Tiny Home Villagers to City: Thanks for Zoning, but Don't Pretend It's Your Project

Christopher Ollar, Cleo Ollar and Sandra Hermans will live in the tiny home village.
Christopher Ollar, Cleo Ollar and Sandra Hermans will live in the tiny home village. Chris Walker
Since March 31, when the City of Denver approved a zoning application for a tiny home village consisting of eleven units and a shower facility to be built in RiNo, at 38th and Walnut streets, Mayor Michael Hancock and new housing czar Erik Solivan have repeatedly cited the project as proof of the city's efforts to combat homelessness.

For instance, at a housing summit held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on May 19, Hancock and Soliván included the tiny home village as one of thirty “short-term action items” that the city will tackle before the end of 2017. Soliván also mentioned the tiny-home village during a sit-down interview with Westword in late April.

But some homeless advocates and residents who will live in the tiny homes are concerned that the city's PR machine is giving people the wrong idea. While they're all grateful that the city accepted the village's zoning application, everything else about the tiny home project — from making a deal for the land with the Urban Land Conservancy to raising funds for construction to selecting villagers and forming a village government — has been done completely separate from the city. (The coalition behind the project is called the Colorado Village Collaborative and consists of organizations like the Beloved Community Mennonite Church, ASAP, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, Bayaud Enterprises and Denver Homeless Out Loud, as well as individual members.)

Even construction of the tiny home village has been done entirely by nearly 400 volunteers, who had put in 2,800 hours of work by Wednesday, May 14. The village is expected to be completed within the next two weeks.

A few future residents made their feelings about the city known last week, when Hancock visited the village.

click to enlarge Construction of the tiny home village is nearly complete. - CHRIS WALKER
Construction of the tiny home village is nearly complete.
Chris Walker
"It took a movement of God to get us all in agreement to allow [the mayor] to come here,” says one of the village's future residents, Christopher Ollar, about granting Hancock's request to visit. “There was a lot of animosity because [the Mayor] hasn't treated us very well. There's a lot of animosity about arrests, about street harassment, about the camping ban and about shelters being the city's main response to homelessness."

According to Ollar and another villager, Sandra Hermans, the villagers only agreed to allow the mayor on site if he didn't come with cameras or alert the media to his visit. They didn't want the city to use the visit as a photo opportunity.

"[Mayor Hancock] wanted to bring his own [media], and some people were objecting because they were worried that [the city] would use this to further spin the whole story that 'Oh, our city started this [tiny home village]," Hermans says. "That seems to be something that they're trying to do."

Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud, one of the more outspoken homeless-advocacy groups in Denver, adds: "The reason why it's important that there's not a misconception about the city being the founder or creator of this village is that it's of the utmost importance that [the city] doesn't have control over what happens in this space. This is a self-governed space, and not a service provider or city-owned space.”

Ollar says that the mayor's visit on June 2, which had zero media present, was a good opportunity to have a candid conversation with the mayor.

"It went well,” Ollar says. “We told Hancock what we thought about the camping ban, and we told him what we thought about people's right to rest...and when he talked about how there's not that many arrests [because of the camping ban] and not that many people getting ticketed, our response to that was: 'Well, it's still creating fear that's running through the community. People can't sleep at night. They don't know if the cops are coming or if they're going to get rousted.' For the city to have the ability to do that whenever the fuck they feel like it, it's not fair to people. It's not humane. It's not how we give people the benefit of the doubt and assume innocence until proven guilty. It's not how we give people the space to protect themselves and live.

click to enlarge Mayor Hancock donned a hard hat and talked to individuals at the tiny-home village on June 2 - FACEBOOK / COLORADO VILLAGE COLLABORATIVE
Mayor Hancock donned a hard hat and talked to individuals at the tiny-home village on June 2
Facebook / Colorado Village Collaborative

"Hopefully he'll continue to work with us and realize this is the right thing to do,” Ollar continues. “As long as we can build houses and help homeless people, there are so many out there that need these tiny homes. Let's continue to figure the zoning out. This is such a cheaper solution to what's out there. We don't need to build more shelters. And the business community likes this because it gets people off the sidewalk in front of their businesses.... If we can change the conversation with the city from 'us versus them' to just 'us,' then that's a good thing."

The Mayor's Office says Hancock's visit was fruitful. “It was a great opportunity to listen and learn from the future tenants as part of our ongoing dialogue," wrote spokeswoman Jenna Espinoza in a statement, "and to share ideas on where we find some common ground — like the tiny home village, the repurposed Commission on Homelessness, and storage options — to move forward on housing, health and job opportunities for people experiencing homelessness."
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker