We all want to live in vibrant neighborhoods. Areas with easy access to grocery stores, schools, neighborhood retail, and transit. We all want to be able to walk to a park and grab a coffee on the way. Denver is fortunate to have a rich network of neighborhoods that provide premier quality of life. This is why people decide to move to Denver and why so many residents want to stay. The good news is that all (current and future residents) can enjoy these opportunities with just a very simple amendment to our zoning code.
In 2010, Denver’s “form-based” zoning code down-zoned vast areas of the city to a “single unit” or SU zoning. That means that no matter how big the structure on the lot, only one family can occupy the house. This is an entirely arbitrary designation and has no relation to how big the structure is or what it looks like and often results in large (5,000–6,000 SF) luxury homes. This land use policy that only allows for single-family home begs the question: Who is Denver for? Do we zone our city so the only people who can live in our neighborhoods are the ones that can afford a 5,000 SF house?
Through the two years of the Denveright outreach process, we have boldly said that we want a Denver that is INCLUSIVE, COMPLETE, and AUTHENTIC. This inspiring vision is in stark contrast with the zoning map that shows predominate Single Unit zoning in our neighborhoods. SU zoning results in neighborhoods that are income-segregated and inaccessible to average working-class people. As a result, Denver workers are forced to live in the suburbs and commute to work contributing to traffic and pollution.
So what can we do about it? As our mothers taught us, we should share. Our neighborhoods can accommodate more residents if we permit the 5,000–6,000 square foot structures that are already allowed in the SU zoning to contain up to four dwelling units. Both “Urban House” and “Suburban House” building forms can accommodate 1–4 units without changing their exterior appearance or size. Weather by renovation of existing homes or development of new ones, we can significantly increase the supply of housing near jobs and services and reduce the need for driving. And because the four units on a lot share the cost of land and are smaller (1,000–1,500 SF), they are inherently more affordable.
Left: Comparison of floor plans showing how four homes can occupy the same space as one large single-unit home. Right: Front elevations showing how a four-home structure can have the same size and appearance as one large single-home structure.
Denver’s vision of inclusivity and affordability can only come true if we allow our neighborhoods to become complete with housing options. The 1–4 unit structures fill the “missing middle” housing gap allowing residents who cannot afford or don’t want to live in a single-family home or a high-rise apartment to live near the urban core. If we make our biggest asset—Denver’s neighborhoods—attainable to people of all income levels we will create the equitable and sustainable city we all hope for.
Gosia Kung is a mom, architect and urbanist, immigrant from Poland, founder of WalkDenver, runner, and an occasional artist.