The idea of “advancing health equity” is a powerful mission or vision, but makes a lousy action-oriented goal. That’s why I was excited to spend an afternoon during our recent Health Equity Advocacy Cohort convening discussing the lack of affordable housing, a major health determinant and pressing equity issue for every Colorado community.
We participated in round-robin discussions with mostly Denver-based housing advocates, and one advocate from Grand Junction who provided a more rural perspective. One of the groups, Denver Homeless Out Loud, described how the metro’s recently enacted camping ban, which they refer to as a “survival ban,” has affected their lives. They feel that this ordinance puts them in the position of choosing safety and shelter over obeying the law. And as Homeless Out Loud frequently points out, there is nowhere for most folks to go once the police kick them out of a camping spot. Affordable housing is unavailable, and these advocates described shelters as being no safer than prisons, with thin mattresses on the floor spaced inches apart, violence, drug use, and the resulting increased rates of infectious disease transmission.
But there’s a small bright spot for a handful of Denver’s homeless in a pilot-project of tiny-home communities. These small “villages” of a few homes each can be erected quickly on undeveloped lots and have a low environmental footprint. City leaders nominally support these villages, and the mayor leveraged their promising start as a public relations success story (you can follow the tiny-home village project here). But the city had nothing to do with funding, organizing, or building the homes. That was accomplished by a coalition of advocates and private funders. Also, the village zoning permit is temporary, and the villagers will be forced to move every 6 months unless there are permanent zoning changes. Village and other homeless advocates are pushing for more permanent zoning exemptions, but it is unclear why city leadership would so openly support something while allowing policy barriers to impede it.
It’s perhaps too easy to blame property developers’ political influence over city government, though this may well be the main barrier. Another major factor might be old policies challenged by new, unanticipated situations. If this is the case, then a thorough examination of our communities’ land use and zoning rules could reveal opportunities to incent affordable housing development and advance housing-first policies with a win-win approach. Some smaller changes demonstrate this possibility. Homeless advocates have been asking for more trash cans, public restrooms, and storage lockers. These won’t solve the affordable housing problem, but such changes would benefit the homeless population while creating cleaner, healthier public spaces. These are bite-size policy changes that, if successful, could build trust and good will between opposing groups, perhaps paving the way for closer collaboration on more comprehensive efforts.