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Crime, Homelessness, Housing, permitting dominate DBJ Mayoral Forum

 

The impact of the issues on businesses, the workforce and the city’s overall future were the focus of the discussion.

Five of Denver’s leading mayoral candidates on Thursday began offering more detailed proposals on their plans to address public safety, homelessness and affordable housing at a forum hosted by the Denver Business Journal.

 

The five participants in the Business Meets City Hall forum — selected from a crowded field of 27 mayoral candidates with the help of local experts — were former Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Kelly Brough, Colorado State Senator Chris Hansen, Colorado State Representative Leslie Herod, former Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston and Councilwoman At-Large Debbie Ortega.

The three issues that took the spotlight in the forum top the priorities of almost every one of the hopefuls vying for the city’s top elected post to succeed term-limited Mayor Michael Hancock. The impact of these issues on businesses, the workforce and the city’s overall future were the focus of the discussion.

 

Below are some of the ideas pitched by forum participants.

Public safety

Speaking on the issue of public safety, most of the candidates agreed that the next mayor must enable the hiring of significant amounts of new police officers.

 

Johnston specifically said he wants to bring 200 more onto the payroll, while other candidates said the key is to step up recruiting that has left recent cadet classes short of hoped-for numbers. Johnston said that he would seek to make incoming cadet classes 50% female to make the city’s security force look more like its population, and Herod said she specifically hopes to beef up the number of investigators in the city police department.

 

But several candidates said too that a key to lowering the rising levels of crime downtown would be to bring more people back to the city center and make it livelier, as the number of workers occupying downtown offices remains at 56% of pre-pandemic levels. Brough, the former president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said she would push to offer tax incentives for companies seeking to convert office space to residential space, while Herod said that she would spend her first 100 days bringing in businesses that have left the city and see what the city can do to bring them back.

 

“The businesses shouldn’t be doing this alone. Downtown Denver Partnership shouldn’t be doing this alone,” Herod, a Democratic state representative said.

Homelessness

In speaking on homelessness, Brough was the only one of the five candidates who came out in support of enforcing the city’s long-standing urban-camping ban, saying she would look again to ban tents popping up on streets and move their inhabitants either to shelters or, if shelters are full, to supervised camping sites where social workers can reach them and offer help. She added that she would move the city’s homelessness services division next to Denver Human Services, so the divisions could work together to see which residents are in danger of becoming unhoused and then get services to them to prevent that from happening in the first place.

Both Hansen, a state senator, and Ortega, an at-large city councilwoman, said the city must take advantage of the 250 beds that soon will open for mental health and substance abuse treatment at the former Ridge View Youth Services Center, and Ortega said she would like to use the state facility as well to reskill occupants and prepare them for jobs.

Johnston, a former state senator, called for the creation of 1,400 new permanent supportive housing units, including micro-communities of 40 to 60 tiny homes spread throughout the city, while Herod stood apart from the group by saying the pieces for getting folks off the streets already are in place through initiatives like the STAR program that sends social workers out to deal with them.

 

“We’ve already been doing this work, but it’s time to double down,” she said.

Housing

When it came to attainable housing — a subject high on business leaders’ priority list as some struggle to recruit workers because of the high cost of living in Denver — Johnston offered arguably the most ambitious plan, saying Denver can build 25,000 new units and make them permanently deed-restricted to remain affordable. The city also can help people build equity to buy homes by offering it money back for that purpose when they pay rent, and it can launch a fund to help potential homeowners get access to down payments.

Both Ortega and Herod suggested that Denver should use public land, particularly land it owns to put up affordable units, with Ortega saying it can partner with modular-home companies that can build more cheaply and quickly. Herod said she would seek to draw down more federal housing vouchers and let the voucher recipients keep a certain percentage of the money themselves if they create a city-approved economic sustainability plan and put it toward savings to buy a house or launch a small business.

 

Hansen said that he would seek to link housing-development approvals more closely to transit lines — including a rapid bus transit line he called for building out along Colfax Avenue — to allow more people to be able to live in Denver without a car. And Brough said she would seek to move beyond just the current allowance of accessory dwelling units in certain neighborhoods and create neighborhood-specific plans that allow for diversification of the types of allowable housing there to create a wider price range of housing options citywide.

Permitting

One other area on which candidates agreed is the need to streamline and speed up permitting of both commercial and residential properties, which Herod noted now can take 18 months or more. The issue is key because it’s one that many candidates feel the next mayor more on their own without approval from the City Council, whether by directing hiring toward appropriate departments or changing the tenor of city officials to prospective building projects.

 

Ortega, for example, said she would start by requiring permitting officials to be present at city buildings and be able to interact with the public rather than working remotely. Brough and Herod said they immediately would add employees to the permitting department, and Hansen said he would work to clear the backlog of permits immediately, even if that required hiring more contractors to get through them, as a way to generate economic activity.

 

But Herod went further and said she would look to set a maximum length of time for the permitting process — say, six months or so — and then would require the city to pay a portion of the costs that developers accrue because of the delays. And Johnston said he would set a hard 90-day deadline for all permitting activities, barring the practices of different departments adding new conditions once a permit seeker has addressed all concerns previously laid out to them.

 

“We have vacancy savings from the fact that some positions are unstaffed right now,” Herod said. “Why haven’t we redirected that money where it’s needed most?”

By   –  Senior Reporter, Denver Business Journal