought. They talk in the manner of people who have had this conversation many times before. Nepal adds: “We often hear, ‘the refugee camp was better than this.’”

“Many of our parents say that,” says Uprety.

The children of refugees, meanwhile, often adjust quickly to American life. Uprety and Nepal are part of a group called Human Hope Foundation, which convened last year to help other refugees. One of the things they’ve done is organize Nepali language classes for the younger generations, so that their ties to the culture of their elders, and means of communication, aren’t lost.

In the hardest years in Bhutan and Nepal, Uprety recalls, “there was only one option—getting together, connecting with the community, feeling that everybody was with us to get out of those traumatic situations.”

Even as he works to integrate into American life and leave behind the trauma of political violence and dislocation, that sense of connection is one thing Uprety is trying to keep alive from the past.

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Racial Disparities Still Seen in Discipline Practices in Denver Public Schools

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Photo by Jackie Zubrzycki

By Jackie Zubryzcki

When Arianna Peara was in middle school, she was in trouble so often that she recalls her principal setting aside a special area for her in the school's office.

Now a sophomore at North High School, Peara describes herself as “pre-film director, not pre-prison.”

But Peara, who is Latina, is not alone in having spent significant time outside of class due to teachers' use of disciplinary measures during her tenure at Denver Public Schools.

During the 2014-15 school year, fewer Denver students were suspended or expelled, and fewer were referred to law enforcement in school, than in any of the past five years. But students of color were more than three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers, according to a new report from Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, a Denver-based advocacy group that focuses on educational equity and social justice, and a grantee of The Colorado Trust.

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos released its fifth annual report card on school discipline in Denver’s public schools at an event on April 11 that celebrated declining suspension and expulsion rates, but also highlighted stories of parents and students, mostly Latino, still struggling in local schools.

“We have gotten to a level of trust and commitment to change and improve,” said Ricardo Martinez, Padres & Jóvenes Unidos’ executive director. “But the root of problems and disparities is racism, and we don’t want to shy away from that conversation. It’s a legacy that’s still alive and kicking.”

“We know we have significant work to do, but we’ve come a long way,” said Susana Cordova, the district’s acting superintendent. Schools must work with families and other community organizations to understand and respond to the factors that lead to student misbehavior and harsh disciplinary consequences, she said. “We can’t do this alone.”

In 2010-11, the first year Padres & Jóvenes Unidos issued its report card, 7,766 students were given an in-school suspension, 8,892 were given an out-of-school suspension, and 105 students were expelled.

By 2014-15, all three figures were significantly lower, even though Denver Public Schools enrolled more students: 3,776 students were suspended in school, 5,356 were suspended out of school, and 55 were expelled.

Despite that change, racial disparities have persisted. For instance, 1.6 in 100 white students received an in-school suspension last year, compared to 7.9 in 100 black students, 4.5 Latino students, 4.1 Native American students and 1.3 Asian students. In each of the past five years, students of color (defined as all students who are not white, including biracial and multiracial students) have been close to or more than three times as likely to be expelled or suspended.

Some schools are also significantly more likely to take strict disciplinary action than others: For instance, 121 schools did not refer a single student to law enforcement in 2014-15, while a single school referred 53 students.

Denver is not alone in grappling with how to respond when students misbehave, and in attempting to address disparities in how punishments are meted out. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found that across the country, students of color are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school—and that such disparities started in preschool. Advocates warn that the impact of school disciplinary decisions can extend well beyond the school day, impacting students’ likelihood of graduating or their ability to get into college or get jobs.

In 2005, Padres & Jóvenes Unidos and national civil rights organization The Advancement Project released a report called Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track that highlighted racial disparities in Denver schools. In 2008, the district’s board passed a new school discipline policy that aimed to make sure students’ offenses got proper responses. And in 2013, the district signed an agreement with the Denver Police Department, clarifying that police should only be involved in events in schools that are criminal offenses—such as when a student brings a weapon to school—and not those that are merely disciplinary infractions like lateness or failure to wear a uniform. The city’s ongoing efforts have been held up as a national model.

Still, teachers and students in some schools have reported that they don’t always have the support they need to successfully manage misbehavior, especially since schools are under pressure to keep their numbers of suspensions and expulsions down. A representative for the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said at the Padres & Jóvenes Unidos event that teachers still need more support and training in restorative practices, an approach that aims to thoughtfully address students’ actions in the classroom, especially since many teachers are new to the profession.

At the April 11 event, parents shared stories of discipline gone wrong: A four-year-old suspended for refusing to clean up toys, a Spanish-speaking parent who received a note about her child’s suspension in English, discipline issues that were never properly documented.

In the five years since Padres & Jóvenes Unidos issued the first report card, its focus has broadened from asking for schools to track data on suspension and expulsion to addressing more nuanced questions about what’s actually happening in schools. This year’s report, for instance, notes that some schools may not accurately report suspension and expulsion figures, and that some students are pushed into transferring to alternative schools rather than officially expelled.

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos is calling for Denver Public Schools to focus on making sure that schools accurately report discipline incidents; that teachers are trained in how to manage and deal with student behaviors; that the very youngest students aren’t suspended or expelled; and that parents and students are informed of their rights and the discipline policies that affect them. It also recommends that the district improve data reporting on police involvement in schools and create a coordinated system for responding to complaints about discipline.

“We’re not trying to change student behavior—we’re trying to change adult behavior,” Martinez said.

Meanwhile, the data-focused district is asking for clearer information from Padres & Jóvenes Unidos about what, exactly, would earn the district an A on its report card. (The organization awarded Denver Public Schools a C+, up from a C last year, but there’s no clear rubric for just what metrics will lead the district to a certain grade; for example, the number of suspensions or expulsions that would earn a B compared to a B+.)

At the event marking the release of the report, Cordova signed a statement saying the district would commit to working toward the solutions proposed by the watchdog group.

As for Peara, she said it was nerve-wracking to share her story. In middle school, she was often angry.

But now, she said, she wants to break down stereotypes and encourage more restorative approaches to discipline. “It’s a story that can help other people, so I want to tell it."

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