Early in the morning on Feb. 9, Denver City Council passed the Group Living Text Amendment by an 11-2 vote, after several hours of public testimony from more than 100 community members. As we celebrate this step forward in modernizing Denver’s zoning code, I want to share my reflections on how the group living proposals evolved around the issue of community corrections.
Here’s my personal background on this issue: I have lived across the street from a private prison-run halfway house my entire life. My elementary school bus stop was right outside their front door. I had family members who lived there at different points in my life, and my own brother has cycled in and out of prisons and halfway houses most of my life. I had never had a problem with the people in the halfway house. Never did anyone harm or hurt us, or make us feel like we had to add extra layers of safety to our neighborhood. The residents were not allowed to have cars, so there were never parking issues. Sometimes the bored residents would pick up odd jobs in the neighborhoods, such as raking leaves or shoveling snow, to be helpful.
And then in November 2019, I attended my first Group Living Advisory Committee (GLAC) Community Corrections Subgroup meeting. Only a couple of months prior, I had been a part of a vote to divest all Denver Community Corrections sites from private prison operators. We had major challenges ahead because of the way the city had allowed community corrections to essentially only exist on parcels already owned by private prison operators. We needed to expand where halfway houses were allowed in order to truly divest the system from private profiteers.
Since I had grown up near a halfway house, I had not realized until this meeting that most of the community corrections facilities in the city were not allowed in residential neighborhoods. Yes, you heard me — human beings were not allowed to live among other human beings, and this was just accepted as the way things were. Most were relegated to warehouse areas far away from transit, sidewalks, resources and other people. I took one look at the visual breakdown of residential uses in the materials provided for the GLAC meeting, and it was clear to me that we were literally segregating communities with Denver’s zoning code. Redlining had not gone away — we were now just calling it the zoning code.
The materials presented to us at this meeting did not say a word about why this subgroup within the category of group housing existed, nor why any of the other subgroups (i.e., senior housing, college dorms, assisted living, hospice or boarding houses) existed, nor why we had to discuss shelters and halfway houses in isolation from all other types of group living. We were only discussing where the least privileged people could live, instead of the impacts of the size of a facility on its environment.
If a city must have a zoning code, then it should at least deal strictly with the land-use impacts — never with the types of people using the land. Our subcommittee was able to reframe the narrative, and I was proud to hear this repeatedly during the public hearing and in my colleagues’ comments on Feb. 8. Zoning for “people types” must be called what it is: SEGREGATION.
During a recent public hearing on group living, we heard people from all walks of life discuss the importance of living communally. We heard people share histories of being targeted by code enforcement because they were people of color or poor or immigrants. During the public hearing, we were reminded that the mentality of the eras of Jim Crow and redlining are not gone from our city.
Leadership is needed now to truly dismantle the legacies of oppression that still dictate how we live and organize ourselves in modern cities. With last month’s vote, we’ve been able to take a small step toward reducing the level of segregation and discrimination in our zoning code. With this change, halfway houses are allowed in more neighborhoods within the city — and we now have more freedom to transform community corrections to meet a modern vision of what re-entering society after incarceration can be.
Candi CdeBaca represents District 9 on the Denver City Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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