March 18 2022
Low-income Hispanic* families in Denver were already struggling to pay for housing even before the pandemic hit in mid-March of 2020. As the pandemic began, I was several months into my ethnographic dissertation documenting the experiences of families in a neighborhood at risk of gentrification as these families faced the rising costs in Denver’s booming housing market. I started making connections in summer 2019 in the low-income southwest Denver neighborhood of Westwood. That winter, I began meeting with 35 low-income predominantly Hispanic residents to learn about their neighborhood, housing costs, and wellbeing. I attended neighborhood meetings, community events, and informational sessions and went on neighborhood tours and walks with residents as I slowly became welcome into their homes.
I met Marcos [pseudonym], 24, a week before the onset of the pandemic in a small conference room of a local food justice nonprofit where I had been volunteering, working at their events and in their neighborhood food co-op as a part of my research strategy to engage with residents and community stakeholders. Marcos found out about my interest in housing through a family member, who recommended that he come talk to me about his experiences with pest-infested apartments, being scammed trying to purchase a mobile home, and his dreams of moving to a nicer neighborhood. Marcos, a second generation Mexican-American, grew up in Westwood. He has moved around a lot within the neighborhood, his rent increasing each time. When his girlfriend got pregnant, they moved in with his family, and have frequently moved in with family at times of financial stress.
When I first met Marcos, he was leaning back comfortably in a folding chair in a sweatshirt and jeans, and shared that he was feeling secure renting a subsidized housing unit in one of the new affordable housing buildings in the neighborhood with his wife and children. He was soft spoken, open to talking about his disappointments, and spoke sincerely about wanting more for his family. Marcos worked full-time for a local energy company, but had been exploring warehouse shift work to support caretaking for his child with special needs.
When I asked if he wants to stay in the neighborhood, he said,
The Hispanic neighborhood of Westwood has remained affordable compared to the rest of the city because of its older housing stock. Yet, gentrification can be more likely in racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods (Hwang, 2015), including immigrant destinations such as Westwood. Residents are alert to the unprecedented rising rental costs. In a process of ‘precarious placemaking’ (Hinkson, 2017), residents are aware of the instability and insecurity in their housing futures, yet knowingly participate in active placemaking where they are.
Just a week after my first interview with Marcos, COVID-19 began to dominate the news in mid-March. My only recollection of talking about the virus before the nonprofit closed was with an elderly Hispanic woman purchasing dried beans and a package of Lysol wipes, just in case, I’ve heard other places are out. I sat behind the nonprofit’s food co-op cash register and watched as she and a few other people trickled in to grab a gallon of milk or other small groceries on their way home from work, chatty as they paid and headed home from a regular day. That night, I went to the nearby Costco where the scene was different – anxiety-laden, affluent families loaded their carts with bags of rice, beans, canned tuna, and snacks, and no one made small talk in the long queues at the checkout counters.
I text messaged residents from my study to check in with them a month or two later. Marcos was slow to reengage. I called him to talk mid-summer in 2022. As I heard him come onto the phone, I could hear the stress in his voice as he talked about how staying home while trying to keep up with rent and bills was getting to him. He had recently moved out from the subsidized apartment after receiving notice that the monthly rent was increasing by $200. He had decided instead to find a house for rent so his kids could have outdoor space while out of school, but it came at a higher price even though his mom and brother also moved in to combine resources.
He had taken the warehouse job because of the flexibility in shifts, though he was now regretting it as he shuffled into work with up to 100 people, with no choice but to be less than 6 feet apart. Marcos has struggled his whole life with asthma, many times made worse by the condition of his substandard apartments, and his doctor wrote a letter to his employer to allow him to take unpaid leave. He said,
Staying housed, particularly for low-income populations with limited access to health care, is essential during a pandemic when “stay-at-home” orders have been the first line of protection from infection and quarantines are recommended for exposure. During COVID-19, heads of households have to work to continue paying the rent—and low-income residents are more likely to do work outside of the home that is deemed essential, making them structurally vulnerable through economic exploitation (Quesada et al, 2011). Despite the risk of his asthma, Marcos knew he couldn’t sit out longer and rely on the stimulus check, food banks, and other family members to pay the rent, so he finally returned to work.
As Amazon packages piled up in apartment building hallways for those who were working from home and clicking ‘add to cart’ rather than risking exposure in stores, Marcos made a spray bottle with sanitizer in preparation of returning to work, so he could sanitize his clothing after packing similar orders in the crowded warehouse. Coronavirus infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are disproportionately high among Hispanic residents in Colorado (Podewils et al, 2020), and in Denver, Westwood was hardest hit among neighborhoods by COVID-19 (Colorado Health Institute, 2021). Marcos knew that his asthma continued to put him at increased risk for severe illness and hospitalization from COVID-19.
In the meantime, as the pandemic continues, housing pressure and the threat of displacement continues for low-income Hispanic families. Denver Metro area median home prices have consistently risen in the past decade due to demand, and the pandemic has not slowed the housing market or the exploitative high rent in low-income neighborhoods (Desmond & Wilmers, 2019). Marcos acknowledges that the pandemic is making his dream of homeownership less attainable.
The housing crisis for low-income families extends beyond the pandemic, but the ongoing public health crisis brings in new barriers that have complicated situations further for residents such as Marcos. He was not protected from substantial rent increases within an “affordable” housing complex – a failure in the longevity of these subsidies, which forced him to move into the uncontrolled private rental market. His strategy to avoid becoming infected with COVID-19 by staying home from a job further endangered his housing security. Marcos’ situation could not be adequately remedied through the stimulus check, food banks, or family member support that was available to him. Like many residents in Westwood, he was unaware of the federal eviction moratorium. In any case, it wouldn’t have addressed Marcos’ main concern – the rapidly rising rent costs in the area.
In the critical tradition of using ethnography for advocacy, documenting the experiences of residents like Marcos is vital, showing how the barriers to certain supports can demonstrate the limited effectiveness of programs that seek to help stabilize low-income families and communities of color. State and city governments must develop long-term anti-displacement and rent control strategies that prioritize diverse and vibrant cities.
* Many of my study participants self-identify as Hispanic, which is why I have chosen to use this racial/ethnic descriptor in this piece.
Colorado Health Institute. (2021, July 15). COVID-19 Diagnoses by Census Tract. https://www.coloradohealthinstitute.org/research/covid-19-diagnoses-census-tract.
Desmond, M., & Wilmers, N. (2019). Do the poor pay more for housing? Exploitation, profit, and risk in rental markets. American Journal of Sociology, 124(4), 1090-1124.
Hinkson, M. (2017). Precarious placemaking. Annual Review of Anthropology, 46, 49-64.
Hwang, J. (2015). Gentrification in changing cities: Immigration, new diversity, and racial inequality in neighborhood renewal. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 660(1), 319-340.
Podewils, L. J., Burket, T. L., Mettenbrink, C., Steiner, A., Seidel, A., Scott, K., Cervantes, L. & Hasnain-Wynia, R. (2020). Disproportionate incidence of COVID-19 infection, hospitalizations, and deaths among persons identifying as Hispanic or Latino—Denver, Colorado March–October 2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 69(48), 1812-1816.
Quesada, J., Hart, L. K., & Bourgois, P. (2011). Structural vulnerability and health: Latino migrant laborers in the United States. Medical Anthropology, 30(4), 339-362.
Marisa Westbrook, MPH, is a PhD candidate in Health and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado Denver. Her research examines housing insecurity, neighborhood change, and health among low-income residents of Denver, Colorado.