February 6, 2023

“They’re back! I hope the city moves them faster if I file a complaint this time!” said one of the tenants in my building as we surveyed the surrounding cityscape from the rooftop of our uptown neighborhood.

Tent camps, often located next to ramshackle buildings or empty parking lots, have become a staple throughout the Mile High City. Part of a solution could be replacing tent camps with tiny homes.

The Denver metro area is facing an affordable housing crisis — exacerbated by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic — with more than 32,000 people left homeless.

Homelessness in Denver is also a racial health issue: African Americans make up 26.4% of the metro area’s homeless population, but only 5.3% of residents. People affected by homelessness are more likely to get sick and injured, live with disabilities and die earlier than their housed peers.

Tiny homes are an inexpensive modality that provide a dignified living space in which individuals can enjoy privacy and engage in social behaviors critical to holistic well-being. Denver City and County needs to build a consistent funding stream to support 500 tiny homes in 10-20 locations for people affected by homelessness.

This tiny home policy approach would connect residents to mental health and behavioral health care, drug addiction and recovery resources, social support systems, and employment resources. The city could also train and employ people affected by homelessness and those in job training programs in building the tiny homes, which could impact their short- and long-term job prospects.

The policy can be funded through an increased local tax on recreational marijuana products, with the potential to work with housing-focused nonprofits like the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to diversify funding streams. I estimate the annual running costs for the 500 village houses to be between $1.5 million and $2.5 million. Total first-year costs are estimated to be between US$13 and US$44 million (US$26,000 to US$88,000 per tiny house), with initial costs being driven by land acquisition and construction costs.

The lower end of the price range would mean more urban land being used for the village sites. For comparison, the Sunflower Cabin Community in Los Angeles began operations in July 2021, with each unit equipped with two beds, air conditioning, heating, and electrical installation for a per-unit cost to the city of approximately $54,000.

The successful existence of a tiny community, the Beloved Community Village in Denver’s Globeville neighborhood, serves as a promising update of this concept and lends credence to the political feasibility of this policy approach. Compared to a control group of people on the Community of Love waiting list, residents were four times more likely to be employed, reported lower levels of anxiety, depression and hopelessness, and higher overall satisfaction and happiness. In addition, all former residents who were not lost to aftercare were stable one year after leaving the village and reported an improved ability to pay bills, accumulate savings, and pay off debts.

Fears and rebuffs 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 surrounding communities. For example, not one person in the surrounding neighborhood called the police about the Beloved Community Village or its residents, and 85% of the neighborhood residents surveyed were positive or neutral about the village’s impact on the wider neighborhood.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and the City Council have already shown support for tiny homes as part of the solution to tackling homelessness. In 2018, the Denver City Council voted 11-0 to allow organizations to operate tiny residential villages within city limits, and recently increased taxes to support affordable housing efforts.

Denver leadership should provide holistic policy support to Tiny Houses to continue their legacy as a pioneering community poised to pursue insightful policy solutions to complex public health issues. Tiny homes should be viewed not just as a housing trend for wealthy Americans looking to downsize, but as an integral part of policymakers’ toolbox to meet housing needs, particularly for the most vulnerable citizens.

So rather than just complaining about unsightly tent camps and passively engaging in their constant resettlement, I implore my fellow residents and like-minded people to proactively engage with relevant stakeholders, particularly your local elected officials, to help separate tiny homes from one another sustainable, long-term solution to address chronic homelessness in the Mile High City.

Corey M. Jacinto of Denver is a graduate student in UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.

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