Denver Councilwoman Robin Kniech made Denver history in 2011 when she was elected to council as the first out member of the LGBTQ community. In the last decade, she has worked tirelessly on issues including affordable housing, labor laws and minimum wage.
Kniech grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, moving to Denver after she graduated from law school. Having been raised in a working-class family, Kniech dedicated herself to making Denver a better place for struggling families long before she ran for City Council.
Kniech worked for a community-based organization in Denver that created a coalition of environmental and labor advocates. These advocates worked to engage with the city and developers, establishing standards for public investment to make sure community changes benefited all residents. This work would later become the basis for her run for office.
After being elected as an at-large council member in 2011, Kniech was re-elected in 2015 and 2019. Now, half-way through her third and final term on the council, she talked to The Denver Gazette about her time serving Denver.
What made you want to become a city council representative?
When I did my work in the community, we were fighting project by project to get affordable housing, job standards. When I decided to run for office, one of my primary goals was to create those standards so that every project would have those outcomes, rather than the community having to fight over and over again. I also was really passionate about bringing in more of the voices of those who have been impacted, and partnering with them in a new way. It wasn’t just that we would do these policies, but that we would create them along with the communities that were impacted.
Many of these policies are beneficial to residents of color, African American and Latino residents, even if they’re race-neutral on their face. For example, when you raise wages, two-thirds of the people whose wages are raised are people of color and they’re disproportionately women. Working on economic justice and working on housing is very much connected. And a motivator of me running for office was being able to raise the living standards of women and people of color in our city by addressing these standards in a city-wide way.
As the first out member of the LGBT community on council, it was definitely humbling to give some representation to a community that had been very active in contributing to the city but hadn’t been represented. I was also very humbled because many of the basic protections for LGBTQ folks in the city had already been achieved in Denver by straight allies who had come before. There is still work to be done. It may not be as big as domestic partnerships and employment protection but there’s a lot of ways that having my perspective at the table has helped to identify gaps in the city and bring different perspectives to the table.
How has your experience as a council member been so far?
I feel like I have governed though three different cities. The first city was struggling under the limits of TABOR and, even though our economy was growing and strong, we were unable to recover our city budget to serve the needs we had. Affordable housing was a desperate need for the city, but for the lowest-income residents. Homelessness was a concern but we were in a different place. That was a city of scarcity and we were working hard to try to get opportunities. We had a lot of legal barriers. Most of the things I was interested in and passionate about working on were preempted by the state government.
The second city was after we debruised in 2012 and the collections started to recover in 2013. We started to have a city with resources, we had conversations about what we could be investing in and what values we could be advancing. It was a mindset of opportunity. We also started to see a housing crisis that expanded from the poorest residents to moderate-income residents. The urgency of the housing work got much more intense, much more quickly, but we also had more opportunity to meet it. We started with one-time city budget allocations building towards what we eventually created into a permeant housing fund.
Now, we’re in this pandemic/post-pandemic world, which is an economy that continues to be hot for some, while it has collapsed for others. People like immigrants who are left out of federal relief are left out of our economic recovery. But the good news is the legislature has given back local control over many of the important issues we need to govern our city. We were able to raise the minimum wage. Before I leave office, we’re going to be able to pass inclusionary housing. It’s the duality of having more intense displacement pressures and inequality, but having more tools to address it locally. And also, to finally have a federal government back that is interested in these issues.
By 2030, Denver will invest three-quarters of a billion dollars into housing and homelessness through initiatives that I led. I feel proud to say that sustainable funding for housing and homelessness will last long beyond me. To know that those impacts are being felt by people who probably don’t know who their city council person is pretty humbling.
One of the most challenging moments in our city, early in the Trump years, we saw an increase in deportation, aggression, fear mongering and fear in immigrant communities. One of the most powerful moments was when we came together with a bill that I helped lead to limit the city’s cooperation with ICE. And even though we couldn’t stop what was happening federally, it was a moment of unity. That’s the kind of moment that’s as much about the policy as it is about what it meant to the community.
As a council member, what are your priorities for the future?
My biggest priority is making use of the new state legislative power to require inclusionary housing. That process is being led by a staff agency with a community stakeholder group that I am a part of. It’s one of my highest priorities to make sure we find a strong but implementable policy on inclusionary housing. We have missed thousands and thousands of opportunities to create affordable housing over the last 20 years under the legal restrictions we faced. We can’t lose any more time.
There are a few other good governance things on my punch list to improve on my way out, and then I will continue to look for opportunities to advance and protect workers, particularly low-wage service workers and others who struggle. I believe the way to keep the city strong and make sure long-time resident can stay here is as much about economic policy as it is about land use and housing policy.
I want my legacy to be that I helped transform economic opportunity for tens of thousands of residents. Lowering their cost of living, raising their wages and helping those two come to balance. And I want it to be that thousands of residents exited homelessness for stable housing. And that I was nimble, sometimes that requires challenging the administration, but often it’s about partnering with them and finding common ground. I want to have led in a way that brought others with me and left leaders behind me who care about and advance the work we began together, even after I’m gone.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.