This is a special edition of my #cityforall blog series, prompted by discussions regarding Initiative 300 on 2019 Denver Municipal Ballot and the controversy surrounding Beloved Community Village.
I’m not an expert on homelessness; it’s a complex social issue that I don’t pretend to have a solution for. But I took it upon myself to talk to some folks who work with people experiencing homelessness and did some research on the zoning code that regulates our land use. I also did some “architectural doodles” to think through and illustrate how we could address the problems that I learned about.
Architectural doodle illustrating how a typical residential zone lot in Denver can accommodate a community of 11–14 individuals within “Urban House with ADU” building forms.
What I learned is that people with a history of homelessness need a sense of community but also autonomy. That’s why The Beloved Community Village is successful. People living there stay in individual tiny homes (bedrooms) but share common facilities such as restrooms, showers, and community space. They also self-govern. It gives them a sense of dignity and independence. However the “village” is subject to special permits, the structures have no permanent foundations, and residents have to go outside to use shared facilities.
So what if we used building forms that are already allowed in the zoning code to accommodate this type of group living arrangement? We could accommodate 11–14 individuals in a permanent structure. We could allow them to integrate into communities. They could live near transit, services, jobs, schools, and parks. From the outside, the structures would blend with the traditional residential architecture of Denver neighborhoods.
While this solution seems simple and logical, “Rooming and Boarding Houses” are not allowed in the Single Unit, Two Unit, or Row House zones in Denver’s zoning code, nor is the “Student Housing” use. The “Shelter for the Homeless” use is subject to limitations including (among others) a public hearing and committee oversight. All uses are subject to parking requirements.
And so students, low-income folks, and people who are trying to move out of homelessness are not allowed to share structures that are already permitted in Denver’s zoning code. Because our residential neighborhoods are predominantly zoned “SU” (Single Unit), Denver effectively regulates against these populations and prevents them from participating in the benefits of neighborhood living.
“The group living code is a major barrier to non-traditional and more community-based ways of living that often better accommodate people who have gone through the traumatic, alienating experience of homelessness,” said Nathan Hunt of Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.
“We’ve seen this with tiny homes, SROs, the Catholic Worker house, and other creative ways to create affordability with community. The same is true of parking minimums imposed on communities that typically don’t have vehicles and disproportionately use transit. We need cities for people—in all the shapes and sizes and lifestyle preferences people come in. It’s time to adapt the code to facilitate housing for all, and we can do that in ways that still keep the character of the city and neighborhoods we love.”
It may be interesting to dig in to the history of SROs and their exclusion from some zoning districts. Do those challenges that initially excluded them still exist? How would they be addressed in our current society?
Also in terms of community and SROs: is there a psychological difference from closing your front door (tiny house) and closing your bedroom door (SRO). How would one address that difference to bring back SROs successfully?
We do have an extensive history on the past use of “SRO” units in Denver. The problems associated with them were so great that they were the impetus for the establishment of the Skyline Urban Renewal Authority that came in an wiped the slate clean. One of the worst offenders for crime and vice was the former Barclay Hotel at 18th and Larimer. This beautiful structure had become a den of iniquity by the 1960s with its former hotel rooms now occupied by day renters who were up to no good (according to newspaper accounts I have read from this time). In this sense, removing the building meant removing the problem. Except—this wasn’t the case. The problem just moved to East Colfax or out into the streets of Denver. This urban decline of the time was exacerbated by the fact that these old hotels had no strong management in place, few social workers and nurses around to help desperate people, no entity at work to try to stem the tide of urban decay. You could say we have similar problems today except that some of these issues are more out in the open–on the streets of Denver. It is no wonder that many cities, including Denver, turned to urban removal to wipe the scourge of the single room occupancy hotels and associated boarding house problems from the urban fabric. As we see today however, the problem never really goes away. Homeless shelters, the Platte River corridor and the streets of Denver now serve the function that these old Denver buildings once did. Here is a post I wrote for the now-dormant Denver History Tours blog (from over ten years ago) about the history and transformation of the Barclay Hotel: http://denverhistorytours.blogspot.com/2007/11/barclay.html
I’d like to open up a can of worms here. Who is the best Denver mayoral candidate to create a #cityforall ?
What you laid out here seems like such a common sense and direct way to address not only homelessness but overall affordability challenges. We claim to have a form based code, but if we had a full FBC we would be able to allow this as of right as long as it meets general form requirements. Since we do not have a true FBC, policy updates like this need to stem from leadership and be pushed regardless of the (likely intensive) public backlash!