April 11, 2022 City Building

Equitable, Economically Stable, and Environmentally Sustainable Housing for All | Project Propel Cohort #3

The Downtown Denver Partnership’s Project Propel is a fast-paced, deep-dive program in which emerging city builders examine a challenge facing our city. The challenge examined by this cohort has been homelessness. The first two cohorts examined homelessness through the lenses of mobility and housing, our cohort was challenged to look at homelessness through the lens of sustainability.  

For every  person experiencing homelessness you see, there are three that you don’t. The 2020 ‘Point in Time’ count, which is conducted on night each January, totaled 5,530 people experiencing homelessness. However, there are at least 32,233 unique individuals accessing the Denver Metro Region homelessness management information system for housing and/or support services. There are many reasons an individual or family may be experiencing homelessness – job loss, debt, addiction, physical and/or mental health issues – but one thing joins them together, they do not have a place to call home. The root and leading cause of the homelessness crisis is just that, a severe shortage of affordable housing. 

One of every three Denverites is ‘housing cost burdened’ and one in every six is spending more than 50% of their household income on housing. Because of this, when one falls into homelessness it can occur rapidly, but it usually takes a long time to get out. Denver has a surplus of housing for < 80% and <100% annual mean income (AMI) but a shortage of almost 50,000 units in the < 30% – 60% AMI affordability levels. 

So yes, the answer to reducing our unhoused population is to build more affordable housing, but it’s not that simple, is it?  No one person’s experience is identical to that of another, and therefore when addressing shelter, it must be looked at along a continuum – temporary/emergency shelter, transitional, and permanent housing. Placing a roof over a person’s head is important, yes, however, in order to be truly sustainable and lift people out of homelessness, the

 solution must also address economic challenges and support a high quality of life as well. This is what we have chosen to call the Sustainability Triple Bottom Line. The goal is to house everyone in a way that meets the triple bottom line: equity/social responsibility, economic prosperity, and environmental sustainability. When most people th

ink of sustainability, it’s focused on environmental connotations, but we mustn’t forget that economic sustainability and quality of life are equally as important. The graphic on the right outlines how each of the three variables are equally crucial to supporting individuals experiencing homelessness in both the short and long term.

Our current system has several barriers to promoting and providing sustainable housing solutions including:

  • Lack of funding
  • Social perception of homelessness 
  • NIMBYism
  • Restrictive zoning
  • Building codes vary by municipality
  • Increasing project costs 
Housing TypeEnvironmentalEconomicEquitability 
Temporary/Emergency Shelter
  • Create off-grid renewable energy solutions & closed loop systems
  • Increase efficiency through shared walls in micro units
  • Change to building & zoning codes to allow for additional shelters & Safe Outdoor Spaces
  • Design shelters w/ renewable materials to allow for reused and relocated to areas of need
  • Utilize solar powered off grid technology for more efficient shelters
  • Expand Safe Outdoor Spaces
  • Incentivize landowners to deliver short term leases 
  • Incentivize owners of surface parking lots to increase shelter supply
  • Increase & sustain municipal budgets to support additional managed shelters
  • Expand shelter access to accommodate wide spectrum of needs –  couples, individuals w/ pets, etc.
  • Incentivize landowners to open up their properties that are located close to public transportation 
  • Give people experiencing homelessness a voice to propose emergency housing solutions that work for them
  • Combat NIMBT
Transitional Housing
  • Retrofit underutilized buildings (hotel or office conversions)
  • Utilize passive design strategies 
  • Incentivize co-housing
  • Retrofit existing affordable housing stock
  • Ensure new projects meet Denver’s Net-Zero energy goals and incorporate renewable energy
  • Green Communities Certification
  • Supportive Zoning
  • Increase density, offer height incentives for affordable housing 
  • Combine zoning changes with Denver’s Green Code
  • Energy efficiency 
  • Incentivize developers to build affordable and mixed use projects
  • Combine historic preservation & housing tax credits
  • Subsidize building electrification with linkage fees 
  • Scale solutions that work 
  • Utilize Land banking, and Community Land Trusts
  • Fund sustainability loans for construction of lower AMI units
  • Expand Permanent Supportive Housing Toolkit
  • Support multigenerational housing
  • Ensure housing promotes health
  • Additional rules and regulations may discourage development
  •  Negative perception of shared living 
  •  Upfront cost of sustainable products
  •  Perceived tradeoff between sustainability and affordability

These barriers exist across the housing continuum. However, our cohort found that solutions and recommendations are often unique to the housing type. Outlined in the table below are our proposed recommendations on how to best incorporate environmental, economic, and equitable living at three housing types on the continuum. To see the full list of recommendations and case studies that our group discussed, please see our live brainstorming board on addressing homelessness through a sustainability lens. We encourage you to like and comment on existing ideas and add your ideas to the board. You can also view our presentation here

Incorporating sustainability into the City’s housing and economic development initiatives is imperative not only to provide our unhoused neighbors with a stable path to homeownership but also to our resilience against climate change. Climate change will exacerbate conditions such as natural disasters, drought, and food shortage that can easily lead to a flux of people becoming homeless, therefore planning efforts must consider all three aspects of the triple bottom line in every step of the process. Denver has made strides to address both the housing crisis and the climate crisis as evident by the formation of the Department of Housing Stability and the Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency. As our city continues to work towards addressing both crises, we hope policy makers can use the information, case studies, and lessons learned from the Project Propel Cohort 3. To this end, we have put together a series of recommendations that we suggest being explored further, in the graphic below.

We would like to thank the Downtown Denver Partnership for advancing the conversation on homelessness through their Project Propel program, Design Workshop, the cohort sponsor, and all the incredible subject matter and leadership experts who shared information with this class. 


Project Propel Cohort #3