Affordable housing is a serious dilemma in Denver, and there are no easy answers. However, some realistic solutions are within our grasp, if public agencies and private interests are willing to collaborate and create a shift in the built environment.
Empty spaces, that aren’t being used for much of anything, abound in the metro area. Look around and it’s hard to miss the abandoned Big Box retail centers that have been sitting empty since the recession. These former homes to proud brands could provide roofs over-the-heads of those who are in need, rather than having dust continue to gather on weather-worn “space available” signs. Why not take advantage of these vast, empty buildings and parking lots, and turn them into a possible solution to the affordable housing crisis?
Repurposing aging or abandoned property is a time-tested approach that continues today in Denver. For example, abandoned industrial buildings have been turned into thriving food halls (take for example, The Source in RiNo), warehouses have been transformed into million-dollar condos (see LoDo and the BallPark Neighborhood). The same principle can be applied to the affordable housing crisis, but it will take a different scale and classification of abandoned property.
Here are some of our thoughts on the matter. We’d welcome the opportunity to meet and hear some of yours.
Maximize Creative Design
Cost savings for affordable housing developments can be achieved with more thoughtful and creative design solutions. For example, design solutions such as co-housing and condensed residential spaces can lead to beneficial outcomes with density and home sizes. Rethinking garages and other parking requirements can also lead to more opportunities for affordable residences (building small duplexes, instead of homes with large two car garages, for example), as more and more people continue to rely less on automobiles. Using more affordable and energy efficient materials, such as panelization and manufactured housing, can also help to reduce costs. Cruise ships are an interesting example of this idea – they consist of preassembled staterooms which are slid into a superstructure. Could a similar idea be applied to housing?
Cities and municipalities can take an important first step towards repurposing empty spaces by rethinking existing zoning. Obviously, this would be a long process and would require a great deal of collaboration, time and work, but a focused effort by public leaders could create a break in the dam and make the redevelopment of these vacant spaces a reality. Envisioning the possibilities for mixed-use development, to include attainable housing, can only be achieved if the proper zoning is in place.
Loosen Developer Guidelines
Unless developers can foresee an acceptable return on their investment, abandoned spaces will continue to sit empty. Private investors and developers can be the agents of change, if given the chance. Private-public partnerships (P3s) are providing answers to development challenges in various cities and towns, and the same P3 approach can apply to turning retail centers into areas of attainable housing. There are a variety of incentives that can be made available to private enterprise, in order to help turn their attention to the issue of affordable housing and look at possible solutions in a way that makes sense to their budgets.
The answers to the challenges associated with developing more affordable housing won’t come easily. Sitting idly by and hoping for answers to present themselves certainly won’t provide results. The development community as a whole, and our civic leaders must think outside the box and look at the resources we have and what can be put to good use. Why not consider container units as a form of affordable housing? After all, they’re already being used for homes in some of Denver’s hippest neighborhoods. Convert garage space into small living units; sell-off abandoned properties for pennies-on-the-dollar with stipulations that they be renovated into affordable homes (as was done in Baltimore in the 1970s); replace Big Boxes with affordable condos. Nothing should be considered too extreme.
The answer to affordable housing isn’t an easy one, but with a collaborative effort, and looking at the properties that are readily available, a solution can be found. As JFK famously said: “We’re going to the moon!” Let’s be NASA on this one.