Denver’s Registered Neighborhood Organizations (RNOs) primarily serve to protect their residents’ investments by shielding them from change. The assumption is that if one has purchased a home in a neighborhood, they like that neighborhood the way it is. But as a leader of the Chaffee Park RNO, I see my responsibility as not limited by the boundaries of my neighborhood. No neighborhood exists within a vacuum, and it would be a failure of responsibility to do what is right for my neighbors without also considering the city and world beyond.
The Denver metro area grew enormously in the decades since most of our neighborhoods were built; yet many have been frozen in stasis due to zoning codes and the organizations that defend them. The preservation of neighborhood status quo while a city changes around it, however, causes a friction that exacerbates our accelerating crises of affordability, displacement, traffic and climate change.
For almost all of human history, urban development across the world has followed a pattern: Neighborhoods were formed as humble settlements around a central hub of commerce and culture. As the hub grew, its surrounding structures improved incrementally and in proportion to an increase in land value. Tents became shacks, then houses, duplexes, townhomes, multiplexes, and eventually skyscrapers if the value of the land permitted. This evolution was considered indicative of and necessary for a city’s economic health.
The pattern was disrupted in the 20th century when our country employed an experimental development method that built neighborhoods to a finished state and then froze them in place with zoning regulations, effectively preventing them from adapting. With the advent of the automobile, this abruptly altered traditional development and pushed it outward into suburban sprawl. As cities literally spread themselves thin, they became more economically and environmentally unsustainable. Fewer people per square foot increased the cost and use of infrastructure per taxpayer. More resources were consumed, pollution was exacerbated, and more of the natural environment was sacrificed to development. Pushing people to the edge of town also increased daily commutes, traffic, and the vehicle emissions that contribute to the destruction of our climate.
As our cities became less concentrated, urban land was devalued and some neighborhoods saw their value depressed even more by racist, exclusionary zoning and lending practices. The Black Lives Matter movement is giving this issue some overdue attention. But as a new generation of Americans push for a return to traditional urbanization, we find our neighborhoods held in a state of artificial disequilibrium by restrictive zoning. Under traditional development, a growing population would mean more housing. But in Denver, where it’s currently illegal to build anything other than a single family home in 75% of the city, existing homes are becoming drastically more expensive due to artificial scarcity mandated by our zoning code.
RNOs have a vested interest in maintaining policies that artificially inflate their neighborhoods’ property values. They build political walls that protect them from waves of growth, which then violently crash in neighborhoods with less political power. These less fortunate areas are largely those that saw racially motivated disinvestment in the previous century. Already disenfranchised populations are displaced.
Preventing neighborhoods from gradually growing also creates development shock along commercial corridors like Tennyson Street, where high-density apartment buildings are crammed between duplexes and single family homes. If the neighborhoods on either side of the corridor had allowed for more “missing middle” (multi-unit) housing, the pressure of concentrated growth may not have overtaken the beloved shopping street.
Neighborhoods with restrictive zoning are not immune. Suppressing gradual growth in areas with appreciating land value accelerates the risk of existing houses being torn down and replaced by larger, more expensive homes that don’t fit the neighborhood’s character. This is starting to happen in Chaffee Park, which is zoned exclusively for single family homes—so we’re responding with a neighborhood-wide upzone (led by residents and Councilwoman Sandoval’s office) to allow property owners the option to add an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU). ADUs are secondary, smaller residential structures that may be occupied by a family member or renter, but cannot be sold separately from the main house (unlike a duplex). A majority of my neighbors see this legislative change as an opportunity to exercise their property rights to benefit themselves, their extended families, those in need of affordable housing, and the entire city. With an ADU, a homeowner can capture the increasing value of their property without having to sell—and add affordable and diverse housing to a city that desperately needs it.
The solution to Denver’s growing pains is for neighborhoods to gradually increase in density to absorb a share of inevitable growth. We’re doing this in Chaffee Park with ADUs. One neighborhood increasing density by a barely perceptible increment won’t do much—but if every neighborhood were to take a similar step, the overall impact on the city would be enormous. Any neighborhood with a low risk of displacement that refuses to move forward is actively harming the rest of the city with its selfishness. My small and oft overlooked neighborhood has taken a step toward making a difference. Hopefully others will muster the courage to follow.
Jason Hornyak is the head of the Chaffee Park Neighborhood Association.