Voice: Debbie Ortega

Debbie Ortega is a Denver City Councilwoman.

“Families are the fastest growing segment, the last few years, of people who are homeless. The number one contributing factor is loss of jobs.”

Colorado used to have a strong manufacturing presence. And obviously, we’ve seen development activity ebb and flow. But I think the overall loss of good paying jobs is one factor. The need for affordable housing and clear policy that ensures that affordable housing is a key value for our community is really important.

I’m on the board of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. Families are the fastest growing segment, the last few years, of people who are homeless. The number one contributing factor is loss of jobs, lack of affordable housing. And so, if people can’t remain in their housing, whether they were a homeowner or renter, because they don’t have the same income, that’s a challenge.

Deborah Ortega

Deborah Ortega

I believe that in the absence of public policy, you get nothing. And so it’s critical that we have clear and strong public policy, particularly when we have developments asking for public financing tools to assist with their development. That’s when we need to say, “Great, you want to use our tools, you want zoning density bonuses or density increase on your property, we need affordable housing.”

To build out FasTracks, we have one shot to get it right, and make sure we’re addressing this issue, not just in Denver but across the metro area as light rail is being built out. People who are most in need of public transportation are those who should live at and near the light rail stops. A lot of the communities have gone through the process of creating changes to their zoning that makes it easier to do mixed-use development. But there’s not clarity in policy.

That’s one piece.

Obviously a lot of people in black and Hispanic communities were impacted by the subprime lending that contributed to many people losing their homes through foreclosure. A lot of folks were targeted by the subprime lending practices.

I wanted to speak to a couple other issues I think are important. One obviously is the role that education plays in people being able to increase their earning ability and being able to purchase homes and all the things your demographic data covers. The cost of education keeps going up. The impact on policies around people who are undocumented has, I think, contributed to the numbers of Latinos that are not going to college and getting their degrees, even though I think a lot of the foreign-born people who come here are really dedicated and committed to getting quality education and higher education but they can’t afford the costs. They are not treated as in-state tuition eligible. The role of education is critical. There have been lots of new and different policies that have come down over the last eight to 10 years dealing with No Child Left Behind, and a lot of those programs have not been funded. I think that’s another contributing factor.

The other one I wanted to mention is the important role that those programs that local governments have created that ensure the opportunity for small minority businesses to access work that local government is doing. At DIA, we had the goals program that is covered under the city’s Minority and Small Business Enterprise ordinance. If you didn’t have programs like that you would see fewer opportunities for minority businesses accessing the work that’s being done. It’s that policy that becomes critical in ensuring that those opportunities are spread across the board.

I don’t know that you can say there’s just one main factor for the widening gaps. Clearly education is the equalizer. But I don’t know that you can say it’s the only answer. I would say community activism has historically played an important role. Typically if that activism isn’t present it’s not always identified as an issue that should be addressed – diversity of your work force, your participation in lots of different things, contracting, people sitting on boards and commissions, what your work force looks like at the management level and across the board in your work force. If those things aren’t constantly being looked at then there’s not always a consciousness that it’s an issue of concern. And it’s often times minorities who identify those gaps and bring those to the forefront, and if they’re not paying attention, often times those issues won’t be looked at and addressed.

Those are many of the very things that the civil rights movement was all about. It was about equal access to education and jobs, and all the things that Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez and even Corky Gonzales here in the Denver community, and you can go on and on with names like Rich Castro and Sal Carpio and other folks who have tried to ensure greater equity and participation.

It did surprise me that the gaps are greater now. I looked at the data and it’s concerning and I think it says we need to pay attention to it. As leaders, we cannot be afraid to raise the uncomfortable conversations.

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