The Denver City Council continued its hearings on Mayor Michael Hancock’s 2022 budget proposal Wednesday, meeting with the three agencies receiving the smallest cuts of the $1.49 billion budget.
The departments of housing stability, community planning and economic development each receive less than 3% of the budget. That is a minuscule share when compared to the 39% (or $567.67 million) going to the city’s safety departments.
This funding distribution has been criticized by some council members, especially in relation to housing. Over the summer, a public outreach process by the Department of Finance regarding COVID-19 recovery found that respondents prioritized the investment in housing and sheltering the most.
“We all know that housing is a top need in our city. But what I'm seeing in the 2022 budget is the same old song and dance,” Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca said in a statement Monday. “The proportions tell us all we need to know about our priorities, and there is nothing new to see there.”
However, other council members praised the housing budget during Wednesday’s budget hearings, describing it as a step in the right direction and a partner to other, larger funding sources.
“In 2011, the general fund city contribution to affordable housing was zero," said Councilwoman Robin Kniech. “It’s not nothing to say that our community has invested. It’s a pretty big milestone. We can talk about all the ways that it’s not enough and it’s hard, but I just want to note that.”
After completing budget hearings over the next two weeks, the City Council will propose amendments in early October. The council must vote to approve the final budget before it can be implemented.
Of the $1.49 billion budget, $34.08 million, or 2.3%, would be delegated to the Department of Housing Stability. That department budget is up from $27.1 million in 2021 and $16.9 million in 2020.
Though housing stability is receiving one of the smallest cuts of the overall budget, the general budget contribution is a minority of the funding going to the department in 2022, said executive director Britta Fisher.
The department is expecting $50 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, $94 million from special revenue funds and $10 million in grants. In addition, if voters pass a $450 million bond package on the November ballot, nearly $39 million will also go to the department.
“We need all budget resources in order to continue housing people and resolving episodes of homelessness,” Fisher said.
Much of the $7 million general budget increase would be spent on adding dozens of positions within the department, including a four-member affordable housing review team, capital project manager, real estate project manager, environmental specialist and position transfer.
Another 20 positions would be added to Denver’s Early Intervention Team, which responds to reports of unsanctioned homeless encampments and helps to connect camp residents to services.
The Department of Public Safety estimates that 6,547 people are currently living in 671 unauthorized encampments throughout the city. Fisher said her department hopes to reduce the number of unsheltered homeless residents in Denver by 50% by the year 2026.
Other spending plans for the department include $1 million for homeless shelter vouchers and $3 million to maintain and operate the homeless shelter located at 4600 E. 48th Ave.
Community planning and development
Slightly above housing stability, the proposed budget delegates $36.15 million, or 2.4%, to community planning and development. That is an increase of $5.99 million from 2021, and the department’s first general budget increase since at least 2019.
The Department of Community Planning and Development is responsible for city planning, including zoning and building codes, construction inspections, designating land use and more.
Laura Aldrete, executive director of the department, said they plan to use the bulk of the $5.99 million increase on staffing. The department currently has 40 vacant positions and 32 new hires.
“We are recommending restoring positions that were not filled during the pandemic and creating new positions,” Aldrete said. “Between 2020 and 2021, we had a 14% decrease in staffing and that is much of what we’re asking for coming back in 2022.”
Over $3.6 million would restore 19 positions in development services, planning services and performance/operations. It would also create 18 new positions, including two analysts, four city planners, two supervisors, a building official, a project administrator and a construction inspector.
The other seven created positions would make up a new Affordable Housing Review Team, intended to support the construction of affordable housing by prioritizing and expediting reviews of these projects. The department would contribute $942,554 to the $1.7 million multi-agency team.
Another new project, $1.4 million would establish the department’s Investment Impact Fund. This fund, a first for Denver, would aim to provide housing and supportive programs in neighborhoods where the city is building capital projects, with the goal of preventing displacement and disruption.
On Wednesday, council members requested the Affordable Housing Review Team be made permanent and that the department consider expanding the Investment Impact Fund to private investments, too.
The smallest cut of the $1.49 billion budget, making up only 0.6%, would go to the Department of Economic Development and Opportunity. The department would receive $9.44 million, a $2.5 million increase from its budget in 2021.
In addition to the general budget, the department is anticipating a $8.3 million increase from the special revenue fund in 2022, said Eric Hiraga, executive director of the department.
The two budget expansions would go towards adding six full-time positions in the department, including four new compliance officers for the Division of Small Business Opportunity and the restoration of two staff positions in the executive office.
The department would also use $2 million to make its Construction Careers Pilot a permanent program, expanding it and identifying a location for a training center. The pilot, which is meant to build the construction workforce, has produced 9,322 city construction workers so far, Hiraga said.
Another $1 million would be used to support the 16th Street Mall by offering technical support and grants to small businesses in the mall, in addition to promoting customer attraction events like pop-up shops.
“After a year of unprecedented work in the economic development realm, DEDO is looking forward to continuing our economic recovery efforts in 2022,” Hiraga said.
Other major projects include $5.7 million for grants, loans and equity funds for small businesses and $250,000 to study the possibility of creating an aerotropolis around the Denver International Airport.
The department also plans to add $200,000 to its business incentive fund, spend $286,000 on a high school apprenticeship program, add $335,000 to the Neighborhood Equity and Stabilization program and spend $250,000 on a disparity study for the Division of Small Business Opportunity.