“They’re back again! I hope the city is more prompt in moving them when I submit a complaint this time!” one of the tenants in my building uttered as we scanned the surrounding cityscape from our uptown neighborhood rooftop.
Tent encampments, often adjacent to dilapidated buildings or empty parking lots, have become a fixture across the Mile High City. Part of a solution could be the replacement of tent camps with tiny homes.
The Denver metro area faces an affordable housing crisis — exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic impact – with more than 32,000 people experiencing homelessness.
Homelessness in Denver is also a race-based health disparities issue: African Americans comprise 26.4% of the metro area’s homeless population but only 5.3% of residents. People experiencing homelessness are more likely to become sick and injured, live with disabilities, and die prematurely than their housed peers.
Tiny homes are a cost-effective modality that provide a dignified living space where individuals can enjoy privacy and engage in social behaviors crucial to holistic well-being. Denver City and County needs to establish a consistent funding stream to support 500 tiny homes, across 10-20 sites, for people experiencing homelessness.
This tiny home policy approach would connect residents to mental and behavioral health care, substance addiction and recovery resources, social support systems, and employment resources. The city could also train and employ people experiencing homelessness, and individuals in work training programs, in constructing the tiny homes, which could impact their short- and long-term employment prospects.
The policy can be financed via an increased local tax on recreational marijuana products with potential to work with housing-oriented nonprofits such as the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to diversify funding streams. I estimate the yearly operating cost for the 500 village homes between $1.5 and $2.5 million. The total first-year costs are estimated to be between $13 million and $44 million ($26,000 to $88,000 per tiny home) with the initial costs driven by land acquisition and construction costs.
The lower end of the price range would involve using more city-owned land for the village sites. As a point of comparison, the Sunflower Cabin Community in Los Angeles began operating in July 2021 with each unit equipped with two beds, an air conditioner, heater and electric installation for the per-unit cost of about $54,000 to the city.
The successful existence of a tiny home community, the Beloved Community Village in Denver’s Globeville neighborhood, serves as a promising actualization of this concept and lends credence to the political feasibility of this policy approach. Residents were four times more likely to be employed, reported lower levels of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness, and higher overall satisfaction and happiness when compared to a control group of individuals on the Beloved Community waitlist. In addition, all former residents who were not lost to follow-up were stably housed one year after leaving the village and reported an increased ability to pay bills, accrue savings, and pay off debts.
Trepidation and pushback from relevant stakeholders and people who share the same attitudes as my neighbor can be answered by educating them about the established success of villages already in operation, and their impact on the quality of life of the surrounding community. For example, not one person in the surrounding neighborhood called the police about Beloved Community Village or its residents, and 85% of neighborhood residents surveyed reported positive or neutral perceptions about the village’s impact on the wider neighborhood.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and the City Council have already demonstrated support for tiny homes as part of the solution to address homelessness. In 2018 the Denver City Council voted 11-0 to allow organizations to operate tiny home villages in city limits and recently increased taxes to support affordable housing efforts.
Denver’s leaders should provide holistic policy support for tiny homes to continue its legacy as a pioneering municipality willing to pursue insightful policy solutions to complex public health issues. Tiny homes shouldn’t just be considered an in-vogue housing modality for affluent Americans looking to downsize their living space, but as a fixture in the policymaker’s toolbox to address housing needs, particularly for the most vulnerable citizens.
So, instead of just complaining about unsightly tent encampments and passively participating in their perpetual relocation, I implore my fellow building tenant and those who are like-minded to proactively engage with relevant stakeholders, particularly your local elected officials, to help make tiny homes part of a sustainable long-term solution to combating chronic homelessness in the Mile High City.
Corey M. Jacinto, of Denver, is a doctoral student at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA.