Colorado’s Need for Equitable Growth

Wooden frame of a house under construction with mountainous background.

Three decades ago, Colorado looked a lot different than it does now. Since 1992, our population has increased by 2.4 million residents over the last 30 years. Looking ahead to the next 30 years, the Centennial State is forecasted to add another 1.8 million Coloradans, making Colorado the 6th fastest-growing state in the nation, with a vast majority of that growth coming from out-of-state newcomers. 

Growth is a phenomenon Colorado must confront. Are we adequately prepared for the next population surge? Do we have the infrastructure – houses, roads, broadband, public transit, and government funding – to deal with an influx of newcomers? Do we have the human capital – labor, jobs, teachers, child care workers, government workers – to support our growing needs? How will our state’s growth impact our most vulnerable residents?

Equitable Growth & Economic Mobility

There are many reasons to rejoice in Colorado’s boom – our quality of life means Colorado is an easy choice to start a family, start a business, or look for the next outdoor adventure. In 2020, Colorado ranked fourth nationwide of states Americans are moving to live in, and our cities have some of the highest rates of millennials flocking to them. However, there are plenty of reasons to pause and reflect as Colorado rapidly grows.
At the heart of equitable growth is redefining the metrics we have traditionally relied on to showcase growth or, more broadly, define progress. A growing population or GDP is an inadequate yardstick at assessing Coloradans’ financial well-being. Thus, as our state booms, centering equitable growth in Colorado is paramount. 
We understand equitable growth to mean creating more opportunities for generational wealth for more people; reducing long standing equity gaps that exist in income, homeownership, educational attainment, and poverty rates; and proactively tackling our two-tier economy that currently disproportionately benefits the wealthy

Why Equitable Growth Matters

1. Closing the Homeownership Gap

Colorado’s hot housing market is perhaps the most prominent and headline-grabbing example of our infrastructure gaps. Historically, homeownership is also key to equitable growth, as owning a home has been the surest and most stable means of creating generational wealth – representing 50 to 70 percent of a middle-class household’s total assets. However, only 64.9 percent of Coloradans own their home, which is the 11th lowest in the nation and a 14 place drop from 2005. For residents who do not own a home, creating generational wealth is increasingly out of reach. This issue is especially acute for Coloradans of color, as the Black-white homeownership gap is 31.5 points in the Denver-Metro region. 

At the end of 2021, Denver’s Metro region (Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, Elbert, and Jefferson counties) had reached an historic housing shortage at 1,521 units on the market. Experts believe a stable market should leave a unit listed on the market for 2-3 months. Yet, on average, a house is only on the market for 29 days in the Denver market, a nearly thirty percent decrease from last year and a historic low.

Chart showing the trend of new home listings over time in the denver metro area.

Thus, if Colorado seeks to address our affordable housing stock crisis, it is essential that we consider the racial gaps already existing in Colorado’s housing landscape. 

2. Growth Touches Every Corner of Colorado

While Colorado is growing, the impact is far from even across our state. For example, urban areas along the Front Range – the corridor along I-25 from Pueblo to Fort Collins – saw 94.8 percent of all statewide growth over the last decade. These denser areas must deal with at times competing issues, such as urban sprawl, water scarcity, affordable housing, and public transportation
At the same time, our mountain communities cannot be left behind in this conversation. Crested Butte in Southwestern Colorado announced a state of emergency due to its affordable housing crisis. Aspen recently stopped all building permits and ceased short-term rental licenses as the town struggles to find workforce housing. Local and longtime residents are priced out due to an influx of wealthy newcomers. While the tangible impacts of growth might be less evident in a small mountain community, the consequences are just as dire. The ability to have a sustainable workforce, adequate housing stock, and protect yearlong residents’ quality of life is an uphill battle for municipalities, especially when rural communities face tough choices on scarce land options

3. Addressing Demographic Inequities

Two fundamental changes in our demographics are our growing aging population and our rising Latino population.
Over the next decade, Colorado is projected to see an overall 12 percent change in our population by age group. However, Colorado’s most considerable age swings will be in our older population. For instance, by 2050, Colorado’s population 65 and up is expected to double to 1.7 million people. Older Coloradans already face economic vulnerability and inadequate support systems throughout the state. As we grow, Colorado must address its supports for older Coloradans and their families, or these systems will be even more stressed. 
Another demographic trend defining the state is the growth of communities of color. By 2050, Coloradans of color are projected to represent nearly 46 percent of Colorado’s population, and our Latino population will comprise almost one-third of all Coloradans.
Stacked bar chart showing projected changes in colorado's racial composition from 2010 to 2050.
The paradox of a growingly diverse state is a more segregated population. A 2020 study titled The Roots of Structural Racism analyzed 209 metropolitan regions with more than 200,000 residents. According to several longitudinal factors, eighty-one percent of these urban areas were more segregated in 2019 than in 1990. While throughout Colorado this was true writ large, most notably, Denver was deemed a “highly segregated” city. 
So, while Colorado’s communities of color grew over the last decade, over that same time, data on Denver’s migration patterns also suggest that communities in our state are becoming more racially segregated. As predominantly white parts of Denver became whiter and less diverse, while historically Black neighborhoods and the broader Metro-area saw its non-white population grow. 
Increased racial segregation is problematic for many reasons, but especially for economic mobility. Racist policies and segregation contribute to higher poverty rates, lower educational attainment, lower college enrollment, and increased police exposure among communities of color—all factors that hold Coloradans back from economic mobility. In Colorado, communities of color face systemic resource barriers to increased economic mobility. For instance, Latinos, Colorado’s fastest growing demographic, has the lowest average educational attainment and the lowest college enrollment rate of any group in the state. Other barriers to upward economic mobility include higher poverty rates and police exposure.

Centering Equitable Growth & Pathways Forward

Colorado’s population boom highlights a need to pay attention to the impacts of a growing population, center equitable growth in a broader conversation, and look for possible pathways forward. Much of the Bell Policy Center’s work touches on a myriad of issues pertaining to growth, such as aging, early child care, the future of work and learning, and housing. Not only will we continue researching these areas, we will seek further ways to highlight why equitable growth matters and explore possible mechanisms in the future to ensure our growth benefits all Coloradans, not just a select few.