November 4, 2021 City Building

Project Propel | Cohort 2 | Denver’s Housing and Homelessness Crises Require Ownership

Since the conclusion of World War II, a centerpiece of the American Dream involves the opportunity to progress through a continuum of housing products. Rent as a young adult. Move in with a spouse or significant other, maybe into a little starter home where you can build some equity. Cash out and upgrade to something a bit bigger for a growing family. If the money’s right, upgrade into a luxury home product in your prime earning years.

For decades this continuum of housing experiences mostly flowed unfettered in Denver (albeit most certainly not for everyone). But the pipeline is now clogged in multiple places. It would be convenient if this issue was the result of a rare, exogenous event. Such a pinpointable problem could be acutely addressed. Our reality is more challenging. In addition to layers of deliberately exclusionary housing practices, Denver’s continuum of housing and development has become bogged down in a quagmire of self-inflicted scarcity. It’s stopped working due to a cascading sequence of choices over time.

Homelessness in Denver and the greater metro area is therefore an outcome of a complex structure of complicated but solvable housing problems.

A Roof For Everyone | Barriers & Solutions

The advantage of choosing our way into a crisis of economically-driven homelessness is that we have the ability to choose our way out of it. The second cohort of the Downtown Denver Partnership’s Project Propel completed an intensive review of homelessness as it relates to housing and development. This included insight and fact-finding from public, private, and non-profit experts addressing homelessness at the regional, city, and neighborhood levels. What the group found was a series of barriers, risks, and opportunities that at once make positive impacts in addressing homelessness but at the same time perpetuate conditions and circumstances that fuel the problem.

Start with the positive: serious strides are being made in assisting individuals who are experiencing homelessness throughout the metro area. The use of a standardized case management system is providing a clearer picture than ever before of not just who is actively experiencing homelessness, but also who is entering and exiting homelessness. This level of real-time measurement and personalization is allowing for greater responsiveness to connect individuals with needed services and housing opportunities. Prior to this, a point-in-time count performed once a year in late January served as the standard measurement of homelessness in a given area. Combined with the targeted Built for Zero strategy, which focuses on making homelessness rare and brief for populations such as veterans and high needs individuals, these responsive efforts hold much promise.

It is heartening that strides can be, and are being, made in responding to Denver’s homelessness crisis. Yet a harsh reality is that Denver and the metro area have fallen woefully short of delivering the quantity and diversity of housing products to sufficiently prevent or address homelessness. This is not a matter of perspective. It’s a matter of math.

It is becoming rare for transitional housing to be truly transitional for those seeking a path out of homelessness in Denver. While creative solutions are happening, there is simply not enough available housing product for individuals to transition into. On the opposite end of the problem, a growing shortfall in housing supply has driven Denver housing prices to stratospheric levels. Additionally, policy requirements around development in Denver have compounded to make affordable housing increasingly difficult to deliver at a scale and pace that would help ease demand pressures.

This double-bottleneck of supply is pricing more residents out of market rate housing in Denver while simultaneously limiting mobility out of homelessness and into stabilized housing situations.

Solutions to these barriers must come from collective action, beginning with an understanding of the choices we make as residents and neighbors. Housing policy does not manifest out of thin air. It exists because communities ask for it. A prime example is how the vast majority of Denver residential zoning is designated for single-family housing. This unfolded over decades as residents prized single-family detached homes as an ideal product. As Denver has little ability (or desire) to grow through sprawl, the constraints of single-family zoning within the City and County (and even at the state level) serve as a significant barrier that if removed, could begin to reverse a development stalemate.

All of us: residents, employers, advocates, developers, investors, and governments have a role in addressing homelessness. To help extend this conversation, the Housing and Development Cohort has developed a diagnostic snapshot examining the continuum of housing products necessary in addressing homelessness. This includes an ideal for each product, barriers to achieving that ideal, and core areas of focus for addressing those challenges.

It took decades to create the challenging conditions that we face today. It will take time and collective ownership of the issue to achieve a solution that all Denver residents deserve.


See how this research built on that of Cohort 1 around the topic of Homelessness through a lens of Mobility. Continue following the research on homelessness in Denver by our CityRise Project Propel members.

Learn more and apply for Project Propel today!


Project Propel | Cohort2 Class

Meet the Class

(Left to right)
Jason Newsome | Civitas Inc
Andy Cohen | Clermont Eliot LLC
Sheena Rude | RATIO Architects
Will Viitanen | Livable Cities Studio
Louisa Sanford | Q Factor
Melissa McGinley | Urban Ventures, LLC
Reid Tankersley | GH Phipps Construction Companies
Maria Oxman | Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP
David Beckel | The Colorado Rockies Baseball Club
Mariel Beaudoin | East West Partners
Nathan Batchelder | CRL Associates, Inc (not pictured)

Brooke LaPlaca | Program Lead | Downtown Denver Partnership (not pictured)


Author Headline

Brooke LaPlaca

Senior Manager, Civic Leadership Programs

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