Denver is weighing zoning rule changes that would make it easier for community groups and other organizations to open tiny home villages to house people experiencing homelessness.
The proposed zoning code change, sponsored by City Councilwoman Robin Kniech, would allow the villages in all zoning districts except open space districts.
The communities, consisting of detached tiny house sleeping units and central kitchen and bathroom facilities, would be permitted to operate for up to four years at one location.
Villages proposed for residential zoning districts would be limited to 30 units and would have to be located on the same lot as a church, community center, or other place of "primary civic or public use," according to city planning officials.
Kniech and other supporters of the code amendments say they would create a clear path forward for those seeking to operate the villages, which now require special variance approvals because they aren't explicitly defined in the code.
"We have a gap between those who are served in emergency shelters and the pace at which we can get folks into permanent supportive housing," Kniech said. "First and foremost, it's about meeting their needs for physical safety."
Tiny houses, typically less than 400 square feet, have been touted by HGTV shows and lifestyle magazines as a gateway to a more affordable, minimalist lifestyle. As the trend has gained momentum, nonprofits and advocacy organizations have also begun pointing to the dwellings as part of a solution to homelessness.
The villages have cropped up in cities across the country, offering shelter to people who would otherwise be on the streets while they seek permanent housing.
Denver is home to Beloved Community Village, which has 11 tiny homes and has served about 20 people since it opened in 2017. But the village had to relocate once when its initial permit expired, and the Denver City Council voted in April to move it again from the River North neighborhood to Globeville.
"There’s been two years of brain damage just trying to figure out the permitting for all this," said Cole Chandler, co-director of Colorado Village Collaborative, which runs the village and hopes to open more.
"This creates a very clear streamlined process for permitting these," Chandler said.
If the new regulations are approved by the City Council this fall, the collaborative will renew its push to open a tiny house community catering to homeless women — an effort that stalled when the group couldn't find a location because of the current zoning restrictions.
Under the proposed rules, village operators could apply for a six-month permit, renewable for another six months, or a two-year permit, renewable for two more years, depending on the water and sewer facilities on the site.
"It’s still temporary — but they’re not forced to re-apply for permits, and they're not forced to move multiple times within a short duration," said Laura Swartz, a spokeswoman for the city's Community Planning and Development.
The units, required to be at least 70 square feet, would not have to be on a poured concrete foundation, so they could be relocated, Swartz said.
Those seeking to open a village would have to hold a community informational meeting before applying for a permit and notify area residents. The application wouldn't need City Council approval; instead, it would be approved administratively by planning staff, Swartz said.
The City Council Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure committee will hear the proposed changes on Tuesday. A public hearing before City Council on the amendments is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 7, Swartz said.
Community Planning and Development is also exploring future changes to the zoning code to allow for more permanent villages, Swartz said. Those regulations would be different, though, and require more infrastructure, she said.
"It's really too early in that conversation now to know exactly what the permanent solution would look like," she said. "We wanted to look at accelerating a path forward now for temporary villages that was a little bit more attainable."