When mayor-elect Mike Johnston takes office, Denver will have more tools than ever to provide stopgap housing options to people living homeless on its streets.
Tiny home villages, safe outdoor spaces populated with heavy-duty tents and parking lots that can host people living in their vehicles overnight are all now permanent options in Denver’s land use code following a City Council action in early June.
These are the tools Johnston will need to deliver on his cornerstone campaign promise to eliminate homelessness in Denver in four years.
But standing up temporary housing sites at a scale that meets the city’s deep needs remains an unmet challenge. Johnston has repeatedly expressed confidence he can secure the money to pay for his ambitious, tiny home-based homelessness plan. Still, another major question remains: Where will these communities go?
“The easy sites are gone,” said outgoing City Councilwoman Robin Kniech, one of the driving forces behind the law changes that make temporary communities possible in Denver. “You’re going to have to become bolder about proximity to single-family residential (neighborhoods) to achieve his goal.”
Focus is on tiny homes, but all options on table
The main support beam of Johnston’s campaign promise to end street homelessness is “micro-communities.” His plans called for opening 10 to 20 such communities with 40 to 60 tiny homes in each, mostly on parcels of city-owned land. Entire encampments of people could be relocated to a micro-community at once and have access to on-site job training, therapy and other key services in the mayor-elect’s vision.
At $25,000 per tiny home, Johnston projected his plan would cost $35 million before adding in the price of staffing and on-site services. He identified one-time federal stimulus funds as a primary source of that construction cost.
Just weeks after his electoral victory, Johnston held a roundtable discussion with homelessness service providers, advocates and health care professionals to hone his homelessness response plans. The mayor-elect is not ready to announce specific sites for his promised micro-communities yet.
“He has started researching potential locations, but the priority is to ensure communities have input into these decisions and that we are being transparent in the plans,” Jordan Fuja, a spokeswoman for Johnston’s transition committee, said.
Tiny homes remain the focus, but Johnston is interested in seeing other temporary housing options expand as well, according to Fuja. Thanks to the City Council’s work, safe parking sites and safe outdoor spaces that utilize ice fishing tents to provide stable, safe shelter on properties where residents can also access showers, laundry, food and services are now easier to get off the ground.
The nonprofit operators behind those sites also want to see the new administration be bold when it comes to land.
“(Identifying sites) is one of the heaviest lifts” when it comes to growing the safe parking sites model, said Terrell Curtis, executive director of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative. “City-owned sites lessen a lot of the effort of educating and convincing (a landlord).”
The nonprofit operates two overnight parking areas for people living in their cars in Denver today but is on the lookout for two more sites now. Both of its existing locations are in church parking lots.
Much of the work in identifying host properties over the past four years has been a bottom-up effort led by service providers, said Cuica Montoya, who runs the safe outdoor spaces program for the Colorado Village Collaborative, one of the city’s key nonprofit partners.
Montoya has been part of 10 community outreach efforts to open sites, two of which failed in the face of community opposition. Opponents have often voiced worries that safe outdoor sites would become hotbeds for drug use and crime, though observations have not supported those fears.
She is hopeful that the burden of that work might now shift to city leaders so the Colorado Village Collaborative can focus on supporting residents. Since opening its first site over two years ago, the organization has seen more than 180 people who have lived in one of its communities move into more permanent housing, demonstrating the efficacy of the model. The ice fishing tents that populate the safe outdoor spaces cost less than $500 apiece, she said.
“We’re truly in a state of emergency with our housing crisis,” Montoya said. “It’s only going to get worse before it gets better. We need to deploy all the options available.”
Johnston heard service providers’ pleas to help find more sites, according to his transition team, and is committed to helping the concepts expand. But the focus of his homelessness strategy has not changed.
“These aren’t either/or solutions,” Fuja said. “While safe outdoor sites are a great first step, it’s important to ensure unhoused Denverites also have access to the transitional housing that tiny home villages provide, including a door that locks, a solid roof with heat, AC, and electricity, access to bathrooms and kitchens, and high-quality wraparound services.”
Temporary communities could come to any Denver neighborhood
Tiny home villages have been part of the city’s zoning code since 2019. Colorado Village Collaborative currently operates the only two villages in the city. The conjoined sites have 40 tiny homes between them with room for 50 people. Its three active safe outdoor spaces can accommodate another 150 people per night.
Safe outdoor spaces and safe parking sites were launched on an emergency basis as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic when the virus made both the city’s traditional congregate homeless shelters and street homelessness more unsafe. The emergency land use authorization for those options was set to expire at the end of the year. Now they are combined with tiny home villages under a single umbrella in the zoning code, “temporary managed communities.”
The code change clears the way for those communities in any part of the city not designated as open space. They can be located in residential neighborhoods with conditions. In those areas, the site must either have a civic, public or institutional use like a police station, firehouse, library or school or be on a large corner lot bordered by at least one major street. Permits for sites can be issued for up to four years, per city officials.
It’s not a free-for-all for willing property owners. A managing party has to be attached to the permit. That entity — like the Colorado Village Collaborative or the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative — is responsible for operations, staffing, maintenance and services, Kniech explained prior to the council vote.
Kniech co-sponsored the zoning amendment with Councilman Chris Hinds and outgoing Mayor Michael Hancock’s community planning and development department. She does not expect the change to result in a rapid proliferation of temporary housing sites. Big hurdles remain and it’s not just a need for willing landlords who can provide space for free. Funding will always be a challenge with the city prioritizing putting its tax dollars into the ultimate solution to homelessness: more affordable housing. There is also a shortage of service providers with the ability and capacity to run temporary communities.
Kniech will be leaving the council next month due to term limits. She sees problems with Johnston’s tiny home-focused plans. He is counting on using federal stimulus money that, to her reading, the villages are not eligible for because the tiny homes don’t have their own kitchens or bathrooms.
She will be rooting for him to overcome those challenges. She knows it is going to take a lot of political willpower especially when it comes to locations. Further action like relaxing parking mandates to make more space in parking lots available for temporary communities may be necessary, she said.
“A more rounded community solution”
District 5 Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer was the lone dissenting voice on the council when it came to codifying temporary managed communities. Her objections included that the sites were first pitched as a stopgap solution during the pandemic, that federal COVID funding used to pay for them will soon dry up and that the communities aren’t a long-term solution to homelessness like permanent affordable and supportive housing.
She also cast the issue as inequitable. With the city’s zoning administrator now having the authority to approve qualified sites under the updated code, residents seeking to oppose a site location would have to appeal to the Denver Board of Adjustment. If the board rules the zoning administrator approved the permit correctly, opponents would then have to file a suit in district court as a last resort if they hope to stop one from opening.
Sawyer called out a neighborhood in her own district, Hilltop, as a place where residents are likely to have the financial wherewithal to file a court challenge while financially disadvantaged parts of the city might not. She did not get into specifics about why residents might seek to reject a site.
“This actually sets up a major equity problem. Because people in historically redlined communities cannot afford to file a lawsuit in district court to hire attorneys if they don’t want a safe outdoor space on their land,” she said.
Councilman Hinds, whose District 10 hosted the first two safe outdoor spaces early in the pandemic and is now home to one of the safe parking sites, countered at the meeting that temporary spaces are a lower-cost, necessary step on the continuum of housing.
His constituents appreciated the impact the temporary community had on the neighborhood. The only 911 calls regarding those first two sites came in response to people harassing the residents staying there, he said. District 10 is one part of the city that sees a high number of encampments.
“This has been a transformative impact for the people in the safe outdoor spaces and the temporary managed communities and, frankly, it has been transformative for the housed neighbors immediately around the sites as well,” Hinds said.
The Colorado Safe Parking Initiative’s Curtis was part of Johnston’s community roundtable and said she was encouraged he seems to be focused on spreading out where sites are established so that all corners of the city are contributing to solutions.
“He is going to bring communities in and help this be a more rounded community solution, I think,” she said. “We’re excited to have fresh eyes on the challenges that we all see and that our unhoused neighbors experience, especially those in encampments.”
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