By many measures, Denver is experiencing a period of enviable prosperity. Since 2011, the population has increased 10 percent, total employment is up 19 percent and the household median income is up 12 percent. In that time, Denver has climbed to the top of national “best of” lists for attracting millennials and college graduates. This year it opened a 22.8-mile light rail line between the airport and downtown, which connects to a growing public transit network.
Michael Hancock is proud of Denver’s progress, but the mayor spends much of his time these days making sure that the upswing isn’t reserved for the wealthiest and best-educated in his community. “It’s important that we utilize the prosperity,” Hancock says, “to bring along those who may not have the skills or tools necessary to come along on their own.”
One statistic Hancock has memorized is 35 percent, which is the share of Denver residents who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent or a mortgage. Denver’s recent economic boom has led to higher housing costs, placing a greater burden on those whose wages haven’t kept pace with monthly payments. The latest of Hancock’s efforts in this area is a 10-year, $150 million initiative to create or preserve at least 6,000 affordable housing units.
Hancock, who is 47 years old, knows firsthand about the problems low-income families face. He spent part of his childhood homeless, living in and out of motels with his mother and nine siblings. He lost a brother to AIDS and a sister to a murder-suicide.
Before his political career began, Hancock worked with low-income families at the Denver Housing Authority and a local chapter of the Urban League. “The test of our progress,” he said at his State of the City address in July, “is … whether we provide enough for those who have little.”
Last year, the mayor led a campaign to renew and increase sales tax funding for a countywide pre-kindergarten program he helped create when he was city council president. The measure made permanent tuition assistance for low-income families and is expected to lead to new class offerings for 3-year-olds and a revival of summer preschool.
Hancock’s success in raising new revenues for social programs built on a political win early in his first term: In 2012, he persuaded voters, by a large margin, to opt out of state-mandated caps on property tax spending. His affordable housing plan relies in part on this fundraising mechanism to pay for the creation and maintenance of low-cost residential units.
Hancock has also invested time and energy in improving the day-to-day tasks of government management. Several years ago, his administration rolled out the Denver Peak Academy, an employee-led innovation program housed in the budget office. As of June, the city claimed more than $15 million in savings from ideas proposed by the roughly 5,000 academy graduates who work for the city. The program combines process improvement and behavioral nudge techniques to shorten customer wait times, reduce waste and generally improve the quality of government services. “I don’t ever pretend that this is about me,” Hancock says. “I don’t pick up one trash can. I don’t sit with one client who needs benefits from the city. It’s really the employees who have captured the vision and executed it flawlessly.”
-- By J.B. Wogan
See the rest of the 2016 Public Officials of the Year.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this misstated the month of the State of the City address and the percent of Denver residents who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent or a mortgage.