Opinion: Denver’s mayor didn’t actually “house” 1,000, but he still could

Credit and celebration were due to Mayor Mike Johnston, Denver employees, and partners who brought more than 1,100 people inside from street homelessness, especially for the innovation of aligning some encampment closures with motel/village openings.

Yet public service brings the calling to celebrate our milestones while also learning from them.

As Denver’s past at-large councilmember, I sponsored the Homelessness Resolution Fund and Tiny Home Zoning, tools used in House 1,000, as intended, to address the urgency of unsheltered homelessness and save lives. But those tools were designed to work alongside a larger plan focused on supportive housing to resolve homelessness.

Today, the city has 2,300 supportive housing apartments for those who’ve exited homelessness and a pipeline of 2,500 more – if we can follow through — maybe more if we apply the mayor’s energy to a new push. Supportive housing is an apartment with services for someone exiting chronic homelessness who pays 30% of their income on rent. More than 80% of those in this program remain housed even several years later.

The mayor knew his plan relied on bringing most people into non-congregate shelter (private rooms) that were not housing, legally or as commonly defined: a lease, come and go at your own hours, store and cook your own food. Yet he chose to call his initiative House 1,000 anyway, causing confusion.

When asked about supportive housing, the response is a goal to build “3,000 affordable homes per year,” for everyone from teachers to restaurant servers to the “missing middle.”

This goal lacks the vision and the strategy required to build more housing faster for those earning $0-$26,000 with a physical or mental health disability, which requires construction subsidies, rental vouchers and services. Now is not the time to abandon the supportive housing plan.

And House 1,000 has likely diverted future funding from these affordable homes. Homeless housing can and should be a part of a larger affordable housing strategy; it received about 40% of Denver’s Housing Fund in recent years. And the mayor is on the right track by stating housing is a priority. But to ensure Denver arrives at the bullseye of resolving more homelessness, the city must:

• Create a best-practice based supportive-housing plan.

• Only name homeless initiatives as “housing” when they are vs. “everyone inside” strategies, so those experiencing homelessness and the broader community know what to expect.

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• Protect and expand real housing funding. Explore restoring, freezing, and growing the original Affordable Housing Fund’s .5 property tax mill, which has shrunk to just .389 and keeps shrinking due to calculations under Denver’s 2012 de-Brucing vote or finding other sources of funding.

• Equity requires all those experiencing homelessness to be considered for housing, not just from encampments. It is inequitable, could disincentivize the use of shelter, and run afoul of funding rules to ignore more than 2/3 of those experiencing homelessness who use congregate shelters, which includes vulnerable seniors, women, and youth.

Denverites don’t need to be oversold. We’ve followed humble straight shooters as well as bold leaders. We’ve invested in long-term visions. The promise of bringing someone inside through the front door of a motel or village can only be fulfilled if we build a pipeline of housing so they can exit out the back door of homelessness for good.

Robin Kniech was an at-large Denver City councilmember from 2011-2023.

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