Denver’s Saint Joseph joins health care providers across the country in addressing affordable housing and homelessness

One observer says the efforts of local foundations, developers and hospitals mean the Denver region is “poised to be a national leader in addressing health and housing inequities.”
9 min. read
Tammen Hall at St. Joseph Hospital. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) st joseph hospital; denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite;

UPDATE: The grand opening of Tammen Hall was Oct. 3. Already that day, nearly 60 percent of the units had been leased and 19 residents had moved in. For leasing information:  303-963-5046.

City Park West's SCL Health Saint Joseph has provided showers for people living in homelessness, helped lead a city project that could put key workers on the road to home ownership, and partnered with a developer to build affordable apartments.

"We try to use our campus to enhance our community beyond healthcare," said Saint Joseph President Jamie Smith, adding that along with housing, food security, socio-economic status and other issues affect well-being.

By addressing a range of challenges, Saint Joseph joins health care providers across the country in taking on housing and homelessness. Housing is increasingly seen as key to good health. In addition, in cities like Denver where the cost of living has been outstripping wages, the need to ensure hospital staff is housed also plays a role.

In Ohio, Nationwide Children's Hospital is a partner in an affordable housing development near its Columbus campus where tenants will be offered training in healthcare professions.

Oakland, California-based Kaiser Permanente earlier this year announced a $50 million loan fund to be used over the next decade to create and preserve 3,250 affordable homes in areas across the country, including Denver, that are served by the health giant. Kaiser loaned another $50 million to the Enterprise Community Loan Fund, an initiative of Enterprise Community Partners.

Mary Ayala, program director for national initiatives for Enterprise Community Partners, said her real estate nonprofit was working toward a system "that values housing as a component of health." She added that often people who need housing help also need health support and are from communities disadvantaged by generations of discrimination and systemic inequalities.

In Denver, construction is essentially complete and the first residents are expected to move next month into a historic Saint Joseph campus building that has been turned into 49 apartments for tenants at least 62 years old and earning no more than 60 percent of the area median income. Lack of housing for seniors, who often are on fixed incomes, is an especially worrying facet of the city's housing crisis.

Construction is nearing completion to turn historic Tammen Hall on the Saint Joseph campus into 49 apartments for tenants at least 62 years old and earning no more than 60 percent of the area median income. June 17, 2019. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Smith said the development team that includes MGL Partners came to Saint Joseph with the idea.

The hospital had been struggling to find a use for Tammen Hall, which had sat empty since Children's Hospital moved to the Anshutz medical campus in Aurora in 2007.

The blond-brick, art deco building dating to 1930 had originally been a dormitory for nurses, then an administrative building for Children's. It was named for Harry Tammen, the first publisher of The Denver Post, who along with his wife had been a major contributor to Children's.

"It was historic. We couldn't tear it down," said Smith, whose hospital moved to new premises at the old Children's site in 2014. Tammen sits at 19th and Ogden, just down the street from Saint Joseph's main entrance.

A hotel had been considered for Tammen, or office space. But Saint Joseph could not make the numbers work.

"It would have been very, very expensive administrative space," Smith said. "We were pulling our hair out to find a solution."

When the developers suggested below market-rate housing, "it was perfect," he said.

"Affordable senior housing is directly in line with who we are," he said.

The developers "saw an opportunity that we didn't see," he said. "But they also needed our help."

Saint Joseph Hospital sold the building to the developers in 2017, leased them the land and also invested in the redevelopment.

Kurt Frantz, MGL development manager, said the lease from Saint Joseph is comparable to a land trust, which helps keep costs down by taking the land out of the developer's calculations.

Frantz said his company has consulted with nonprofit affordable housing developers and housing authorities but never before worked with a hospital.

"It was a good fit," he said, saying the partnership was filling a community need.

The Colorado Housing and Finance Authority awarded the Tammen Hall renovation a total of more than $900,000 in federal and state tax credits in 2017.  Last year Denver's City Council approved a 40-year, one percent loan of $735,000 for the project. Smith said crucial support came from Councilman Albus Brooks and Mayor Michael Hancock.

It was Hancock who proposed, in his 2017 State of the City address, that hundreds of vacant apartments in a city with a plethora of high-end rentals be opened to subsidized low- and moderate-income tenants.

His idea became the Lower Income Voucher Equity Program, or LIVE Denver.

It has yet to reach Hancock's ambitions. But after being briefed on it, Smith said he was intrigued by what he saw as a "novel approach to affordable housing and work force development."

The city put in just over $1 million, most from its dedicated affordable housing fund, and Saint Joseph contributed $100,000 for a two-year pilot of LIVE, which so far has housed three Saint Joseph employees. The money contributes not only to buying down rents, but to financial coaching and a savings escrow account to put participants in a position to one day buy homes.

The Colorado Health Foundation also sees a link between health and housing. It contributed $100,000 to LIVE. And this week it gave a $419,400 grant to the architecture nonprofit Radian and the advocacy group Interfaith Alliance of Colorado to support their work persuading churches, moques and synagogues to devote land to affordable housing deveopments.

"Denver's affordable housing crisis hits families and individuals living on lower incomes the hardest," said Maribel Cifuentes, portfolio director at the Colorado Health Foundation.

She said more than 13,000 Denver households "are dedicating more than 50 percent of their income to housing costs alone, leaving little room to afford the essentials in life including health care, education or food expenses."

Katie McKenna, the Denver-based senior program director for Enterprise Community Partners, noted in an announcement from the city this week that the nonprofit developer Brothers was working with the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado to create housing for people who have experienced homelessness and suffered brain injuries. Brain injuries can lead to homelessness by undermining a person's success at school or work.

In addition, the Mental Health Center of Denver works to house some of the most vulnerable. The center and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless house and provide health, food, transportation, legal and other support to people who have experienced chronic homelessness in a pilot program funded by investors, government and others who are betting it will cost less than repeatedly arresting and jailing people experiencing homelessness or caring for them in emergency rooms.

McKenna said that because of local service providers, foundations and developers, the Denver region was "poised to be a national leader in addressing health and housing inequities."

Saint Joseph's Smith said his hospital holds town halls twice a year to hear concerns from its staff of about 2,400 full-time employees. Affordability and earnings have come up at every meeting since he took over three and a half years ago. Smith said Saint Joseph tries to stay "in the middle of the market" when it comes to wages and salaries, saying it has to balance being "responsible to the organization but also fair to our employees."

In addition to the three Saint Joseph families now in LIVE, seven are in the application process. Smith foresees 10, 15 or 20 employees being helped eventually and hopes more employers jump in.

"What we were also trying to do ... was be a leader," he said.

During the March bomb cyclone, a scheduler working in Saint Joseph's cancer center was able to get to the office from her nearby LIVE apartment and start re-booking patients who could not travel because of the weather.

"This is really for the working families who have difficulty affording housing in central Denver," Smith said.

Saint Joseph President Jamie Smith speaks to a reporter at the hospital on June 17, 2019. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

In a recently released report, the nationwide apartment search website RENTCafe pegged the average rent in Denver at in May at $1,633, above the national average of $1,442 and $23 more on average than in April. High housing prices have meant increasing numbers of working families in Denver are housing insecure or even homeless.

Saint Joseph has worked with Bethlehem Lutheran Church to bring the Lakewood church's Living Well shower trailer to the City Park West campus once a month for people experiencing homelessness. The truck has four shower stalls, including one that can accommodate a wheelchair. Saint Joseph staff and volunteers help distribute a meal, clothes and toiletries to people who come to shower. The hospital spreads the word about the service through two nonprofit neighbors, Senior Support Services, a day shelter for older people experiencing homelessness, and the anti-hunger agency Metro Caring.

Saint Joseph also has ceded some of its parking spaces to Metro Caring and supplies the power for a 40-foot shipping container that holds a compact hydroponic farm that started growing lettuce in March. The Metro Caring farm in a box is expected to produce up to 600 plants a week year-round.

"We don't have to do any of these things," Saint Joseph's Smith said. "But it really makes the mission come alive."

Saint Joseph's new buildings are just across the street from its old location. The hospital has deep roots in Denver.

"At the end of the day, we've been here for 146 years," Smith said. "We certainly plan to be here for another 146. We have a long view of the community and our mission."

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