Denver city planners recently proposed regulatory changes to the city’s residential use zoning codes. These proposed changes follow years of investigative work, and they seek to overhaul coding rooted in racial inequality and values and norms that are no longer representative of the time we live in today. Current zoning codes dictate that only two unrelated persons may live together in a single-family home, and they only add to the struggle for housing options in a city that has become increasingly unaffordable to live in. With continued loss of employment and an increased eviction rate due to the COVID-19 economic crisis, the time to create housing options for Colorado’s most vulnerable is now.
In Colorado, lack of affordable housing is not a new problem, and it is a worsening one. For a worker earning Colorado’s minimum wage of just $12 an hour, housing is all but out of reach. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) stated in a 2020 report that a worker earning minimum wage in Colorado could reasonably allocate $624 toward rent each month. The average cost of a 1-bedroom apartment in our state is $1,103. For a 1-bedroom apartment to be affordable in the state of Colorado, the minimum wage would need to be $19.49 an hour for a 40-hour workweek.
At the current minimum wage, NLIHC notes that an employee would need to work a staggering 71 hours a week to afford a modest 1-bedroom rental home at fair market rent.
When it comes to helping the unhoused, one of the significant beneficial changes to the group living ordinance is that residential care, halfway houses, and shelters would be allowed to remove discriminatory provisions that were previously put in place to directly impact communities of color. These provisions continue to impact low-income communities across Denver negatively. Restrictions on shelters make it impossible to offer housing to thousands who find themselves without a place to sleep.
By changing regulatory codes to permit expanding areas that allow for care facilities, we can directly decrease the number of individuals we see sleeping on the street each night. This proposed ordinance would remove a significant barrier for the City of Denver and service providers in offering housing alternatives for unhoused individuals and families. With a recent growth in unhoused community members and continued outcry over encampments, this ordnance provides a straightforward solution to housing those who are in need.
Many of the individuals and families on the streets of Denver have lost their income, and thus their ability to pay the exorbitant rental rates found in Colorado. By expanding the number of individuals allowed to share a residence from two to five (and up to ten), we create instant affordable housing which would otherwise take years to build.
The Group Living Ordinance could not be more timely as COVID-19 continues to place financial pressure on of a significant number of Denver households. With minimal affordable housing options available, the proposed changes will allow for a more flexible and supportive system for all Denverites.
The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado urges the City Council as well as Denver’s citizens to see the pressing and critical need for these changes, especially as we quickly move toward winter and dangerous cold temperatures. We know that this problem will not simply go away, and in fact, will likely get worse if we do nothing to address it. With so many Coloradans being displaced each week, our community has a responsibility to ensure equitable, safe, and affordable solutions for everyone to have the basic human necessity of housing.
Kathleen Van Voorhis is the congregation land campaign manager at Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.