Interview: Mike Johnston talks housing, homelessness, transportation and more ahead of the Denver mayor runoff election
The election wraps up on June 6.
Denver’s runoff election is underway, with ballots dropping on May 15. Colorado Matters’ Ryan Warner sat down with mayoral candidate and former State Sen. Mike Johnston, to discuss housing, crime, education, environment, transportation and what makes him different from his opponent, former Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce CEO and chief of staff to then Mayor John Hickenlooper, Kelly Brough. Here is a link to our interview with Brough.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ryan Warner: Mike, what do you see as the biggest difference between you and Kelly Brough? Because voters may struggle to differentiate. You’re both centrist, well-financed, white candidates with a background in government. You’re both earning endorsements from people who used to have this job.
Mike Johnston: I think there are some real differences. One is I think I have a real big, bold vision for what’s possible for the city and the belief that there are some very hard problems we’ve struggled with that actually are solvable problems. And I think I have a record of taking on incredibly hard problems that people thought were unsolvable and delivering real historic results.
That would’ve included things like passing the Dream Act for the first time in Colorado for undocumented kids, or taking on the NRA on gun safety or getting universal preschool done with a statewide coalition, or affordable housing done for the first time in Colorado history with a statewide ballot measure. So I’ve had a long history of taking on those big progressive issues and delivering real historic results. Then there are some things in which we’ve been on the other side.
There are key progressive issues I’ve been pushing on that [Kelly Brough] was on the other side of. Minimum wage increases that I supported, or things like family medical leave that I supported that she opposed. Or things like greenhouse gas emissions reductions we pushed hard on in the Senate that she also opposed. So there are real differences there in our record. But I think the last part is also, it’s not just the big vision and the record of accomplishment, it’s who has really detailed plans to know how you’re going to accomplish these very complicated problems.
I think I’ve come out with both very clear plans on how we do it, including full budgets for how we’d pay for it and where that money comes from. I think that matters a lot to people.
Warner: I’ll say that Kelly Brough supports paid family leave. She gave it to her own employees at the chamber, but she has opposed some of the mechanisms by which it has been administered elsewhere. While Denver has over 700,000 people, the Metro has more than 3 million. What ought to be the region’s top priority, and how would you work with other cities to address that?
Johnston: I think the region’s priorities are still the same as Denver’s priorities because we all are tied together economically, and for me that is first and foremost addressing our needs around homelessness. I do think it is housing and affordability. If people can’t afford to live and work in the region, they’re not going to be able to stay. And I do think it is around public safety. I do think we have still expanding needs around public safety that are true not just in Denver but around the region.
What we know is that those three things are the drivers of what people either want to live in a city and stay in a city and work in a city or visit a city. And if we get those wrong, they’re the things that drive people away. They say they’d rather move their business someplace else or move their family someplace else. And so I think those things that are true for Denver are true for the broader region.
Warner: Why don’t we take on public safety and then go to housing. Do you feel safe in Denver, Mike Johnston?
Johnston: I do feel safe in Denver and most of all the places that I go and most of the times that I go there, but that’s not the experience for a lot of Denverites who will come and tell me stories about times that they don’t feel safe. And I’ve talked to someone this morning who had a break-in in their backyard last night at four in the morning, and they were terrified about it. I talked to someone who had a shooting through their window in their house in central Denver, and we know there are real concerns and risks.
It’s of course not an epidemic. It’s not something that we can’t stop or get a handle on, but it’s not invented. It is a very real increase in both property crime and violent crime across the city. People are feeling it and it’s changing the lived experience of the city.
Warner: Car theft is the most common crime in Denver right now. And these thefts are related to a lot of other types of crime. Say you’re elected, someone’s car is stolen, maybe like a friend of mine. They’re at a place where there have been carjackings. Why are they better off under your leadership?
Johnston: Well, I have had my car stolen twice, so they will know that they have someone that has a sympathetic ear, because I have gone through that myself. I think there are a couple of ways to take this on. One of the things we know is part of the reason why we have a shortage of the ability to investigate crimes of all types, including car theft right now, is we don’t have enough officers to be able to do those investigations. So a big part of my focus is on restoring about 200 more first responders to the streets of Denver. And I say first responders because you want to have the right person responding to the right incident at the right time.
There are a lot of places, if you have someone in a mental health crisis, the last person you want to send is an officer. You don’t want to send an officer, you want to send a mental health worker on our [Support Team Assisted Reponse] STAR teams or on the co-responder teams. If you have someone who might be in an overdose, you want to send an EMT or a paramedic. But what we have right now is a lot of officers being sent out on those calls and officers who aren’t available to be sent out on a call like theft or an assault or a violent crime. So we do want to restore that capacity.
We also need to create some dedicated capacity for things like, we do not have an auto theft unit right now in the Denver Police Department. As the city with one of the worst auto theft problems in the country, we don’t have a dedicated unit to be able to prevent, investigate and prosecute those crimes. I would establish that in the PD for the first time.
Warner: And where are you going to find them? At this point, you have departments poaching from each other.
Johnston: Yes, you’re right. I think there are a couple really important things I would do as mayor. The first thing you have to do is you have to lead a really high profile public campaign to recruit people to come back to these jobs. To communicate to people that this is a dignified important role. We need you to come be a public servant and be an officer again, or be a mental health worker or be a first responder.
Warner: You’d be joining a lot of other departments in that display.
Johnston: Yeah, but I think we need Nuggets there. We need Broncos there. We need TikTok influencers. We need everybody in the city who cares about this to say this is a real public movement. That’s step one.
Step two is we have a problem right now where we have a terribly slow process to hire officers. Our civil service commission can take up to seven months to be able to approve you to even apply to enter the academy. A lot of neighboring districts do that in 60 days. And so if you’re an applicant and you have two applications in, one in South Metro and one up in Denver, and in 60 days they give you an offer and we tell you you have to wait five more months to know if you have an offer, we lose a lot of great applicants. We particularly lose a lot of applicants of color, a lot of women, a lot of more diverse applicants. And so I would both really pay attention to recruiting officers from the communities that they serve. Creating a big high profile public campaign to recruit them. And making sure we can expedite the process for actually vetting and hiring so we can get more people on to the job more quickly.
Warner: Denver has paid millions in settlements over police violence. Those dollars represent lives lost and broken. That presumably has something to do as well with the quality of the officer or first responder you bring on. How would that pattern change if you are elected? And is the risk of fast-tracking all of this that you attract a lower quality candidate?
Johnston: No, I don’t think at all we drop standards for quality. I think it changes a couple things. One, how you recruit those officers. Second is how you train them, and the third is the kind of job that you deploy them to. One of the reasons why we want to get back to full staffing with these officers is that allows us to go back to what people want the most, which is a real model of community-based policing. Of a place where you have officers that are out walking beats, they have five or six blocks that they’re in charge of every day. They talk to business leaders, they talk to residents, they give them their cards, and you build relationships. And if that’s the different kind of job someone’s being called to do, you can recruit a different kind of person to take that job. You can train them in different ways so their skills are actually in de-escalation, not in escalation, and finding a situation that’s heated and finding a way to make it calm instead of doing the reverse. I think we can deliver a very different kind of relationship between city and police.
Warner: In the past couple of years. We know that Denver’s growth has slowed. Under your administration, would you have a growth mentality? Do you want more people to move here, or is this more about retention for you?
Johnston: I think the first priority is about retention, but what we know right now is 80 percent of the teachers, nurses, firefighters, public servants, servers in this city can’t afford to live in the city tonight. So we have a huge challenge about building the actual housing we need to make the people who live here now able to afford to live here. And so for me, it’s about what kind of development are you doing? What kind of growth are you doing? But I think what people have seen over the last decade is a lot of new construction, but a lot of new units being built that are not affordable to them. They don’t serve the people that are living in those communities. And so my real focus is on how you actually build the units that we need that stay permanently affordable so people can afford to stay here and be able to live here. And I’m happy to talk to you about that.
Warner: I invite you to answer your own raised question, Mike Johnston.
Johnston: So here’s how we do it. So I mean, this is why I spent the last two years working on this project, and that culminated in the passage of Proposition 123 last year which we built a coalition of 260 organizations around the state to support. [It was] the first time in Colorado history we’ve ever passed a statewide ballot measure to focus on affordable housing. And what this does is it changes the way we build housing. And specifically, it helps take the profit motive out of the development of housing.
So what we would do is build 25,000 units that are permanently affordable. And what that means is, in these units, if you move into one and anyone that makes about $100,000 a year or below is eligible. When you move into one of these units, the rule is you would never have to pay more than 30 percent of what you make to rent. So if you’re a first year teacher and you make $40,000 a year, you don’t pay more than $1,000 a month in rent.
Warner: And these are all rentals?
Johnston: These are all rentals. I’ll talk about home ownership in a minute ’cause that’s an important part of it as well. But the deal is your rent cannot go up unless your income goes up. And these units are what are called deed restricted, which means that deed runs with a unit forever. So if a new landlord comes and buys the building, it doesn’t matter. The unit stays affordable. So that means if you are that teacher or nurse, you’re not worried each month the rent might go up two or $300. It’s linked directly to your income.
And so that’s what we can do and would do around the city if I were mayor. And the way this works is because these dollars come through CHAFA, the Colorado Housing and Financing Authority, and they help invest in the development of these projects. What you do is, normally you’d have a private sector investor like a bank or a JP Morgan or a Goldman Stanley, they invest in these projects, but they want a 20 percent return on their investment. That return on that investment jacks up the cost of the rent in all these units.
If you have a public investor like [the Colorado Housing Finance Authority] CHFA, they can invest in these units, and they can take a small return, one or 2 percent, but that difference can drop each unit price by $800 per month per unit, which means a unit that was $1,800 a month can now be $1,000 a month, and it can stay affordable forever.
Warner: My understanding is that CHFA dollars are actually quite hard to secure and the scale that you are talking about is enormous, so square those for me.
Johnston: Yeah, so this is why we had to pass Proposition 123 is that CHFA dollars have been successful, but they very are hard to secure because they’re limited in nature. There weren’t enough dollars, and so what we did was add $300 million more in revenue around housing. That’s about five to six times more than what the state was spending each year, currently. So it dramatically expands the capacity of what CHFA can do while allowing you to finance a lot more of these units.
Warner: What is the motive for-profit developer to get involved in that affordable housing product, the rentals, if you’re kind of removing that profit motive or at least lessening it?
Johnston: This is one of the key learnings I had the more I studied this, which is to the developer, it’s actually even easier for you this way because now instead of having to go to 10 or 12 banks, hat in hand, and asking them for investment money, you can come to CHFA. You still got the money you needed before to build the actual project, and make it work, and to pay your people and make your margins work. It just cuts out the profit motive from the investor on the front end.
Warner: So, you’re saying the investment bank’s involvement is where the markup is?
Johnston: Exactly. And the investment banks is where the markup is, and they’re adding no value. They’re not actually building or developing anything. They’re just giving you the money and taking a big return off of their loan.
Warner: And these units, if they are to be placed throughout the city, and not concentrated in one spot, you are going to have to perhaps get the buy-in of neighbors who may not want that sort of housing in their backyard.
Johnston: The key also about these units is they are built in mixed-income development. So they’re not a building with a hundred units, all of them that are affordable units. They might be a building with 100 units, 60 of them that are market rate, 40 of them that are affordable. So you can have the doctor and the nurse living in units, side by side, or the teacher and the lawyer in-units, side by side.
Warner: Let’s move on to homes for purchase.
Johnston: Yes. Two things we’re excited about. One is we want to build a bridge from being able to be a renter to being a homeowner. And one of the things is it’s very hard to save up the money you need to make a down payment.
So one thing we put in place is what’s called a renter wealth building structure, which is you could be a renter in one of these units, and when you pay your rent each month, say you pay $1000 or $1,100 a month, about $100 of that rent would come back into a savings account for you that is helping you actually build wealth while you’re renting. In the same way when you pay your mortgage, you’re building equity while you’re paying it. So it creates a bridge to help people start. Over 10 years or so, you could build up $10,000 to $15,000 of wealth building you could use to roll over to a down payment.
But the real key here on home ownership, as we know, there are two challenges. One is, a lot of families, particularly those that are first generation or first time home buyers, particularly families of color, overwhelmingly, have a hard time getting access to the down payment they need to buy a home. You might have the income. You might have the credit, but you don’t have access to the down payment.
When I was at Gary Community Ventures, we launched a program called the Deerfield Fund, which is a Black home ownership fund, the first of its type in the country. And so that’s been a very successful fund, which provides down payment assistance to Black families trying to get access to homes, about 150 families who’ve already been moved into homes they can now keep and build wealth and pass on to their kids.
What we could do is expand that program citywide, so any first-time or first-generation home buyer could get access to up to $50,000 of down payment assistance that you could use to get into that home. So you could stay in the neighborhood that you grew up in, or the neighborhood that you want to live in and be able to stay long term.
Warner: And so, you’re relying on the nonprofit community there? The foundation community?
Johnston: No, we would put city dollars. The current version we built when I was at the foundation was a philanthropic model. We were already in talks with the city about creating a city-based version that would include public funds. So because this is a revolving fund, when someone takes that down payment assistance after five or 10 years, whenever they refinance their home or sell it, they would then pay that back to the next family, so it’s sort of a revolving loan fund that can work in an ongoing way. And so, I think that’s a really critical way to both close wealth gaps that are really significant across the city, that are dividing families of color from white families in terms of access to home ownership. And it makes it possible for people who grew up in the neighborhood and work in the neighborhood to be able to stay.
The other part of what I would do here is, there are some times where even if you have down-payment assistance, you can’t get to a $700,000 home ticket, if that’s the price of a home.
We also can build partnerships with organizations like Habitat for Humanity or Elevation Land Trust, where you can have land trust. There’s a nonprofit that owns the land underneath the home, and they discount the purchase of that home. So you might buy it for $300,000 instead of $600,000, and you own it. It’s yours. You keep it for however long you want to, but when you resell it, you can only sell it with a certain amount of increased value. So if you bought it for $300,000, you might sell it ten years later at $350,000. You’ve built some equity, you had a chance to build wealth, but it means that home stays affordable for the next teacher, or the next nurse or the next firefighter. And so we want to do both: help families that can and want to build wealth for their own families long term, and help neighborhoods that want to stay affordable long term. Do that while still including home ownership.
Warner: Would you take any steps as mayor you think would tick off the business community?
Johnston: Someone said, “Leadership is a process of disappointing all of your friends at a rate that they can tolerate.” It’s like there are always going to be times at which you’ll disagree with different factions of the city on different issues.
The things that are top priorities for me really are about these three, which are affordable housing, they are homelessness, they are a focus on public safety. I think right now the city is pretty unified in wanting those things to be resolved. There may be folks that want them done differently, or more quickly or more aggressively.
I’m a believer that, for instance, on homelessness, we need to actually give people access to housing and give them access to services. I don’t believe you want to arrest homeless people, or you want to just kick them all out and assume they’re going to find some place to go. So there might be folks who want you to lock everybody up overnight. I don’t think that’s a real, sustainable solution. But I think there are paths that I find are the balance between where different sectors of the city might land. But I think that I’ve had the chance to listen to all the people in those sectors and have a good sense of what a solution is. It’s not just an idea on paper, but a proof point we know has worked.
Warner: I ask this with the idea of Governor Jared Polis hoping someday that the state can supersede some local zoning. Upzoning, the idea that anywhere you could build, or just about anywhere you could build a single family home, the state would say, “You should also be able to build a duplex, or apartments or condos.” Should the state have the power to declare that that sort of density could happen just about anywhere in a city?
Johnston: I think what the state should do, and this is what we did in Proposition 123, is say to local governments, “You have an obligation to build more housing.” And by the way, more housing that’s affordable. I think we’re not agnostic as to just any housing. We want to make sure the housing that’s being built does come at a price point that serves the people who need it the most, and we’re going to hold you accountable for delivering those results each year.
So in Proposition 123, we said, you have to expand your stock of affordable housing by three percent a year every year. Where you choose to build that, how you choose to build that, you can decide.” If you’re going to meet those goals every year, you’ll probably need to do some density in some places, but you can make the decisions where you want to put that density, whether it’s gentle density in more neighborhoods or higher volume density in fewer neighborhoods. So I think there is a balance for locals to decide that, but I do think there’s the right push to say we don’t want to have locals drag their feet for too long and not be doing anything.
Warner: And so if a similar bill to the one that came up this session were to appear in future sessions, would you oppose it?
Johnston: I mean, I’ve read enough bills, and been a part of enough bills — in the future, I’d wait to see what I read in them before I say that.
Warner: I guess I want to ask very specifically, if the policy comes back to say upzoning just about anywhere and you don’t have the power to say no to it, would you oppose that?
Johnston: I think I would be likely to oppose it for this concern: The risks I think we have there are, one, around gentrification. You get potential neighborhoods that have old legacy homes that get bought out and upscaled very quickly for that opportunity to bring more units to those places. And the other risk is you don’t necessarily get the number of units you need, at the price point you need and the places you need them, right? If you take a single family home in Hilltop and you turn it into a Quadplex, yes, you could probably get four $1 million units on that piece of land. That would not necessarily solve an affordability problem. It might be a windfall to the landowner, but I think our approach would be to find a balance between where you bring that density and how you make sure it delivers affordability.
Warner: I’d like to circle back to homelessness. When we met at Arapahoe Square, you talked about the idea of micro or tiny homes. Where do those go?
Johnston: What we saw at Arapahoe Square is what happens when you concentrate all of the services in the city in one location and how hard that is for the city to manage. The idea of these micro communities is to do it quite the opposite, which is to say you take 10 or 15 half-acre lots around the city…
Warner: City-owned property?
Johnston: City-owned property. City, or RTD, or DPS, or State Land Board. There’s a tremendous amount of public land around the city. You put on those half-acre lots 40 to 50 tiny homes. Each of those tiny homes would have a bed, they’d have shelter for all your stuff, they have a cot, you have access to a kitchen and bathrooms and showers. And most importantly on those sites, you have wraparound services; you have mental health support, you have addiction treatment, you have workforce training, you have long-term housing support. And what you have is you’ve decentralized those services so that now you can move those to any part of the city, because the services are on site. You don’t have to come downtown every day again to get services, which means you can have much smaller scale communities with staff that’s there around the clock to provide the support you need to get back up on your feet and get back into the workforce and get back into a place of your own.
Warner: Is each one of those locations a potential fight with the neighbors?
Johnston: I think each one of those can be that fight if you do it the wrong way. I think they can be very successful if you do it the right way.
Warner: Where have you seen this work?
Johnston: If you want to see the site that is our best example, go to 40th and Marion. It’s just off of Colorado Boulevard, and that is a half acre lot that is in a light industrial location. It’s about five or six blocks from light rails. You are close to transit, but you’re not in the middle of a heavily residential neighborhood. And you could drive by it once or twice, and you might not see it. Very well kept, very well cared for and very well fit in to the neighborhood context.
And I think this is why the scale matters. If you’re talking about five-acre sites or very large campuses, it’s hard to put those in a lot of different places in the city. When you’re talking about smaller places with more human-scale communities that are 40 or 50 people, both, you build the tighter sense of community and you also get services on site. And also the reason this works is, what it allows you to do is actually respect the way that people who are currently homeless build community, which is the reason this works. When you open a micro community with 40 or 50 units, you can now go to two or three blocks of encampments where folks are currently living, and you can rehouse all of those people into a new community that is actually much more safe, more stable with the services they need.
Warner: How long are they there? Is this transitional?
Johnston: It is meant to be transitional. I think what we’ve found generally is, it might be six to nine months, and that’s enough time for you to get Maslow’s hierarchy of needs met. You get stable. Maybe if you’re struggling with addiction, you get clean. If you’re struggling with mental health issues, you get access to medication or treatment. You find a job, you get your first couple months on a job, you get a little money saved to be able to make a first month down payment for rent. And so that is the hope is that these would be transitional.
There are other versions of these we can do that are hotel conversions, where you can take old hotels and convert those. Those units, if they have full kitchenettes in them, could be more permanent, but most of the micro communities will be transitional.
Warner: Let’s go back to that idea of the tensions that might arise before these are established, with the neighbors, with the businesses nearby. What do you do when you meet resistance, if you meet resistance?
Johnston: What we found is there is sometimes resistance on the front end. And then there has been quite surprising acceptance and even support on the backend after they’ve gotten placed, because I think what people are used to is the experience they have with the community that is homeless right now, which is very large numbers of people in a downtown center without access to services and without any real supports. And that feels much different and more dangerous.
These will feel very different, which is, you have people with all the supports they need. They have access to bathrooms and access to showers, and their own place to lock their stuff. So you don’t have stuff that needs to be strewn around the campus. They take a real pride in taking care of their own homes. And so I think that is a very different experience. I was visiting one of the residents at this site, and I was asking them what they do for food, who cooks, is it like dorms, where you alternate who cooks for which night? And he laughed and said, “There’s honestly more food here than we can ever eat, because Monday night the Lions Club comes, and Tuesday night Park Hill United Methodist comes, and Wednesday night the Grandmas Club comes.”
Now that they’ve gotten settled and the neighbors have gotten to know them, they’ve really built a relationship where people see people that they want to support and help to get back on their feet. And that has a feeling of neighbors in your community that you can be a part of supporting as opposed to a large anonymous, faceless, nameless group of 1,400 people that seem much more threatening in the downtown context.
Warner: Under a Johnston administration, would there be any circumstance where you would arrest someone to move them?
Johnston: No. My belief on this is, you do not arrest someone unless they’ve committed a crime. And so we will be able to move people to these units. And I think the myth is that people don’t want to move to units like this. When we did a pilot like this with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, we had 300 units that were available. More than 800 people who were unhoused signed up immediately to want to get access to those units. 800 by the way, is almost 60 percent of the entire count of all of the current homeless population in the city and county of Denver.
Right now, the city with the most success in the country has reduced their homeless population by about 40 percent. We could double that success if you just took what we’ve learned from this pilot, which is, dramatic numbers of people wanted the services. More importantly, when we moved those 300 people to those units and they got relocated, a year later, more than 86 percent of them were still successfully housed. Three years later, more than 80 percent were still successfully housed.
So the long-term trajectory is quite good when you get people access to these services at a scale where they can accept them and where it feels manageable for both the staff and the people. And so I think what we know is, a great majority will succeed with those kinds of services. Those that won’t, and that still struggle or don’t make it in those settings, yes, if they are committing crimes, if they are breaking the law and committing crimes, then they’ll be arrested or will be charged. But if they are not committing any crimes, then no, they should not be arrested.
Warner: I hear this is a very Denver-centric solution, and you talked at the beginning, certainly at my prompting, about the idea of regional collaboration. So in what ways does Lakewood and Aurora and Greenwood Village, how are you working with them on this?
Johnston: I don’t think it is a Denver-centric solution. I think it starts as a Denver solution because of what we saw at Arapahoe Square, which is, right now Denver has concentrated the overwhelming majority of its need and challenge with homeless people in our city center, around those 10, 20 blocks where most of the services are. So I don’t believe Lakewood or Aurora want to come down and solve downtown Denver’s homelessness challenge. I do think once we build the infrastructure for this, and we start to get these micro communities up and built and we have people moving successfully into services, we absolutely should partner with our neighboring communities to say, “What’s working for you? What’s working for us? How do we, along our shared borders and shared boundaries, make sure there are supportive and successful services, knowing that each community might have their own approach?”
Warner: But this is replicable, I hear you say?
Johnston: Oh, it’s a hundred percent replicable. I think our belief is that if we can show that we can do it here, we can partner with other communities that want to do it in any way that they do. I think that what we don’t want to do is wait. I don’t want to spend two years on a Blue Ribbon Commission with eight other municipalities thinking about what we should do. We know what to do. We know what works. We know how to do it. We have to scale it and scale it aggressively.
When we get to that place, then it’s a great time to talk to partners and say, “How can we work together to make sure the services you have and the services we have align?”
Warner: Under Mayor Michael Hancock’s Vision Zero Plan, Denver established goals to eliminate traffic deaths by 2030, and yet in recent years, those deaths have risen. Is that Vision Zero goal achievable, aggressive enough?
Johnston: I think it’s aggressive enough, and I think it’s admirable, and I think we have to take it upon ourselves to make it achievable. I think there are a number of things we can do. We want to make it possible for fewer and fewer people to have to use cars all the time. We want to make it easier for people to use public transit, and to do this link to our plan to help revive downtown Denver. And so I’ve come out and supported a plan to partner with business to make public transit free for commuters and for students coming to and from downtown, with the idea being, if you work at a coffee shop downtown and you got to pay $20 or $25 a day for parking, that can be an hour or two hours wage. And we want to incentivize workers and other residents to come back downtown to work or play or recreate. And it also incentivizes more utilization of our public transit system.
Right now, we’re in a sort of doom loop on public transit, where people find it not convenient or not efficient enough or sometimes not safe enough, and so they’re using it less and less. And so the fewer and fewer riders we have, the fewer and fewer routes we have, the less communities. Then you head in the wrong direction.
Warner: But if you make stuff free for a lot of people, don’t you just exacerbate the doom loop for RTD?
Johnston: No, it’s quite the opposite, because if you get people that are commuters, so these are people that are working, they’re employed, and they have partners that are workers down there that are employers, that help provide them EcoPasses they can use to be able to come to and from work, what that does is actually adds ridership back to the system. And the more riders we have on the system, the more influence we have over the routes, and the more riders you have, the more frequent routes that you offer. If you have a hundred thousand people waiting on routes, you need to do them every 15 minutes, not every 30 minutes, and so more riders do bring back more frequency and more reliability.
Warner: You said free, but EcoPass isn’t free.
Johnston: What we’ve done is historically, the businesses have either bought EcoPasses for employees, or the city has helped subsidize some of the discounts of that. What I would do is partner with business to say, “Let’s have the city and businesses combined to make sure those eco passes are available to all commuters at a discounted rate that we and the businesses would help establish together.” So now they’re still issued by your employer, but we’re getting all the employers to participate through a deal with RTD and the employers and the city.
Warner: Is Denver on a bit of a spending spree under Mike Johnston as Mayor? You’ve talked about a lot of investments here.
Johnston: Quite the opposite. I’m actually very proud of the fact that if you go to our website and you look at each of my detailed plans I’ve laid out on each of these areas, I’ve actually laid out how these are paid for, where the dollars come from, and how they come from existing revenue. So these do not require new taxes or new investments, either on housing or on homelessness or on transit. And this is why we both use the dollars we have more efficiently, and we use both state resources and city resources. A lot of this homeless and affordable housing investment is made possible now because we passed Proposition 123 last year. Those are critical dollars that will fund, for instance, the staffing of each of these micro communities. They will fund the investment in the affordable housing unit. So Prop 123 was critical to make these resources available. Now that they are, we just need the leadership to make sure we can make them happen.
Warner: How often do you ride public transit? And I wonder how that experience has shaped the vision you’ve laid out.
Johnston: I don’t ride it as much as I would, right now, and that has helped shape the vision. In part, I have three kids and a working spouse, and so we have a lot of errands that are attached to any part of our day. So if it’s not just point to point, getting to work and getting back, and if you have to do four or five drop-offs or pickups along the way or run carpools, it can be harder to use public transit. We know that. But we do know that there are still up to about 40 percent of routes that are just commuting-based, and so that is our real opportunity to capture people when they commute.
Warner: So you see this truly as a commuting boon, not an errand boon.
Johnston: For errands, we need a different solution. And so for errands, you can do things like neighborhood circulators, which are smaller buses that are often electric that move around neighborhoods. There’s one in Montbello right now that works quite well. I would do more of those. Then there are other things like the A Line to the airport. We don’t ride as much because we’re a family of five, and so for five of you on the A Line, that’s $50. That’s actually more than it would be to park or to take an Uber. And so I think in those places, we want to change the incentives to make it easier for families to ride on that line and make it easier, frankly, for people like airport employees. Right now, airport employees also don’t take the light rail because it’s too expensive, and so that’s a lot more traffic we’re putting on to Peña Boulevard for the up to 10,000 employees who try to work out there. And so I think there are ways we can both make it more easy to access for families, both in terms of cost and convenience, and also how do we provide more support on the last mile. This is also why the way we do development matters so much. The more we can make neighborhoods walkable, where close to your house you do have a restaurant to go to and you do have your dry cleaner, and you do have a grocery store, then you can walk or bike around the neighborhood and then only use the longer commuting lines to get to and from work, or to and from a Nuggets game or something else. But I think that’s why you want to focus on the longer arteries of public transit and then the last mile solutions once you get there.
Warner: No doubt this connects to climate change and what sorts of emissions a city is producing? What is not working about Denver’s current approach to climate?
Johnston: I think we have done some very good things. I think the city voters supported the creation of the climate fund that we have now that puts about $40 million a year into climate. That is a good start. I think there are some lofty goals out there that I support, which is getting to emissions-free by 2040. It’s a question of what we do to utilize all of our strategies to get there, and I think there are a couple key things I would want to do as mayor.
One is, we know about 50 percent of the emissions still are coming from buildings, and so that’s why we want to push to both electrify our commercial buildings and our residential buildings to make sure new buildings are powered by electric energy and that that’s going to come from both wind and solar as renewable sources. It also means retrofitting existing buildings, which means getting the people to put in new furnaces or double pane windows or all the more efficient ways to conserve energy that a lot of our older buildings don’t have. That’s both a job creation strategy and a cost-saving strategy for people who are paying very high utility bills.
Warner: But it is a capital outlay at first, and these aren’t great times if you own commercial property.
Johnston: That is the truth. Well, actually, the capital outlay on commercial buildings, the cost is not greater to do electric over gas. It’s actually longer term more affordable on electric than it is on gas.
Warner: But I’m talking about retrofitting.
Johnston: Yeah. Retrofitting is not. The way you do retrofitting is it’s a financing strategy. I used to have an office in North Park Hill and I was there for a decade, and we would pay more each month in utilities than we would pay in rent. But what you find is we might be paying $400 a month in rent. We don’t have the $10,000 up front to do a new furnace. If you did do that, it would drop your payment by about $200 a month. You go from $400 a month to $200 a month, so you have financing to pay for the $10,000 up front, and then when your bill drops from $400 to $200, you pay it back over the delta or the change in that bill. So there are ways to finance these innovative ways. Same with the way we put solar panels onto roofs.
I also think there’s a real opportunity here for equity to do things like, how do we do community based solar gardens in those communities that are struggling the most to pay the utility bills they have right now. So all of the electricity we bring onto the grid through those solar panels can actually offset the cost for neighbors who are really struggling with high utility bills. So I think there are ways to both serve our long-term climate goals and to serve our goals around equity and affordability in the city at the same time.
Warner: People have spent a lot of money to help you get elected. You and Kelly were the top fundraisers. Will you tell us about a time you’ve stood up to monied interests, and I’d be most interested in, perhaps, your own donors, to follow your convictions?
Johnston: I think my convictions have been quite clear. I feel like the folks that support me, support me because they know exactly where I stand on issues and they know that my approach is not going to change. So any supporter I have has never come with an ask or a promise or a commitment.
It’s, “Here’s my vision for the city that I’ve laid out as you’ve seen. Here’s my plan on homelessness. Here’s my plan on affordable housing. Here’s my plan on public safety. Here’s what I expect to do. If you believe in that vision, you should support it. If you don’t, that’s OK.”
I’ve never had a moment where anyone’s ever supported me and that’s caused me to change my perspective on any issue that I take, and so depending on the partner, there would be different times that people have probably disagreed with a lot of ideas I’ve had.
There might have been folks who, when we passed Universal Preschool, didn’t like the idea that we were using tobacco tax as a source to fund Universal Preschool, but we knew that was the path to get Universal Preschool done, and so we did. When we looked at affordable housing statewide on Proposition 123, there were some folks who didn’t like the idea of us holding cities accountable to actually delivering results on the number of units that they built each year. They wanted just to have the money without accountability and my belief was, I respect that difference, but I’m not willing to put a bunch of taxpayer money in unless we know there’s actually accountability at the backend.
And so I feel like I always listen to folks from all sides, and I always take all perspectives, and I learn from the feedback I get, but I don’t change my perspective or opinion, or values based on who’s supporting me. I change them only based on what we think is going to deliver the best result.
Warner: Why do you think there’s so much money coming into this race from out of state, including to support you? I mean, it’s a Denver mayor’s race. I think about how… I mean, I don’t give to political campaigns because I’m a journalist, but I would be hard-pressed to give money to a race in Cincinnati.
Johnston: I think this is a moment where there is a great deal of pessimism about what’s possible in American politics, and people are looking for places where they’re optimistic there are leaders who can deliver transformational results. I think a lot of people that are supporting me are people that have supported past efforts I’ve done to take on problems that seem unsolvable, and we’ve delivered on them, whether it was getting the Dream Act passed for the first time for undocumented kids or taking on the NRA and winning to get universal background checks or magazine bans done, or Universal Preschool or affordable housing. These were problems that seemed unsolvable. We built really broad coalitions and delivered on them.
So now when people look around the country and see a lot of cities and a lot of progressive cities, frankly, that are failing at figuring this stuff out, that are failing on figuring out homelessness, are failing on figuring out affordability, are failing on public safety, people are really looking for, “Is there a city somewhere they can figure this out?” And if that city can figure it out, that would be a great model for the rest of the country, and it would be a great proof point for the rest of the country to say, “No, we really can run these cities and make them both welcoming and progressive and successful,” and I think these are the same folks that fund progressive candidates around the country that are trying to deliver those kind of results. And so I’m excited that they believe Denver can be the proofpoint to get that done.
Warner: Thank you so much, Mike.
Johnston: You bet. Thank you so much for having me.
EDITOR’S NOTE: As we were going through our list to make sure we had asked the same questions of Johnston as we did of his opponent, Kelly Brough, we realized there was one issue we hadn’t yet discussed. And that is, the future of DIA. Amid what seems like unending construction, Ryan Warner asked if the improvement project has been botched.
Johnston: I think I am probably together with most Denver residents who feel very frustrated about the DIA experience. It’s both taken too long. It’s been way too expensive. We’ve paid too much money that didn’t actually go to get things built, but to pay people off for projects that they didn’t complete. And that always feels bad as a resident.
And you know, I think Denver has, for a long time been a great airport experience and people love and had pride in it. And in the last couple years it’s really taken a turn for the worst. And we get that you need to make improvements, but we want them to be on time, on budget, and still have the lived experience of the airport, be one you’re proud of. It’s still the front door of the city. And if people land here and don’t like being here, it makes them not want to come back.
And so I think that we can do far better and would need to do far better in the next four years to make sure we hold the airport accountable, we get great services back there, and we get it on time and on budget.
Warner: Now, those aren’t tax dollars, right? They’re fees and they’re surcharges on tickets and such. But how do you get it back on track? Who do you get it back on track with? Because your job in part would be to find an airport director.
Johnston: I think that, you know, Phil Washington was new in that role before Biden tried to lure him away to run the FAA. And I think he’s a very talented guy. I’ve heard good things, good feedback from both the employees out there as well as from some of the partners. But the progress he’s making, I’d want to sit down and talk to him about his vision. But yeah, it is not taxpayer dollars, but it is a public icon. The airport really is overseen still by the city and partnership, and we’ve got to make sure that it meets our high quality for services. And I would want to find the right airport director who we know could deliver that. I’m obviously excited to talk to Phil about what he sees as his vision as step one, but we know we have to get tighter accountability, faster timelines, and more efficient use of dollars.