Evaluating Mayoral Candidates’ Houselessness Plans Based on Houseless People’s Priorities
Housekeys Action Network Denver recently released our housing report “Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences”, detailing the findings from our survey with 828 houseless people about housing priorities and experiences. This survey, combined with 4 community forums, 38 interviews, and additional community feedback, bring together the voices of over 1,000 houseless people in Denver to give direction on the housing we need to be creating. This report also serves as a critical tool for evaluating our Mayoral candidates’ plans for addressing houselessness – any such plan can only be successful when directed by houseless people themselves and within the context of past and present public housing knowledge.
Since there are 16 Mayoral candidates, and many of them do not have detailed written plans, or have plans that overlap in significant ways, we will only evaluate some of the candidates’ plans here. You can use our report yourself to evaluate other candidates’ plans by comparing the plans laid out by candidates with the priorities, desires, barriers, and other issues houseless people shared. One can also use the research on public housing included in this report to evaluate a plan’s ability to deliver on the housing needed.
Plans for Controlled Houseless Sites
Many candidates have plans that focus on shuffling houseless people into program sites run by service providers. Candidates including Kelly Brough, Mike Johnston, and Chris Hansen, among others, have plans to use enforcement of the camping ban as a means to do so. Sites include supposed “new solutions” such as Safe Outdoor Spaces (SOS), Tiny Home Villages (THV), Navigation Centers, and Hotels run by providers – most of which act as glorified shelters.
But are these sites the kind of housing that houseless people want or need?
- In our housing survey the top concern for housing was around personal qualities such as autonomy, community, and privacy. The desire for these qualities to be part of housing came up unprompted consistently throughout our survey. In reasons for preferring past housing situations, autonomy ranked highest. People repeatedly talked about needing to have the freedom to live an independent life, not controlled by a housing provider. The need to have guests or live-in partners or family was a top concern throughout – even being named as the second highest support service needed. When asked about rules that would be “deal-breakers” for moving into housing, prohibitions on guests was the second highest one just under curfew.
- Safe Outdoor Spaces, Tiny Home Villages, Navigation Centers, and Hotel’s run by providers all have restrictions that limit residents autonomy and community – unlike any regular housing someone might rent. Most SOS sites and provider-run hotels have rules barring any guests. Navigation centers, from what we know about them in other cities and stated local plans, cram two or more random people together in a hotel room in the name of “community,” forgetting that community is chosen – not forced – and taking away all privacy. Most navigation centers and houseless hotels require regular check-in times every day (not quite the same as curfews, but still requiring one to be home at a certain time everyday). Furthermore, as well-intentioned as these sites might be, there are significantly more rules and arbitrary enforcement than any normal housing.
When it comes to those proposing these kinds of sites as “housing” substitutes that houseless people must resolve to live in because the candidates either: 1) believe as a city we can’t afford better, 2) believe houseless people need that kind of strict, controlled environment, or 3) because houseless people don’t deserve better in the form of quality, autonomous housing, these candidates’ plans do not align with the top priorities for housing from the large majority of houseless people.
Plans for Structures Without Amenities
Additionally, the candidates proposing these types of sites – SOS, THV, Navigation Centers, and hotels run by providers – as central parts of their houselessness plan should consider the absence of basic amenities in these sites.
- According to our Housing Survey, the fourth highest concern for housing, just under the personal qualities discussed above, was climate control, or the ability to keep a space warm or cool. SOS sites do not have climate control. The ice fishing tents they use are extremely cold in the winter with no proper heating (resulting in several SOS residents leaving or being kicked out for attempting to generate their own sources of heat), and very hot in the summer. These cannot be considered humane, longer term conditions, and are counterintuitive to the criminalization of people surviving in tents outside of these programs.
- The next highest amenity brought up was private bathrooms, including shower access and running water. Neither SOS nor THV have these amenities in their tents or mini houses. SOS sites have no running water. Shared bathrooms bring concerns of distance to travel, hygiene between uses, and availability between dozens of residents.
- Many respondents also brought up a desire for a personal kitchen to cook and store food. THV sites are the only option that provide a shared space – none of the otherwise proposed programs have any form of this basic amenity surrounding safe and healthy food consumption.
- Location also ranked high as a concern for housing. Any housing option proposed should be in locations that are accessible for people depending on bus routes, resources including medical clinics and case management offices, and that are in otherwise good, safe areas.
These housing desires named by houseless people are both essential, practical, and easily addressed through real long-term housing solutions.
Plans for Fast, Real Housing
Two candidates, Lisa Calderón and Ean Tafoya, provide this in the form of master leasing housing in the City’s name that can then be sub-leased to houseless people at affordable rates. This housing would have the autonomy, privacy, and ability to have guests like any standard housing, as well as all the amenities desired and needed.
Master leased housing also addresses many issues raised in our Housing Survey about the barriers houseless people currently face in the process of seeking housing.
- Issues faced when attempting to find housing using vouchers would be addressed by master leasing. The City will have already secured the housing units, eliminating the need for houseless individuals to attempt housing search and navigation or deal with the landlords’ well-documented discrimination tactics.
- A new program like this also sets up an opportunity to address other barriers like required paperwork, credit checks, criminal background checks, and more.
To ensure the path to housing is expedient and effective, other barriers must be circumvented. Our Housing Survey highlighted lack of access to phones and technology as additional significant barriers to housing. It also brought to light how the current system of having case workers as the primary gatekeepers to housing is inefficient, as they are overworked and undertrained.
Lisa Calderón’s plan includes increasing phone and internet access at houseless service sites. She also discusses more training and supporting longevity for the case workers whom houseless people are currently dependent on.
Plans for Affordability
Our Housing Survey asked the question “What price would housing need to be for you to afford it?” 17% of respondents need housing to be free, while the rest could pay something for housing. 88% of respondents need housing to be under $1,000 a month.
While most candidates do not spell out exact prices of the housing their plans will supposedly create, some do specify AMI levels or provide details on costs, while others are noticeably quiet on creating no- or low-income housing.
Kelly Brough talks about strengthening the coordinated entry system, but does not offer any plan to significantly increase housing units in this system. No level of improvement to the coordinated entry system is going to change the fact that anyone in this system seeking housing is waiting for someone to be evicted or die for a housing unit to come open.
Mike Johnston’s plan is only for visibly houseless people living outside – the 1,400 tiny houses and converted hotel rooms he proposes are only for those formally defined as unsheltered and would not touch the actual numbers in need. In his plan, the creation of additional no- or low-income housing is left up to service providers to use State funding from the recently passed Proposition 123 to create this housing. A maximum of 20% of this funding goes to under 30% AMI (those most in-need), and there is nothing that requires service providers who receive this funding to actually use it to create housing, as opposed to additional services and salaries.
Others, like Andy Rouget, depend entirely on the private market to create low-income housing: something that the market has not done without government subsidence since before 2015 (HOST page 14).
Leslie Herod’s plan uses buzzwords like “social housing”, but when she explains her “social housing” plan, it is entirely dependent on private developers competing for government incentives to build the housing. The housing she proposes here is not primarily publicly-funded or publicly-owned, leaving it at the mercy of market forces that raise rents beyond the $0, $200, or even $1,000 that houseless people need.
- This trend of “private-public partnerships” in housing is documented in our report from research done on federal spending on housing over the last 10 years. It shows that more and more money is going to housing vouchers, LIHTC, rental assistance, and other programs that put money in the hands of developers or landlords for housing and do not keep the housing affordable. At the same time as there has been a 13% increase in funding for tenant-based vouchers, there was a 18% decrease in funding for the public housing capital fund. In Denver, we have lost 731 units of public housing over the last 10 years.
- Plans that depend on public-private partnerships to create the housing needed will follow this trend of raising rents and losing low-income housing units as market forces continue to drive the prices, as opposed to traditional public housing where income levels set the prices.
Some candidates, including Lisa Calderón, Ean Tafoya, and Terrance Roberts, have plans for Denver to create social housing that is publicly funded and owned and with a priority for rents kept at rates affordable to low-income people. These plans align with the price ranges houseless people state they can pay for rent, as well as the need for public housing as a means of keeping housing affordable to very low income people as detailed in our research. Lisa Calderón’s plan, for example, while involving many funding sources, ultimately keeps the social housing owned by the public with the mission of remaining affordable.
Lisa Calderón, Ean Tafoya, and Terrance Roberts also all discuss rent control as part of their plans – a solution to affordability also named as a government action proposal in our Housing Survey.
As you prepare to vote for Denver’s Mayor by April 4th, look at what over 1,000 houseless people in Denver say they want and need in housing. Evaluate the candidates’ plans based on whether they align with the priorities of houseless people for housing, or don’t.
Denver deserves a Mayor who understands the needs of the people and can provide a clear and informed pathway to addressing them.
Read Candidates’ Housing Plans Here
Kelly Brough’s plan
(continue criminalization of houseless and investment in private developers & service provider organizations)
Lisa Calderón’s Plan
(addressing issues with case managers, shelters, addressing hygiene needs, opening up quick housing through master leasing, and creating real social housing)
Chris Hansen’s Plan
(shelters and sos are the way, houseless campus with no rights)
Leslie Herod’s Plan
(good focus on housing and rights, but social housing is actually private-public partnership)
Mike Johnston’s plan
(tiny homes and hotels for the visibly houseless, leaving all others to continue to be houseless)
Debbie Ortega’s Plan
(wants to use SRO – but talks of cramping people together, focus on mental health – not housing or financial support or legal ect)
Terrance Roberts’ Plan
(rent control and public housing funded through a public bank)
Trinidad Rodriguez’s Plan
(navigation centers, forced treatment)
Andy Rougeut’s Plan
(enforce the camping ban, force treatment, no basic income, no new housing plan)
Ean Tafoya’s Plan
(addressing hygiene needs, some sos, quick master leasing housing, and social housing)