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The results of the May 7 Denver election didn’t settle every contest. The mayor’s race between incumbent Michael Hancock and challenger Jamie Giellis will be decided by way of a June 4 runoff, and so will the competition for five high-profile Denver City Council positions, whose winners will help determine the future of the community for years to come.
City council candidates who earned more than 50 percent of the vote in the May 7 election avoided the runoff; the pair of at-large seats won by incumbents Debbie Ortega and Robin Kniech were exceptions. If no one vying for membership in specific districts hit that mark, the two top finishers advanced to the second round on June 4. Four candidates appeared on the ballot for District 3, with Jamie Torres, at 40 percent, and Veronica Barela, at 36 percent, leading the field. Current District 3 councilmember Paul López was precluded from seeking re-election because of term limits, but he’s on the runoff ballot, too, as a top finisher (along with Peg Perl) in the race for Denver clerk and recorder.
We submitted the following questions via email to the ten city council finalists: District 1’s Mike Somma and Amanda Sandoval, District 3’s Barela and Torres, District 5’s Mary Beth Susman and Amanda Sawyer, District 9’s Albus Brooks and Candi CdeBaca, and District 10’s Wayne New and Chris Hinds. All of them agreed to participate.
Get to know more about District 3 candidate and NEWSED Community Development veteran Barela below.
Westword: How would you describe yourself and the reasons you decided to run for city council?
Veronica Barela: I am proud that I was born and raised in La Alma/Lincoln Park and have worked in District 3 my whole life. I attended St. Elizabeth, Baker Jr. High, Cathedral and graduated from West High School. I have my master’s degree in public administration from CU Denver. Growing up in La Alma/Lincoln Park was a great experience, and although we were very poor, lived in public housing and on public assistance, this period of my life taught me values that I will forever be grateful for. It gave me a sense of empathy and perspective and taught me to make the best of whatever came my way.
Growing up, I experienced my neighborhood decline and go through many changes. There were great shopping areas and many grocery stores, and by the 1970s, they were gone. When I started with NEWSED Community Development Corporation, the community was being redlined, home ownership had plummeted, and many businesses disappeared. After I graduated from college, I decided to go back to my neighborhood, because growing up in La Alma/Lincoln Park enriched by life immensely. My life’s work has included community development, supporting arts and culture and championing civil rights. My tenure with NEWSED Community Development Corporation can be seen firsthand with the successful community — that is, La Alma/Lincoln Park, Santa Fe Drive and the Santa Fe Art District. I intend to bring my experience, solid community development principles and my values to the table as I work with our residents to build the complete neighborhoods they desire and need. Inclusion and full representation create strong and healthy neighborhoods. My whole life, I have worked for you, the people, and together we built a strong community that has served as a national model for inclusive development. I will bring these principles to all of District 3, because I will lead with integrity and work for all the residents.
What makes your district unique?
District 3 is very unique and includes La Alma/Lincoln Park, Sun Valley, Mar Lee, Westwood, Barnum West, Barnum, Villa Park and West Colfax. District 3 has one of the largest Latino populations in Denver. The uniqueness of District 3 is its residents. There are multi-generational residents raising their families, worshiping in their churches. There are many graduates of both Lincoln and West high schools. There is a large senior population, and District 3 has great multi-ethnic neighborhoods and business districts.
District 3 has the nationally acclaimed Santa Fe Art District, [and] the oldest restaurant in Denver with the #1 liquor license, the Buckhorn Exchange. The gateway to Denver was Santa Fe Drive, where the pioneers drove their wagons to settle. There is a new Denver Housing Authority Mariposa housing development near the Auraria campus. District 3 has several bustling commercial corridors with over a century of Denver’s history. Federal Boulevard houses the Far East Center, along with a multitude of Asian and Mexican cuisine. Colfax is noted for being the longest street in the U.S., with a rich history. Morrison Road is evolving into a Mexican cultural district, boasting many restaurants, a food co-op (of which I am a member) and housing. Morrison Road is also home to the Westwood Creative District. Weir Gulch runs through most of District 3 and is one of the best bike and hiking paths in the city. Cloverside, the U.S. Marshal and 4th Territorial Governor’s home, is located in La Alma/Lincoln Park. P.T. Barnum of the Barnum & Bailey Circus purchased over 760 acres, which included Barnum and Villa Park. The whole P.T. Barnum story is now part of Denver’s folklore. District 3 is full of Denver’s rich, unique history.
What is the biggest issue affecting your district?
There are numerous issues affecting District 3: rising rents for residents and business owners, ahousing shortage, the need for entry-level home ownership that helps to build wealth, living wages, air- and water-quality concerns, environmental-justice issues, affordable and safe transportation options, need for new parks and improving existing parks, and large development plans that must include community voices, because inclusion and representation of all residents helps create strong neighborhoods and economic stability.
In 2014, Denver Health did a community health assessment of Denver. In District 3, life expectancy is lower than the other council districts. Tobacco use is 1 percent higher than all other districts. Childhood obesity is 5 percent higher than other districts, and 12 percent of adults have been diagnosed with depression, which is 1 percent lower than other districts. A new rec center will be erected in Westwood, which will help with many of the above health issues. The district needs a full-service grocery store, where people have access to fresh food and not processed foods.
Now that the Right to Survive ordinance has been defeated, how would you address the issues of homelessness cited by both the measure’s supporters and opponents?
There are many reasons why people experience homelessness. There are many homeless people who have full-time jobs and cannot afford an apartment. The camping ban over the past seven years has not reduced the homeless population. and the administration needs to stop the homeless sweeps and provide public heath infrastructure. Close to $2 million was spent defeating the Right to Survive ordinance, so if "We Can Do Better," why have these groups that contributed to its defeat not stepped forward years ago to help with these issues of homelessness? That would have been the humane approach.
The housing program in Denver has been disjointed and ineffective over the past eight years, and the growing population of those experiencing homelessness or being one incident away from homelessness is the proof. The recent announcement to create a new housing and homelessness agency needs adequate funding. We must bring opposition, supporters and housing experts together to lay out a road map to improve the health and safety of those experiencing homelessness. I believe in housing-first models, and we must find additional funding for housing and services. The passage of Caring4Denver is a great first step. We also need to improve our public waste management, specifically solid and human waste. Building a trash and public restroom network will improve public health and lessen the impact of homeless issues on the businesses and the public. The city administration needs to bring together the homeless providers to discuss a plan to improve the shelters in Denver. We need 24-hour shelter reform.
How would you tackle Denver’s affordable-housing issues?
Health and affordable housing intersect one another. Access to affordable, safe housing is a priority for maintaining good health. Approaches to rebuilding communities should be holistic and needs to include many types of services, such as cultural awareness, grocery stores, small businesses, jobs that create a living wage, nonprofits that can assist with jobs, entrepreneurial opportunities, affordable rental housing, home ownership and security. Instead the gentrification crisis has displaced and pushed low-income residents out of the city, with Latinos at the highest rate. Latino and African-American households are rent-burdened and spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing. I would recommend that a high percentage of the recent initiatives taken by the city to increase the available funds for affordable housing be channeled into nonprofit housing developers, because their mission is to build affordable housing. Denver’s economic boom has not benefited poor inner-city neighborhoods, and there is a huge wage disparity that is leaving people behind and causing displacement. Denver needs rent control, more subsidized rental housing, better funded home counseling programs, continued down-payment assistance, funds for home ownership, land trusts, an Accessory Dwelling Unit program (ADU), more housing funds for the nonprofit housing developers, effective workforce development outreach, and DHA [Denver Housing Authority] should sell its excess lands to nonprofit housing developers or not sell them at all and build affordable housing.
How concerned are you about gentrification in your district, and what can be done to strike the right balance?
Denver fell short and started too late to address the displacement and gentrification problem. Denver’s cost of living in the last sixteen years has exceeded wages by a ratio of three to one. With the unprecedented growth in Denver, affordable housing, both home ownership and rental, have become a crisis for middle- and low-income families. According to the Denver Post, a person needs to make $35.00 an hour to afford medium-priced rents. Gentrification has spread across Denver, displacing many venerable families and creating crises that impact their whole lives. There has been a high displacement of Latinos. Growth needs to be inclusive, and housing policies should have benefited residents, not just real estate developers. The property-tax increase will be a financial burden and may cause people to lose their property. The rebate on property for seniors is beneficial, and the administration needs to inform seniors that it is available. Eviction assistance needs to be better funded, and nonprofit housing developers can help build low-income and affordable housing.
Do you support rent control in Denver?
Yes, because the state ruling is so broad, and we need local control to find the tools that work for Denver.
Would you expand the tiny homes concept? If so, how? If not, why not?
The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and other nonprofit developers build housing for the homeless and people under 30 percent Area Median Income that also includes human services and health care. The nonprofit housing developers are on the street doing this work, and the city needs to channel funding and support to these groups. This is the best solution to help people into housing. I also support the creation of more tiny homes on land that the city owns or other lands that will allow this use.
Would you support a higher minimum wage in Denver? If so, where would you like to see the minimum wage set?
The city has adopted a $15 minimum wage. I believe all of Denver’s workers should be paid a $15 minimum wage. The Denver Post has pointed out that a family needs to make $35 an hour to be able to afford medium-priced housing. If there are two people in a household making $15 an hour, this is good, but not so good for a single mother making $15 with no benefits, a child that has health problems and a housing situation that is untenable. Unless this single mother can get some assistance and help, she could be displaced, which could lead to homelessness. I support moving the minimum wage to $17. If we do not grow wages, workers will not be able to live in Denver.
Is development in Denver being done responsibly?
Development must be community-driven. I am not in favor of totally removing single-family zoning from the zoning code. I do believe that we must work to provide housing options in all communities. I support binding community-benefits agreements between developers and residents. Decision-making should include all stakeholders in a community, not just the Registered Neighborhood Organization (RNO). Organizations such as nonprofit housing developers, nonprofit human-service agencies, community centers, immigration organizations, public-housing resident councils and others in a community need to be involved. These organizations are the heart of inner-city neighborhoods and are the very organizations that are left out of the city’s and developers’ decision-making processes. These processes need to be transparent and opened up to the underrepresented residents of any neighborhood, and these organizations are the vehicle to do this. Latinos have the highest displacement figures in Denver.
What should be done to address problems related to traffic and traffic safety in your district?
Fund and implement Vision Zero, strengthen neighborhood schools, support small business so people need to drive less, have a more thoughtful approach to concurrent construction projects within a region. Sometimes this could mean traffic police at major intersections during rush hour. Fund Denver Department of Transportation and implement Denver Moves bike, pedestrian and transit plans — bus-rapid transit is called for on Federal and Sheridan. Enforce distracted-driving laws.
What improvements do you believe should be made to Denver’s public-transportation system?
Public transportation needs to lower fares, because we have the highest in the country. Direct express routes from business corridors to other business areas are important — for example, a direct bus from Morrison Road to downtown. From my house to the light rail is over a mile walk, which is a long distance in bad weather. Also, there are large hills to climb to the bus on Alameda, which can be difficult for the disabled and elderly. The solution is to offer a first-and-last-mile solution, which is transportation to bus and light-rail stops. Angie Rivera-Malpiede, RTD’s director, has endorsed me, and I plan to work with her on issues of transportation in District 3.
The W Line that runs through District 3 has both its critics and supporters. The critics say that the W Line is leaving low-income and working families behind because other key bus routes that many families depended on to get to work and to the light rail were cut. In addition, the fares are too high. Critics also claim the rail line is creating gentrification by creating high rents and forcing out low-income housing. Supporters are seeing more business development and foot traffic along West Colfax, which is creating more jobs. RTD did reinstate some of the bus routes. RTD needs to be more involved in issues that impact neighborhoods and be open to suggestions on how to improve residents’ and neighborhood organizations’ concerns.
Would you work to expand Denver’s bicycle network? If so, how?
Increase funding and follow the Denver Moves plan for bikes and pedestrians. The best bicycle networks experts and residents wrote this plan. Let’s implement it!
Would you welcome social consumption venues of the sort envisioned in a bill passed by the state legislature in your district? If so, why?
Yes, I support social consumption venues. They will be regulated and be in safe environments. I agree with Senator Vicki Marble, who said, "In expanding access to regulated spaces for adults to consume cannabis, we are taking the responsible approach to cannabis consumption in a safe environment." As Senator Marble pointed out, the bill, HB 1230, protects the will of the voters.
What can and should be done to improve law enforcement in Denver?
I am a strong advocate of community-led police models that engage the residents in issues that impact the safety of their neighborhoods. Stronger community policing and resource officers, including more cop shops, help create a partnership between the community and law enforcement. Officers’ jobs are more enriched when they interact with the community; they need to get out of their cars more often. There should be quality oversight, and the department needs to grow the police force with the population.
Would you like the city council to have more mechanisms to keep the mayor accountable? If so, what changes would you like to see?
One of the reasons so many people challenged the incumbents is because many councilmembers are perceived as being in the mayor’s pocket. City council members should not be a rubber stamp for the mayor’s office. City council should have a stronger role in Denver, and this change should go to a vote of the electorate. I believe that park-use decisions should be vested back into the hands of city council. I support the restructuring of boards and commissions. We must make them independent rather than leaving them open for political retribution. As a separate branch of government, the city council should also have the ability to hire outside counsel or seek outside consultation for large public-private partnerships. Denver’s sheriff should not be appointed by the mayor, but instead go to a vote of the electorate
Are there other major issues we haven’t mentioned that are important to you, and if so, what are they?
Denver’s support for small-business development has been weak over the last decade. The Revolving Loan Fund needs to be increased. Small businesses strengthen a neighborhood, create jobs and hire local residents. District 3 has many commercial corridors that need business support. Climate change and public health are inseparable; when we plan for improved public health, we do our part for climate change. As the largest city in the region, it is our responsibility to lead on climate change. Denver has declining air quality and needs to improve its water quality. I will advocate for building-code standards and industry standards that improve air quality.