When Cristina Lopez moved to Aurora from Oklahoma in 2013, rent for her one-bedroom apartment was $800 a month. The price was slightly steeper than most apartments in Oklahoma at the time but still felt affordable for Lopez.
Nine years later, her rent has nearly doubled and she is unable to work due to health issues. Without a high, steady income, paying rent each month feels impossible.
Though the cost keeps rising, Lopez — who lives near the Town Center at Aurora — said her apartment’s shoddy condition remains, with old appliances, cracks in walls and no new amenities.
“It’s so hard for us to keep up,” Lopez said.
Aurora — which is Colorado’s third-largest city — is also the state’s most diverse. The city touts 160 different languages spoken in its schools, rows of ethnic restaurants lining its streets and safe haven nonprofits welcoming immigrants from around the world into town.
“Northwest Aurora is so beautiful in so many ways. It has been the most diverse region in the whole entire state and probably the whole entire Mountain West,” said Mateos Alvarez, executive director of the Dayton Street Labor Center. “A lot of immigrants and refugees have left their home country and this is kind of their gateway into this country.”
But over the last several years, as housing prices across the Denver metro area have soared, Alvarez said many who make Aurora the multicultural hub it has long been are struggling to continue to afford their home.
“You have people, decades later, going through the same process of being displaced, just like they were displaced from their home country,” Alvarez said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Northwest Aurora and the East Colfax corridor blending Denver and Aurora were once more affordable parts of the city, which is what allowed so many immigrants to find their first home in America in the area.
But residents and advocates said the days of an affordable Aurora are gone, as more people seek Colorado as a home and increasing rent prices in Denver push people out of that city, which then pushes those who have called East Colfax and Northwest Aurora home for years out of their communities.
“I think you see the ways that Aurora is becoming less and less welcoming for the people that traditionally have always lived there,” said Bruno Tapia, a community organizer who grew up in Aurora and now lives in Denver. “What I’ve seen is that it’s just getting harder and harder for the people who have traditionally been in Aurora to stay here.”
A Zillow search of zip codes around the East Colfax and Fitzsimons areas shows studios renting for more than $1,000 per month and homes listed at $300,000 to $500,000. Many who have called those areas home for decades say those prices are simply out of their budget, particularly as grocery and gas costs continue to rise alongside housing prices.
“To kind of boil it down, the rising cost of rent is truly exceeding the amount of income that the majority of folks that we are aware of living in this area can afford,” said Emily Goodman, housing assistance campaign manager at the East Colfax Community Collective. “We’ve seen a massive rise in gentrification coming in.”
Goodman and others said Aurora’s wages have not kept up with its rising costs. While Denver’s minimum wage is now $15.87, Aurora’s is $12.56, which is the state-mandated minimum wage.
“I don’t understand why the workers here are making less when housing is starting to cost the same,” said Karla Chavez, a community justice organizer and lifelong-Aurora resident. “There are a lot of people here who think their voices aren’t being heard or can’t be heard.”
Chavez and other Aurora organizers recently surveyed 400 city residents — found at food banks, back-to-school nights and community events — to find their largest concerns with a changing community. Respondents ranked their biggest struggles as a lack of access to high-paying jobs and an inability to afford housing.
“There used to be generations of families living in these same homes, and those families are no longer there, and that raises the question of why,” Chavez said. “It sucks, because there are places that were childhood memories that aren’t here anymore.”
The reason for the change
Those who’ve witnessed Aurora’s gentrification firsthand point to several culprits: newer, nicer houses and apartment complexes costing more and raising rent prices for other housing options nearby; Aurora becoming a more attractive city for residents; and inflating housing costs across the country that are not necessarily unique to Aurora.
Ruben Medina, an Aurora City Council member who has lived in town for 32 years, said he noticed the largest changes when the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and the Central Park neighborhoods were built.
Central Park — which is filled with upscale dining and shopping — was once composed of mainly lower-income housing stretching south into Colfax and the Lowry neighborhood, and east into Fitzsimons and North Aurora.
But after the hospital was built and Central Park became a more expensive neighborhood, Medina said gentrification plagued the Northwest Aurora and Northeast Denver corridor, squeezing out the traditional character of the once-diverse, affordable neighborhood.
“You lose a lot of immigrants and refugees who are trying to make a stake in this country and they can’t keep it running,” Medina said. “You’re losing the soul of our community.”
Medina felt the rest of the Denver area has always looked down on Northwest Aurora as a crime-ridden, corrupt part of town. While Medina said he recognizes crime is a valid concern for those in the area, most of the crime is a result of poverty and lack of support.
“Everyone envisioned North Aurora as this corrupt place and this place that was kind of neglected,” Medina said. “The people there see the ‘haves,’ and the ‘have nots.’ They’re surrounded by the people who have when they have nothing.”
The role of a new building
Many activists and residents in the area point to newer housing developments as the driving force behind gentrification and displacement. In October, community organizers protested the construction of 44 condos on the corner of Yosemite Street and E. 14th Ave. with a starting price tag of $600,000 and no affordable units. Aurora Planning and Zoning commission approved the project’s development, despite strong outcry from many in the community.
Organizers who planned the protest said they did so because they are worried the new units will follow what they say is a pattern in their neighborhoods: new housing units pop up and cost much more money than older buildings nearby. Then, before residents know it, landlords in older buildings begin charging more to keep up with the expensive buildings nearby, despite residents living in older, often worse-off units.
“These kinds of upscale developments that are popping up in Aurora are bringing along the process of displacement and gentrification,” Tapia said. “Gentrification and displacement are a product of a housing system that is undemocratic for the people who live in the neighborhoods and communities.”
But the idea that new housing always leads to gentrification is a bit misleading, some housing advocates said.
“The problem is a lack of housing,” said David Pardo, an advocate for abundant housing with Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) Denver, an organization that advocates for denser housing and better public transit. “If we don’t have enough housing, houses are going to cost more in every neighborhood, whether it’s Washington Park or Cherry Creek or East Colfax.”
Pardo said tearing down old buildings to replace them with new ones can lead to small price increases for houses in the immediate area, but more housing units to offset demand would still put a large dent in the issue.
“If you have 100 apples and you have 200 people who want them, the richest 100 people are going to get them,” Pardo said. “If you have 100 apples and 80 people want them, everybody gets an apple and the richest people might have an extra apple.”
Denver has ordinances requiring affordable units in any new apartment complex with 10 or more units. Developers building projects with more affordable units are also pushed to the front of the line for project approval from the city, which incentivizes affordable units and is supposed to ease the city’s housing crisis.
Aurora, however, has no such rule, which Pardo said restricts the city from becoming more affordable. Aurora also has more restrictions on building dense housing, leaving most residents with few options besides single-family homes.
“You can’t build affordable units if you’re building market rate, but if there are incentives to build affordable units, you get affordable units,” Pardo said. “If the zoning allows for significantly more density, they can bring down the cost per square foot and build more affordable units, but the reality is they’re building what they can build on that site.”
Alison Coombs, an Aurora City Council member, said the city is far behind where it should be in protecting affordable housing for those who need it.
“We could build newer, nicer neighborhoods with a commitment to limiting or eliminating displacement,” Coombs said. “If that were what’s happening, then I think people would be much less bothered and much less upset and it would be less of a threat.”
Unfortunately, Coombs said, new-but-affordable neighborhoods are not a reality for most in Aurora, which is what had led to skepticism toward new housing.
“The economic growth is disparate in terms of who actually gets the increases in their wealth and their income,” Coombs said. “If people are not getting a share of that prosperity, then they’re not going to be in our city anymore, and our city won’t be the city that we have been and that we currently are.”
Finding a solution
Brendan Greene, executive director of the East Colfax Community Collective, said combatting gentrification in East Denver and West Aurora has to be a community-wide conversation, with those most impacted at the forefront of discussion.
“These are essential community members that are helping to make our cities run, and we need to see a lot more urgency from our policymakers to understand that this is a crisis,” Greene said. “We don’t need soft policy moves on their part, we need aggressive policy interventions to correct the market and make sure that lower-income levels can afford to live here.”