Denver Government

Denver Is Getting Into the Motel Business...to Fight Homelessness

The city is purchasing this motel.
The city is purchasing this motel. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
In May 2021, Mayor Michael Hancock, Congresswoman Diana DeGette and other government officials gathered outside the Stay Inn at 12033 East 38th Avenue to share a big announcement: The City of Denver would be buying the motel and transforming it into a shelter for people experiencing homelessness.

"This building here behind us represents hope, the transformation that can take place on this property and the transformation that is possible for the people who will call it home. That transformation is foundational to the future of our city and is a pillar for our economic recovery and sustainability going forward," Hancock said.

For decades, the City of Denver has worked with homeless service providers that have purchased motels and converted them to supportive housing. At the start of the pandemic, the city and service providers contracted with private motels to provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness who could become seriously ill or die if they contracted COVID. But this move toward actually purchasing a motel itself for homelessness relief was a first for the city.

"Over the past sixteen years, we have not purchased any motels for housing/shelter. I’m fairly certain that historically, no such purchase has been made, but I’m having trouble confirming," says Derek Woodbury, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing Stability.

A key element of making the finances work for the purchase — which Denver originally predicted would run $7.8 million — was getting money from the federal government. The city planned on using a big chunk of COVID emergency relief money for the project, but also worked with DeGette to secure an additional $2 million through an annual congressional spending bill.

Those plans went awry, however. While the U.S. House of Representatives approved the $2 million last year, the package stalled in the Senate, kicking any decision on the funding into 2022.

DeGette was finally able to secure the $2 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and on November 2, Denver City Council's Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee approved accepting the HUD grant, sending the plan to the full council for a final vote later this month.

"We anticipate that a separate purchase and sale agreement to acquire the property will be presented to the City Council Finance and Governance Committee for consideration in the coming weeks," Woodbury says. He declines to provide the exact amount the city estimates it will spend on the motel project, but says that information will be public soon.

The Stay Inn has 96 rooms, which the Department of Housing Stability plans to transform into permanent supportive housing; the plan initially called for turning the building into a shelter. But over the past year, the Hancock administration has started focusing on a housing-first approach to homelessness, advocating moving individuals off the streets and into housing before they need to engage in drug rehab work or find a job.

"We know more about the property, and this particular opportunity works best as supportive or long-term housing," Woodbury says. "Ultimately, housing is the foundation for resolving homelessness."

The transformation won't be massive. "Unlike new construction on a vacant site, this project will require minimal renovation to immediately deliver homes to at least 96 individuals currently experiencing homelessness. The additional vacant property on this site will provide options for additional housing or services in the future, amplifying the impact of this acquisition," the Department of Housing Stability wrote in the explanation of the $2 million grant it sent to council.

But the city's plans to purchase motels don't end with the Stay Inn. It's looking at buying four more buildings, likely to be hotels, using $43.25 million in federal COVID relief money. Two of these buildings will be turned into supportive housing, while the other two will become navigation centers where people leaving encampments can be placed temporarily and get connected with housing.

"These are likely to be hotels, but other places like Seattle have found newly constructed housing that was available for purchase, so we don’t want to limit ourselves from such possibilities," Woodbury says.

While the city works on deals for additional properties, the lease for a motel that had been housing homeless individuals during much of the pandemic lapsed in September. The City of Denver had been providing money to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to rent the Quality Inn/Rodeway Inn complex at 2601 Zuni Street, which holds 174 rooms.

Advocates pushed the city hard to get the lease extended and ensure that those staying in the motel, many of whom were immunocompromised or older, didn't get kicked to the streets or congregate shelters. And in mid-October, Housekeys Action Network Denver, an advocacy group, announced that the city had agreed to pay for extended stays at other hotels for ten individuals that HAND had been keeping afloat after they had to leave the complex.

"We will continue to work with these residents to ensure this extension until they get the housing they need," HAND pronounced. "We and these residents are extremely glad and grateful for this additional time paid for at the hotel so none of these folks land on the streets!"

And maybe one day, they could land in the city-owned Stay Inn.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.

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