By Kevin Collison
During a recent visit to old friends in Denver, I got a kick out of their 20-something son’s T-shirt.
On it was an image of the retro-wooden, highway sign you see crossing the border: “Welcome to Colorful Colorado.”
Beneath it read “No Vacancy.”
It was telling of the huge growth boom going on these days in Denver and the blowback it’s causing when it comes to affordability, especially for millennials.
While native Coloradans have always been a bit resentful of newcomers, remember “Don’t Californicate Colorado” from over 20 years ago? today it’s become a demographic avalanche.
And it’s making it very tough for a young adult, whom the state is attracting in droves, to live in its vibrant downtown area.
“I think overall, Denver is pretty overpriced,” said Annie Trulaske, 24. “Buildings are going up fast, but the demand is so high the developers know they’ll fill those spaces.”
Millennials, people born between 1981-97, are the largest population group in metro Denver with 891,500 in 2015. There are now an estimated 3.1 million people living in the metro area, up from 2.8 million in the 2010 Census.
Denver ranked 7th in the nation attracting 20-somethings with a 6 percent growth rate between 2010-13, according to urban expert Joel Kotkin. Kansas City ranked 46th with a 1.3 percent growth rate.
And rents are mile-high despite a huge boom in apartment construction.
The downtown Denver skyline is speckled with construction cranes these days hovering above high-rise projects. The Denver Post estimated 4,200 new apartments will be added downtown in 2017 alone. That compares with 4,950 units in the entire Kansas City Metro this year, according to Colliers International.
And despite the rapid construction, rents remain a struggle for millennials arriving in Denver. A spot check of downtown rents on ApartmentList.com found studios going from $1,200- to $1,500; one bedrooms from $1,400- to $2,000, and two-bedrooms from $2,000- to over $2,500.
Trulaske moved to Denver with a friend from St. Louis two years ago after graduating from college. She was drawn by the city’s vibrancy and outdoor recreational opportunities.
But she and her roommate pay $2,690 for the privilege of living in a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in the LoDo area near Coors Field and Union Station plus $125 per month for a parking space. She estimated her friends in St. Louis pay $1,800 for the same kind of place there.
Trulaske is paying a bit more for her place because it had good security and amenities.
“You have to prioritize what’s important to you,” she said. “It was important for my parents to know I was in a safe building…the good thing about Denver is even if housing is more expensive, the bars and restaurants are affordable compared to what my friends in New York and D.C. experience.
“It’s so sunny here and everyone is active,” she said. “People here go for a long hike and then go straight to a brewery to have beer with friends.”
Real Page, a national property management information firm, estimated the average rent for an apartment in downtown Denver was $1,834 vs $1,175 in downtown Kansas City, 56 percent more!
All this won’t deter young people from continuing to flock to Denver. As long as there are roomies to pile into a two-bedroom or parents back home to help subsidize them, it’s a mecca.
Rail transit, a downtown ballpark surrounded by brew pubs, marijuana dispensaries and the appeal of the mountains are a powerful draw.
Kansas City has a lot of great stuff happening downtown for young adults too.
It’s combination of affordability, convenience and gritty hipness contribute to its growing appeal. It’s come a long ways over the last decade or so, and the momentum is gaining.
But to keep going without sacrificing its appeal will require the same strategic investments Denver has made over the past 25 years including rail transit, eventually bringing the Royals downtown and loosening its freeway noose.
As for mountains, cheap flights from a new KCI terminal will do the trick. You can buy a ticket with some of the money you save on rent.