Denver mayor candidates Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough on making housing affordable

The two have fairly similar ideas — but a few distinct proposals.
7 min. read
Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough are vying to be Denver’s next mayor.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

That Denver is too expensive and needs more housing is a perspective shared by both mayoral candidates in the Denver runoff. And they have a fairly similar understanding of how to make that happen.

Here's how former State Sen. Mike Johnston puts the problem in his plan: "More than 50% of Denver voters can't afford to live in Denver today. Families who have been here for generations are being pushed out, as well as the teachers, nurses, and first responders who serve our city."

He wants to fix that.

Here's what former Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce head Kelly Brough wants to see in her plan: "Denver should be a City where everyone -- bus drivers, grocery store workers, nurses, teachers, firefighters, artists, servers, non-profit leaders -- can afford to live. Denver should be a place where our adult children can make a home of their own. And a place where our aging parents can afford to stay in the neighborhoods where they raised their kids."

Currently, that's not the case, but that's the promise she wants to fulfill.

So how does each candidate make this pricy city affordable? We looked at their plans to find out.

Here's what they agree on.

Both candidates believe in public-private partnerships between all levels of government, nonprofits and for-profit businesses as a central strategy.

Both think the city needs more development along transit lines.

Both have ideas about speeding up city permitting for developers and making building easier.

Both want to use factory-built construction to make building in the city cheaper.

Both support rental-assistance programs.

Both plan to use Proposition 123, a statewide ballot measure Johnston authored and voters passed in 2022, to address and fund affordable housing strategies. The measure dedicates $300 million a year to increase the number of local income-restricted housing units and to support other initiatives to create housing and combat homelessness. Those include land banks -- the purchase of land for future projects, financing for low- and middle-income housing, loans for modular and factory-built housing, rental assistance, eviction defense and more.

Both have received funding from developers and real estate investors and are generally considered competent by both industries.

Both candidates say density is important and value neighborhood character.

Here's how Brough distinguishes herself.

Brough's take is that "taxpayers already own acres of land across Denver that are being underutilized today" and she would work to turn those into housing.

She plans to take inventory of all the parking lots and vacant and underused buildings owned by the city, the Regional Transportation District and Denver Public Schools, along with privately owned land from churches, businesses and nonprofits. She would build on top of surface-level parking lots, an idea she borrowed from Munich, Germany.

"We will prioritize speed and quality over politics and bureaucracy," her plan states.

Her administration would focus on "deeply incentivizing the conversion of vacant and underutilized commercial space to housing or other needed uses like childcare," the plan notes.

Under current zoning, that's tough. So she'd push for pragmatic zoning changes that make converting commercial to residential easier. She plans to fund such projects through tax credits -- which historically have been tough to access.

She wants to encourage homeowners to build accessory dwelling units, to increase gentle density, with pre-approved designs, faster-permitting processes and low- or -no-interest financing.

Here's her take on density: "Higher density, walkable neighborhoods are vibrant and support a thriving small business economy," she writes. "There are multiple approaches for achieving density -- ADUs, duplexes, row homes/townhouses, condos and apartments -- and we need to mix and match these approaches to make fast, smart progress in ways that are consistent with and complementary of a neighborhood's existing character."

She'd give developers density bonuses if they incorporate affordable units in their builds -- a practice that is already part of the city's Expanding Housing Affordability plans. She'd make way for this strategy by pushing City Council to revise zoning and neighborhood plans.

Brough would use City money to pay for land near transit and persuade developers to build income-restricted housing there.

She'd hire a leader to work across City departments to ensure they're efficient and streamline city planning and rezoning, perhaps aligning planning and rezoning processes to run concurrently."

Currently, Community Planning and Development oversees both long-term planning and shorter-term permitting. Ultimately, she'd separate community planning from development by changing the city's charter.

"The goal will be to ensure that community planning is taking a thoughtful and measured long-term view, while a new Development Review Department embraces a customer-service approach focused on efficiency in fulfilling essential functions that deliver projects quickly, safely and more affordably," Brough's plan notes.

She also argues, 'the City has an important role to play in reducing speculation to protect housing opportunities for Denverites."

Brough would audit current anti-displacement programs to determine which ones work. She'd create policies that would encourage landlords to keep their properties rented instead of vacant. And she'd consider new rules, regulations and taxes that would address real estate speculation, though she doesn't detail what those might be in her plan.

Here's how Johnston distinguishes himself.

Johnston's first priority is spending $72 million to create more than 25,000 permanently affordable units in 8 years, to have the workforce -- especially cops, firefighters, teachers and nurses -- live near their jobs. That would be funded through money made available through Proposition 123 and would double the current stock of affordable housing.

"This effort will include both new construction and the conversion of existing market-rate units to permanently affordable housing," the plan states. "New affordable housing units will be integrated into housing developments with market-rate units, ensuring mixed-income socio-economic integration that benefits all Denver residents."

Those income-restricted homes would be made permanently affordable through deed restrictions -- limits on how the properties can be used. That's a departure from some current projects that are designated income-restricted for 15 years.

"This means the rent doesn't go up unless your income does: an income-eligible renter will never pay more than 30% of their income to rent," he writes.

Johnston would create a citywide tenant wealth-building program, in which renters would have a portion of their rent set aside in a savings account that they could use in five to 10 years for a down payment on a house or for a child's education. The idea would be that renters -- not investors -- would be building wealth. The mechanism comes from Proposition 123 that Johnston worked on in 2022.

"Investors drive up costs and take huge profits -- frequently at the expense of tenants," he wrote. "That is why we helped create a new financing tool in Proposition 123 that gives renters a portion of the returns on the property's investment."

Johnston would also expand the city's down payment assistance fund to the tune of $9 million from Proposition 123.

He'd also push for zoning-code shifts, including reducing -- and perhaps eliminating -- parking mandates near mass transit, making it cheaper for developers to build market-rate housing.

Parking mandates make it "harder to build housing," he writes, "by requiring developers to provide parking for each new unit of housing -- even along major transit corridors, where vehicle use is much lower. I will work to eliminate those outdated requirements, which will have the added benefit of creating a greener city."

Not all parts of the city will necessarily see new density, according to Johnston's plan.

"To meaningfully achieve housing abundance in Denver, we must add density in select areas of the city, which is prohibited in many areas by our zoning code," he wrote in his plan. "As Mayor, I will explore sensible changes to zoning to help increase density in neighborhoods where it makes sense."

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