The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
Time flies when you have a new mayor. October 25 marks 100 days since Mike Johnston’s inauguration, and since succeeding the old Michael—Hancock, that is—Johnston has begun implementing an ambitious agenda. So far, much of the public’s attention has focused on what the new mayor is doing to address homelessness, which makes sense given Johnston’s lofty promises to end unsheltered homelessness (people living on the streets) during his first term in office and house 1,000 people by December 31st of this year.
To that end, Johnston announced a state of emergency regarding homelessness on his first day as mayor. More recently, the city acquired two hotels and broke ground on three micro-communities to provide additional housing. Denver also just became the seventh city to join President Joe Biden’s ALL INside initiative, which will provide Denver with a dedicated federal official to help the city navigate federal funding streams and opportunities for housing vouchers through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. At press time, the city housed 183 people in Johnston’s “House1000” push, according to a new city dashboard that maintains a running tally.
Give One Year of 5280 for just $16.
But while polls showed that homelessness and housing were the top concerns for voters in last spring’s mayoral election, other issues, such as crime, also weighed heavily on Denverites’ minds.
“It’s been a little bit intimidating to discover that every single thing that anyone in Denver cares about somehow runs through the mayor’s office,” Johnston says. “But the breadth of impact that the city can have—from parks to business startups to public safety—has been inspiring.”
One hundred days in, we spoke with Johnston about four things he and his team have been focused on, in addition to tackling the city’s homelessness crisis.
Drafting a Budget
One of Johnston’s most pressing tasks during his first 100 days has been drafting his administration’s first budget. In his proposed $4 billion budget, unveiled in mid-September, Johnston lays out his priorities. “The big four that you’ll really see are homelessness, affordable housing, public safety, and economic revitalization,” he says.
The City Council will request amendments as it reviews the proposal—and is already clashing with the mayor over additional discretionary spending the councilmembers want—and the passage of the final budget is not required until November 13. According to the mayor’s office, if Johnston has his way, the budget will create 3,000 new affordable housing units and provide funding for 167 new police recruits, which would be the largest class since 2005.
“Being focused on public safety is also about making sure we have the right responder at the right time,” Johnston says. “So it’s about expanding our STAR program, and expanding our co-responder program, so that we have both mental health professionals and officers that can respond to issues.”
Contending With His First Unexpected Crisis
“The biggest unanticipated issue has been the resurgence of migrant arrivals,” Johnston says. Denver has sheltered more than 20,000 migrants since December 2022, and during Johnston’s first months on the job, he says that number ticked up significantly—from sheltering about 400 migrants a night to more than 2,500 per night. That’s in part due to migrants being bussed to the Mile High City from the Lone Star State at the direction of Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
“I reached out to [Abbott], but he has not responded,” Johnston says. “But our real push has been making sure we can get people access to work authorization wherever we can, and that’s been a good opportunity for us to work on both regional and national partnerships.”
Johnston has already been talking to the mayors of Houston and El Paso about how they’re dealing with migrant influxes of their own. And he says he will be traveling to Washington, D.C., soon to join some of those mayors in advocating that the federal government continue addressing the arrival of migrants to the United States. “That can include increased access to work authorization, increased capacity for adjudicating asylum cases earlier at the border, having more funding to support folks when they arrive, and having a coordinated entry strategy—so it’s not just the governor of Texas deciding where everybody should go,” Johnston says.
Filling Cabinet and Senior Staff Positions
Voters may pick the mayor, but it’s up to the mayor to fill his cabinet and appoint senior staffers. “We’re almost finished hiring all 64 of our appointees over these 100 days,” Johnston says. “And in the next two weeks we’ll finish the hiring of all 24 of our cabinet agency heads.” Johnston has retained some appointees from his predecessor, while also bringing in newcomers.
Remaining cabinet positions that Johnston hasn’t nominated anyone for yet include the executive director of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure; executive director of the Department of Public Health and Environment; manager of Department of Safety; executive director of General Services; and executive director of Community Planning and Development.
Reactivating Downtown and Tying His Priorities Together
Earlier this month, Johnston announced the Dynamic Downtown Denver Grant, which would provide $350,000 to locals who submit creative ideas to reactivate downtown. The mayor says there have already been 25 submissions for the grant. “Maybe it’s a small startup bakery, or you want to bring a marching band, or have a pickleball tournament,” he says. “It’s about a chance to come downtown and bring the life that people love about the city down to the center.”
The grant is an example, Johnston says, of how many of his administration’s priorities are interrelated. “If we get people who are unhoused into housing, that connects with our work on affordable housing,” he says. “To get more permanently affordable units connects to public safety—since right now 60 percent of some of our police districts’ calls are to encampments. And getting people housed helps drive economic revitalization, making people want to patronize businesses and feel safe walking through the streets and parks. We think all these priorities are connected. That’s why we’re going to focus on all of them at the same time.”