By the fall, Denver could have a clear, transparent and relatively quick process for getting people off the streets and into tiny home villages.
“That’s what we’re setting out to do,” City Councilwoman At-large Robin Kniech said at a public meeting called Wednesday to present plans for changes to building and zoning codes that would affect future projects like Beloved Community Village.
More than 50 people gathered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church to hear the tiny home village proposals and ask questions of Kniech, Denver Community Planning and Development staff and a representative of Colorado Village Collaborative, the nonprofit that piloted Beloved Community Village in Denver as an alternative to shelters.
A timeline that was part of the presentation included consideration of the zoning changes by the Planning Board on Aug. 7 and by City Council’s Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Aug. 27. Along the way Denverites will get several chances to weigh in. The vetting would culminate Oct. 7 when the full City Council would hear from the public once more before voting whether to adopt the proposed changes. The proposed changes to the building code require fewer steps and could be voted on before a new council term starts next month.
Kniech, who won re-election during last month’s first round of municipal elections, is among several Denver politicians, officials and activists who have embraced the tiny home model pioneered in other cities as one of many ways to serve people who are experiencing homelessness and need support on the way to permanent housing. Tiny homes set in self-governing villages provide a measure of independence and privacy and a chance to build community that a shelter does not. Shelters also often do not accommodate people who want to stay with a partner, while couples can live together in a tiny home.
To get the proposals on tiny homes moving faster, Kniech separated them from a broader effort to rewrite city rules on group living. The proposals presented Wednesday cover temporary villages, which could be in place for up to four years. Regulations for permanent villages require a different permitting process that was not expected to come before council for consideration until next year.
Scott Prisco, Denver Community Planning and Development’s chief building official, said once the changes are in place his department would establish a faster-than-usual time frame for processing requests to build tiny home villages. He could not say Wednesday how quickly permits would be approved, but said, “we’re going to make these a priority.”
Colorado Village Collaborative had to seek waivers to Denver’s existing building and zoning requirements and apply repeatedly for permit extensions for Beloved Community Village, which opened in 2017 near the 38th & Blake RTD commuter rail station. The village recently moved to 4400 N. Pearl St. in Globeville.
The move to city-owned land at 4400 N. Pearl followed a series of tense public meetings at which several Globeville residents vehemently opposed hosting the village. Kniech said the Globeville experience as well as an unrelated discussion about the rezoning of a former AT&T site in Elyria-Swansea helped inform thinking about how neighborhoods could be part of the conversation when a tiny home village is proposed.
Communities “want to get answers to questions,” Kniech said, adding they would not have veto power.
Under the proposed rule changes Kniech is sponsoring, when construction of a village is being considered, neighbors who both own and rent, registered neighborhood organizations and community services providers such as schools, churches and recreation centers would have to be notified, in languages other than English when appropriate. To gain approval from the zoning administrator, before seeking a permit organizers of a tiny home village would have to hold an informational meeting for the community for which the city would provide a neutral moderator. The organizers also would have to create a site plan and write an operational plan that includes steps for addressing any concerns raised at the community meeting. While only one community meeting is required, Kniech said “smart” organizers would hold more.
Kniech envisions tiny home villages being legal throughout the city, though not in open spaces. In some residential areas where house lots are too small to accommodate a village, the proposed regulations call for the projects to be hosted by a church or other community center.
A minimum size for each village room would be set at 70 square feet, and a maximum occupancy at two people. No minimum parking requirement was proposed. The rules also address how far from the street and neighboring properties village structures must be set and how close they can be to one another, which would affect how many can be at any site.
The proposals did not address an issue that arose when a Colorado Village Collaborative village of eight homes was envisioned for the parking lot at Saint Andrew’s, where Wednesday’s discussion was held. In 2018 the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission derailed those plans, saying there was no historical precedent for them. Landmark had a say because the church is in a historic district — Clements, near downtown.
Kniech said a separate revision of landmark regulations was underway which could result in the commission losing say over temporary changes like a shorter term tiny home village. But that doesn’t mean a village might eventually come to St. Andrew’s. Nathan Davis Hunt of Colorado Village Collaborative said Wednesday that it has since been decided that the eight-unit village that could be accommodated at the church is too small to be effective.
Corrects previous version: The zoning administrator, not City Council, would issue permits for tiny home villages under the proposal.