A tiny home village is rising in the Cole neighborhood. By year's end, fourteen women experiencing homelessness will be housed in the units now being built on a parcel of land south of East 38th Avenue between Gaylord and York Street.
"We see tiny homes as what we call an alternative sheltering solution," says Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, which is behind the project now being built in Cole. "We know that the emergency sheltering system, as it exists, doesn’t work for everybody. We want to try to find solutions to help address unsheltered homelessness."
That's not the only solution here: The company building the units is doing so as part of a settlement with the Colorado Attorney General's Office over an alleged bid-rigging scheme. And they're rising on property formerly owned by Douglas Bruce, the infamous author of TABOR, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
Advocates see tiny homes as a big step in moving people from the streets to permanent housing. And the need is definitely there. Homelessness was on the rise in Denver at the start of the year; over 4,000 individuals were without housing in the city in January, according to the annual Point in Time count. The numbers have only gotten worse with the pandemic, as tent encampments have sprung up all over town. Chandler anticipates doing outreach at some of those encampments next month, looking for future residents of this tiny home project.
Denver's first tiny home village, Beloved Community Village, was established in RiNo two years ago. In the spring of 2019, the Colorado Village Collaborative moved the complex, which currently houses 17 residents in 96 square-foot homes, to a Denver-owned plot of land in Globeville. The relocation got some pushback, as residents argued that the city had regularly used the largely Latino area as a dumping ground for projects that wouldn't be accepted by whiter and wealthier neighborhoods.
But Cole has been very welcoming to the newcomer.
"I’ve been so impressed. In the Cole neighborhood, there’s just some kind of a culture about caring about neighbors and being responsive to the vulnerable needs of people in our community," says Jeff Johnsen, executive director of Mile High Ministries, the landlord of the property being used for the village. "All the responses that we get from Cole neighbors are positive. We’ve just gotten almost zero negative feedback."
Adds Mike Dugan, president of the Cole Neighborhood Association, "It’s just not the same narrative in this neighborhood. It’s not really a hot-button issue here."
Besides, some neighbors say that the tiny home village is an improvement over what had been there, since a previous landlord had let the property fall into disrepair.
"It was very poorly kept. It was actually awful. And then, over time, it just progressively got worse, and then it got so bad that the tenants over there, they ended up vacating the place," says Sandy Douglas, who lives across the street. "There were police over there. Drugs. You name it. Every kind of bad behavior that was going on in a housing unit was happening."
There were 32 one-bedroom apartments in four buildings on the property once owned by Bruce. In 2004, he sold the complex to a limited liability company, Bruce told Westword in an earlier interview. But he still carried the first deed of trust.
"He had neglected them badly," Johnsen says. "For the last fifteen years, at least, only three of the units were occupied. It was just a very, very bleak place."
The property ended up generating over $1 million in liens and was eventually seized by the City of Denver. In 2017, Mile High Ministries paired with the TYL Foundation, a family foundation based in Littleton, to purchase the parcel. It plans to build 61 subsidized apartments at below-market rental rates in what it's calling Clara Brown Commons, named after the former slave who came to Colorado and made her fortune, as well as townhomes for sale to lower-income buyers, then a community center and nonprofit space.
"We would really like to see an early childhood education center on the property," adds Johnsen. Mile High Ministries is currently raising $4 million to get the project under way, and expects to begin construction in a year.
The women who'll be living in the tiny homes are part of the plan. "Our hope is that they’ll live there temporarily during these years that we’re doing construction, and I hope some of them are able to move in and have permanent housing at Clara Brown Commons," Johnsen says.
Mortenson Company is building the units in the tiny home village; it agreed to do so for free as part of its settlement with Attorney General Phil Weiser in relation to an alleged bid-rigging process for the Colorado Convention Center expansion.
"Homelessness is one of the most critical challenges we face as a society. The Women’s Village at Clara Brown Commons is an innovative and promising strategy that will enable women to rebuild their lives and transition into stable housing. The Colorado Department of Law is proud to support this important project," Weiser says in a statement on the project.
Construction of the tiny homes is slated to wrap in mid-October, and the new occupants should move in before the end of the year.
For Douglas, they can't come soon enough.
"I have absolutely no problems with those homes being over there, because everybody needs a place to stay," she says. "It seems like it should be a right to have some place to call home."
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