By Sarah Ford
Kayvan Khalatbari announced his candidacy for mayor of Denver in 2017, decidedly early at two years before the election. A year later he has momentum, raising over $100,000 for his campaign so far and outpacing Mayor Michael Hancock’s fundraising in the first quarter of 2018.
One of the tenants of Khalatbari’s campaign is addressing poverty and homelessness in Denver, an issue close to his heart after experiencing homelessness himself for a nine-month period before starting his string of successful businesses including Sexy Pizza. The Denver VOICE sat down with Khalatbari to talk about his campaign, homelessness in Denver, and why he sees himself overtaking two-term incumbent Michael Hancock.
Denver VOICE: Coming from a background in entrepreneurship, what was the catalyst for you to jump into politics now?
Kayvan Khalatbari: I’ve been involved in criminal justice reform and drug policy reform for about 13 years out here, and getting involved in drug policy reform, especially, really opened the door to other issues — housing, employment, race issues, gentrification, and all that. I saw — as the city grew, I’ve had opportunity in business to grow — I haven’t seen the response from the city I would have liked on some of these social issues. I ran for City Council three years ago to kind of encourage some of the conversations along. All the issues we’re dealing with today are issues we were dealing with back then, they’ve just gotten much larger, and I don’t feel the city’s done everything in our power to address them and to keep Denver an equitable city. I think, ultimately, we have to boost people that are of privilege, like myself, to get out of their comfort zone and to try to do things that are better for everybody, not just businesses. So, I’m stepping in and setting those businesses aside to do that.
DV: You ran for City Council in 2015, but outside of that don’t have much experience in politics. What do you feel you have to do to prove yourself against an incumbent like Mayor Hancock?
KK: Polling shows, first and foremost, that people are ready for a change at that position. We’re seeing almost two-thirds of Denverites want to see a new mayor. I believe it’s great to have experience outside of city government. This is something that this mayor does not have. He’s never run a business, he’s never organized people on the ground, he’s never done anything, really, other than driving a nonprofit into the ground and holding elected office in this city. I think a lot of the bad deals that we’re making, especially with regard to affordable housing, especially with regard to the large developers, large projects … we’re getting bamboozled, frankly, by some of these private interests because we don’t have an understanding of these issues within our city departments.
The clearest example is on housing, where we don’t have a single person that works for our city that has any sort of development experience in housing. I think that gets shown in the bad deals that we have consistently been a part of, that have created the housing crisis that we’re in right now. So it’s a matter of me being able to, just as I have in business, surround myself with really intelligent, compassionate people that care about Denver and to work together to be transparent in how we operate and to be honest about our problems. Because that’s the only way that we’re going to be able to deal with them, is in a collaborative way. That simply hasn’t happened. We’ve shut the doors on community input, on collaboration, on using evidence and research-based outcomes, and how we’re driving Denver forward. So I think it’s a matter of me surrounding myself, and continuing to do so, with the right people that know how to address these issues.
I’ve also, I think, become a viable candidates in the eyes of pundits and the media when it comes to fundraising. We have more than 350 volunteers already, we started knocking on doors nine months before the election, which is unheard of in a local election, and polling numbers suggest that people are ready for a change. I think the climate in America is ready for a change, for different people who are offering new perspectives, new ideas, and thinking forward. Not just looking at old policies that we’ve used for decades that have gotten us into this mess in the first place.
DV: You’ve talked a lot about the homelessness crisis in Denver and that’s become one of the main platforms of your campaign. What do you see as the immediate needs of addressing homelessness in Denver and what would your first steps be as mayor?
KK: First, addressing the conviction that housing is a human right. And until we start viewing it through that lens, I don’t know that we’re ever going to find resolve on this issue. Under my administration, the days of commoditizing housing and giving that deference to developers to make a profit, those days are over. We need to gather all the resources that are now very ineffectively being spent across many departments and divisions without talking to each other. We need to roll that up into a concerted effort that understands, one, that housing is a human right and, two, that the continuum of care is necessary. That housing is only as good as the services and the opportunities that people have. If we’re just putting folks in a box on the fourth floor of a building without community, without proper mental health services, substance abuse treatments, without workforce opportunities, without education, that we’re not really giving folks their agency back again to be able to run their own lives. It starts with hiring that person that has that experience in housing. Not just in building housing but in developing those continuum of care type services, wrangling the troops — our partners in this effort — which should be, really, everybody. Urban Land Conservancy, Denver Housing Authority, nonprofits, foundations all really need to pool together their resources and land and money to implement a comprehensive social housing plan. That’s going to be the main core of my plan, understanding that we need to remove the profit motive from this if we’re going to find resolve in it.
But it starts with housing-first solutions, with those services. That model is proven in Salt Lake City. We’ve seen, I think, a 75 percent reduction in chronic homelessness. We’ve seen a 60 percent reduction in ongoing services related to these people when we get them in housing and we get them the support that they need to take care of themselves.
DV: You mentioned viewing housing as a human right. A lot of your plan relies on not just changing our approach systemically, but changing the perspective of our responsibility to people experiencing homelessness and poverty. How do you start changing that perspective not just in policy but within the community?
KK: I think we need to get people out to vote, and that starts with educating them about how close, I think, a lot of folks are to homelessness. The fact that 25 percent of people that live in the city are cost-burdened in their housing, that 25 percent of renters are paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing … that’s unsustainable.
When you realize that over half the people living on the streets have jobs, but the services and the housing necessary aren’t there to get them back on their feet, I think it really opens people’s eyes. I’ve been going around town talking to people and delivering these statistics and talking about the fact we have four or five empty units in this city for every person living on the streets. I think it shows folks that our priorities are backwards, that they’re misguided, and folks are getting on board with that.
But the true ability of, one, for me to get elected and, two, for us to see change on this is to get people out to vote municipally. We had such dramatic turnout, the best in the nation, for our last presidential election here in Denver at 84 percent, and we had 30 percent turnout in our last mayoral. People need to understand that who our mayor and city council members are is far more important than who the president of the United States is. That’s where these policies and this education starts from, and it’s our job as candidates and elected officials and as city government to do that.
DV: Sexy Pizza is doing really well right now, but we just heard that Marlowe’s, Paramount Cafe, and Gov’s Park are all closing down. This comes on the heels of the Spaghetti Factory and a number of other long-term restaurants here in Denver. What do you see as the city’s role in helping local businesses as the city continues to grow?
KK: Another member of my policy platform, which is going to come out after the housing plan, is going to be local economy. We hope to release that in the next 30 to 45 days, and that’s going to focus on all the things we should be doing to create a strong local economy here in Denver that empowers the residents again. When you look at what we’re doing at the city and state level, most of the money that the office of economic development is putting out into the world is in the form of millions and millions of dollars to try to pursue major corporation headquarters to move to Denver. A great recent example is the Northface deal. Granted, that was at the state level, the city does many similar things. You could look at DIA, the Western Stock Show, I-70 (referring to the I-70 expansion project). But the Northface deal was $27 million to get a headquarters to move here that’s going to bring only high-paying jobs. But most of those high-paying jobs are going to come from outside of this city and state and put more pressure on our housing. As opposed to what that money could do to empower small businesses, to make lending more accessible, to make it more cost-effective for them, to have the resources not just in empowering small businesses but cooperative-owned models, employee-owned models. These are all ways we can stretch our dollar to empower more people and try to keep intact the communities that are being most harmed our growth.
But it needs to be a prioritization of the Office of Economic Development to say, “We understand that a local economy is built in small local businesses, that 43 percent of the money that we spend in those businesses stays in Denver, that 13 percent of the money that we spend in Walmart or any other national company — only that much stays in Denver. That it behooves us economically to keep small businesses thriving here in Denver.” I want to see that shift happen very quickly.
I also see us moving towards chartering a public bank here in Denver, which would save us $75 million a year, at least, in interest to Wall Street banks, from really mis-managed lending that we’ve participated in as a part of our go-bond initiative last year — a go-bond that doesn’t have any housing in it — that’s eight times more money than we spent in affordable housing last year. To have that kind of money available right now without raising taxes, I think, is a huge opportunity that empowers us locally to be able to get our credit unions and our banks to lend at a lower rate and it allows us to lend in a recession, which I think we’re on the verge of again in this country. Public banks allow us to get through that without much harm done to our local businesses and small economy.
DV: We found out yesterday that the Olympic bid may be on the ballot next May. Where do you stand on that idea, something that Mayor Hancock has been very supportive of?
KK: I’ve been quietly working behind the scenes on that ballot initiative, for us to vote no. I am firmly opposed to the Olympics coming here. I think if we had solved all of our problems here locally, if we didn’t have a high rate of homelessness, if we didn’t have some of these other issues that we’re dealing with, then yeah, maybe we can look at the Olympics. I still don’t think it should ever include taxpayer dollars, but to put this shiny object out there 10 years in the future, we’re going to start to see our city, our departments, our resources focused on that instead of the very pressing problems that we’re dealing with in the city right now. So, I’m firmly opposed to the Olympics coming here with the current state of things.
DV: Something we hear all the time is that print is dying, magazines are dying, and that this is an industry that isn’t really supported anymore. But you jumped in to support Birdy Magazine. Why do you see a need for community journalism and art publications like the VOICE and Birdy?
KK: I think, first, we’ve seen our media here in Denver and most places across the country be diluted dramatically. With a hedge-fund owned paper being the only major newspaper we have in this city, I think, is a huge problem. It makes profit the priority over good journalism. Not to say there aren’t good journalists at the Denver Post, but they’re working on so many more issues than they normally would that they’re not getting as deep into fact-finding and doing the good work that they need to.
There’s great [publications] like Denverite, Business Den and some of these others that are out there, but it’s just not … these are not news outlets that a lot of people read every day or get their news from.
Not to say that Birdy is a news outlet, but I think we do talk about social issues. We do talk about the importance of some of these other things that traditional media has kind of lost sight of: community, how a creative economy can be beneficial to the city of Denver, what it means to empower folks in some of these things that we’re going to be talking about during my campaign — affordable housing, healthy food initiatives, and things like that.
With regard to print advertising, people have been saying it’s dying for a while but I think it’s as strong as it’s ever been here in Denver with Birdy, Suspect Press, Salt Magazine … there’s a ton of them out there. People want something tangible, especially a younger audience that is kind of getting a little disillusioned with everything being so tech-based and everything being so digital. I think there’s a huge need for something that people can pick up and hold and actually absorb.
It’s also a great way to empower creatives that are really getting pushed out by the city as well, not just in housing but in opportunities to explore their art and their creative side. When you look at RiNo Art District, our city’s putting all of it’s money into that, let’s be frank — it’s not an art district. It’s an entertainment and housing district that pushed out most of the wonderful creatives doing good work here in Denver. So, if the city doesn’t want to help empower these young creatives, I think it behooves the private side of things to do so. It ultimately ends up being a great marketing outlet for not only my businesses but other small independent businesses across Denver that are putting their brain in front of an audience that I think really cares about supporting those kinds of businesses.
DV: We view our vendors as entrepreneurs. Coming from a strong entrepreneurial background, what tips would you give them and what do you view as keys to success in that area?
KK: I think it’s an interesting concept having the VOICE empower folks who are experiencing homelessness because, you know, I was homeless when I started my entrepreneurial career ten years ago for about nine months. I think you have to be willing to give everything up. You have to be willing to know that things aren’t going to go the way you had hoped they would, but if you keep persevering, keep trying, if you’re consistent in your efforts and your intentions, it’ll work out. It may not work out the way that you wanted it to, but it will. Even if it doesn’t, there are lessons to be learned in those failures, if you want to call them that. It’s also important to, hopefully, learn from those and then collaborate going forward.
I should note that I’m a minority owner in every business that I own, and they are a product of people collaborating that are different from each other, that have different perspectives, that argue, that don’t agree on everything, and are still able to come together with a common mission. That’s one of the main reasons I want to see this city and our resources focused on empowering these folks through collective models and employee-owned models. We’re currently looking at turning Sexy Pizza into an employee-owned business to serve as an example of not only starting something new but taking these existing businesses that are out there — how can private business owners move towards a model that is more equitable and fair and empowering of as many people as possible?
DV: I have to mention how cool it was for you to put the lockers (for people experiencing homelessness to store their items) outside of Sexy Pizza.
KK: We actually just got a grant from Redline for $15,000, so we are expanding that program and we’re finding new businesses right now. Apparently, we have dozens that are interested, and we’re now working on that with Denver Homeless Out Loud to expand it.
I think that’s a great example of how we should want businesses in this city to be part of the solution. It can’t just all be on the government, not just on nonprofits and service providers. It’s really important that we engage private space to be better stewards of the communities in which they operate. Ink! Coffee was a great example of that, right?
If they had employed people from within that neighborhood, I guarantee that sign would have never made it out on the sidewalk. If we can all do our part, no matter how small it is, to combat some of these issues that we’re dealing with, it makes the government’s job a heck of a lot easier at the end of the day. And it’s good for business, in my opinion, because the people in the neighborhood and the people in Denver really appreciate a program like the one we did at Sexy Pizza.
DV: We wanted to include a question from one of our vendors, David Gordon. He gave us the question he would ask if he could meet with you. He asks, “If elected Mayor, would you deal hands-on with the issue of homelessness or would you turn it over to someone else in your administration?”
KK: Well, I think it’s collaborative. I don’t think any one person can solve this, it takes everyone at the table. But, I would be very hands-on. I think I have and understanding of it having experienced homelessness myself. I still sleep on the streets every winter because I want to know how police are treating them, how folks from the city and service folks are treating people experiencing homelessness when they think that I’m one of them.
I think it is important that, whatever issue we’re dealing with, we have a mayor and other members of the administration within different departments and divisions that understand these issues first-hand. You cannot be detached. That’s one of the reasons I decided to run, because I do have a lot of first-hand experience with regard to drug use, with mental health issues, addiction, homelessness, dealing with housing crises, dealing with small businesses, dealing with community organizing. I don’t think I would have the tools necessary to run for mayor if I wasn’t hands-on, and I don’t see any reason why that would stop if I got elected.
DV: David actually gave me a follow-up: If there is a collaborative effort, will there be a member of the homeless community involved in any committee that you put together?
KK: A hundred percent. When you are engaging in any topic and trying to find resolve on issues, you have to have every stakeholder at the table. That’s people that we agree with and oppose on the policies that we’re implementing, and that definitely includes the people most affected by that issue.
Two things you are going to find in my housing plan are the creation of a renter’s commission, which includes people most affected by eviction issues, by the rising crisis in rent, some of the landlord opportunism that we’re dealing with, to make sure that they have a voice at the table.
Two, right now we have this housing advisory committee that has the only housing experts associated with the city, they don’t even get listened to. I’m going to disband that and create a “housing is a human right” committee, and that will no doubt include, I would say, at least one person experiencing homelessness on that board. Because unless you are getting those voices at the table, it’s going to be very hard to come up with solutions that these folks will buy into. They need to feel like partners in those solutions. That’s going to be my intention, to make sure that their voice is heard. ■