By Eric Heinz
Denver’s next mayor comes down to the remaining candidates in the June 6 run-off election, former Mayor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff Kelly Brough and former Colorado state Senator Mike Johnston. Several issues The G.E.S. Gazette recently discussed with the candidates included homelessness, housing, public safety and addressing the struggles small businesses face.
Brough said part of her plan to address homelessness includes expanding sanctioned campsites, like the ones that are run by the Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC) at various sites throughout the city.
“My priority as mayor is to save lives and improve the living conditions, as quickly as we can,” Brough said. “To do that, what I would first do is sanction safer locations and get people to those locations as quickly as we can.”
Brough said she acknowledges permanent shelter is critical for everyone, but without the available housing, it would be better to expand the campsites rather than let the unhoused community continue to sleep wherever they can find a space.
“Once we have a safer site for everybody, I would say everyone has to be in those sites and we don’t have people, frankly, trying to fend for themselves in our city without support and help,” Brough said. “We know that’s not working for them.”
Johnston said building more tiny homes, like the villages found in the Elyria neighborhood that are also managed by CVC, would also be a suitable method of temporary housing.
“You want to have the wraparound services on those sites, the teams that can provide both mental health support, addiction treatment, workforce training, some counseling and security,” Johnston said. “It’s clear that when you provide private, safe, dignified, stable housing like tiny homes or even hotel conversions, people choose (to move to) them voluntarily and in dramatic numbers.”
Both Brough and Johnston said they would like to build tiny home villages near existing encampments to preserve the sense of community the residents have already built. In trying to keep people in the housing they already have, Brough said she would try to compel landlords to call the city and work something out before evicting a tenant, which she said would actually be cheaper than initiating eviction proceedings. Another tactic Brough said she would use is master leasing, where a housing authority or organization or government is the lessee and then subleases the units.
“I think that also would help us with retention, and I think that’s got to be key for our future because today more people are tipping into homelessness than we’re taking out,” she said.
Johnston said he is focusing on creating more income-restricted housing through various funding sources to make sure rents continue to be affordable for what’s usually 99 years.
“That means you never have to worry at the end of the month that your landlord is going to jack up the rent or that some new owner is going to buy the building and increase the rent.” Johnston said, adding that his plan is to build 25,000 deed-restricted units in the next eight years.
Johnston said this would be possible by using Proposition 123 funding, which was approved by the voters in November to dedicate an estimated $300 million to incomerestricted housing.
A bill to repeal Colorado’s ban on rent control failed in the state legislature, which would have given municipalities the ability to develop some sort of cap on rent, though both candidates stated they did not support rent-control efforts regardless.
Support for small businesses is particularly important to the local shops around north Denver, but there are clear vacancies in some high-profile areas. Johnston said the city needs to make available more money to support smaller businesses so that they aren’t waiting forever for certain loans.
“We should be the earliest and the fastest dollars into these businesses, not make it an 18-month, cumbersome process,” Johnston said, adding there are BIPOC-owned businesses in Denver that have struggled with getting basic financial support.
“What makes Denver unique is people want to come here and find things they can’t find someplace else, and that is what our local entrepreneurs support,” he added.
Johnston said he would also like to showcase Denver’s small-business profile to local investors who could give them more support.
“Some of the challenges, I think, have to do with the pandemic,” Brough said. “We kind of moved away from the community spending time together, and while we see coffee shops with lots of people in them, I think those gathering spaces are what we were counting on.”
Brough said there may be ways to engage people through hosting events, concerts and giving other opportunities to showcase the businesses local to neighborhoods. She is a former CEO and president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
“If we’re not going to be in a full recession, we’re in a slowdown, and this is impacting our businesses,” Brough said. “Coming together to explore ways we can all hold on through it is in all of our interest. I did that through the pandemic and had a lot of success supporting the small businesses that I represented.”
Brough said Denver’s current minimum wage is not something she would try to change and said the best way to save people money is by making housing cheaper. Conversely, Johnston said he has supported measures for increases in the state’s minimum wage and that Denver’s “could be increased again.”
Regarding public safety, Johnston acknowledged the mental health and drug abuse issues that have kept people on Denver’s streets. He said for the most severe cases, he would want to transform two pods of Denver County Jail into inpatient mental health and substance treatment centers.
“Those are people that are often, unfortunately, committing crimes repeatedly, and then they’re on a revolving door between a couple nights at Denver Health and a couple nights on the street and a couple of nights in jail and back out again,” Johnston said. “People that are otherwise facing being put into jail without services could actually be placed somewhere that would provide real treatment.”
Johnston said he thinks there’s a sense of “lawlessness” in Denver because the Denver Police Department is not fully staffed.
“I think we want to reverse that by getting more support out and available and recruiting a more diverse and representative sample of officers to enter the profession in the first place,” he said, adding he would like to add at least 200 more first responders, which would include officers and mental health professionals.
Brough said data she’s looked at from Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program has allowed mental health professionals to respond to the appropriate cases and has freed up officers to respond to more urgent cases.
Brough added Denver has about a 10% shortfall in officers it needs to adequately police the city and that she would try to bring those numbers up, but she also said she would keep the department accountable for any missteps, like the LoDo shooting last year in which an officer shot at unarmed patrons.
Ballots will be mailed out around May 15 and must be returned by 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 6.
According to numbers from the Denver Office of the Clerk and Recorder as of May 5, Mike Johnston had raised a little more than $932,000 for his campaign, but another $2.2 million was spent in support of his run, much of that coming from a group called Advancing Denver.
Of that, nearly $780,000 was donated by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. Brough had raised about $895,000, with another $1.1 million spent in support of her run, much of that coming from the group called A Better Denver.
Of that, The National Association of Realtors contributed about $470,000 to that independent expenditure committee in March.
Of note, Brough was able to get more small donations and therefore received more from the city’s Fair Elections Fund, about $937,000 to Johnston’s roughly $767,000.
Some of the notable endorsements received by Johnston include former Denver Mayor Federico Peña, Colorado legislators former Speaker Terrance Carroll and former Colorado Senate President Peter Groff, former Colorado first lady Dottie Lamm and more.
Brough was able to secure endorsements from former mayors Wellington Webb and Bill Vidal, as well as former state Rep. Wilma Webb, the Denver Metro Association of Realtors and more.