Community Inclusion: A Prerequisite to Solving the Housing Affordability Crisis

By: Katherine Whitney and Sam Young, Spencer Fane

Living in Colorado is expensive. With population growth and housing costs steadily rising, the need for affordable housing becomes more urgent. The median home price in Denver as of April was $438,300 – rents averaged $1,500. These prices have pushed residents out of their lifelong neighborhoods, and have even, in some unfortunate instances, pushed people out of reliable housing altogether. Facing a growing housing crisis, community leaders must find housing solutions that balance the benefits of growth with the housing needs of all citizens.

Implementing workable housing solutions is not easy. Challenges often include market forces, land availability and “not-in-my-backyard” objections from neighbors. As one example, the Denver City Council recently agreed to lease publicly owned land in Globeville to a non-profit organization that provides housing opportunities for persons experiencing homelessness. An existing tiny home village will relocate to the land and potentially expand its operations.

City officials announced the land deal before engaging area residents. Consequently, many residents felt excluded from the planning process. Councilmembers and residents both agreed: the process wasn’t right.

This recent event highlights the need for community participation. Housing projects for low- and very low-income earners fail when planning professionals do not collaborate with area residents, end users (those who will live in the as-built product), and government officials.

What can we do to reduce the panicked cries of “Not in my backyard!” and pave the way for successful economically diverse communities? We can invite participation from all stakeholders, regardless of socioeconomic status, in all aspects of planning and require meaningful inclusion.

We must recognize that each neighborhood has unique cultural contexts known fully only to those who experience them daily. As planning professionals, creating livable spaces requires input from the end user. This is especially important to remember when working with underserved populations.

We can use a learning-process approach that recognizes, then builds upon, the skills, intelligence, creativity and courage of all community members. We can honor the knowledge of insiders – both the materially poor who will live in the new housing and the existing area residents.

We can avoid knowledge paternalism – assuming we have the best ideas about how to do something – and act with humility, caution, and an open ear. We can remember the appropriate role is not for us to do something to or for the economically poor, but to seek solutions together with them.

Finally, we can look to solutions being implemented in other communities as inspiration. From prefabricated live-work communities in Detroit, to modular housing in Copenhagen, to micro-apartments in London, communities around the world are innovating creative solutions to housing affordability challenges. Denver leaders can learn from and build upon the experiences of these communities, and refine successful programs in a manner that suits our unique and wonderful city.



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