Housing crisis motivates innovative, new approaches

The growing need for transitional housing for homeless individuals and the rise of vacant, big-box retail spaces provides a unique opportunity to address both issues with KTGY’s R+D conceptual solution, Re-Habit.

Marissa Kasdan
R+D studio director
KTGY Architecture + Planning

A recent report by ATTOM Data Solutions announced Denver as the worst county for home affordability in the United States, as a percentage of income necessary to afford a median-priced home relative to historic averages. It also placed Arapahoe and Jefferson counties among the bottom five. To put it simply, the rising cost of homeownership in the Denver metropolitan area is outpacing income growth. The unaffordability of housing has risen to the level that it directly impacts the growing issue of homelessness, in Denver as well as nearly every other metropolitan area throughout the country. Recent growth in Denver’s population only amplifies the already harrowing challenge.

Architects and developers realize that the standard solutions typically employed to address homelessness and affordability just do not do enough to meet the current need. The growing crisis motivates design professionals to look for new and innovative approaches.

Taking advantage of the continued decline of retail tenant leases, our research and development concept, ReHabit, proposes reusing vacant big-box retail spaces to create self-sustaining transitional housing. Space for rehabilitation, counseling and services are incorporated within the residential component, while a portion of the bigbox space is divided into smaller retail spaces, providing built-in opportunities for the residents to obtain on-site training and employment. This concept is perhaps an idealized solution, designed to serve those in the direst of housing circumstances. For a concept such as Re-Habit to come to fruition, multiple entities (city agencies, service-oriented nonprofits, neighborhood groups, etc.) would need to come together for the shared purpose. It may seem like a lofty dream, but by addressing all the factors effecting homeless individuals, the chances of long-term success increase dramatically.

Encouragingly, it seems as though politicians understand the growing concern of Denver residents to address the affordability of housing. In Denver’s recent mayoral election, candidates repeatedly discussed their vision for addressing homelessness, as well as the growing need for more affordable and attainable housing for Denver residents. Yet most of these proposals distill to increased tax-credit housing and rely on tenants meeting certain eligibility requirements.

But what about solutions for the rest of us, feeling pressure to pay more than we feel comfortable spending to secure a reasonable housing situation?

Addressing housing affordability should not be limited to tax-credit programs and developer incentives. Creative solutions for lowering construction costs offer one possible option. We are working on the Hope on Alvarado project, a Hope Street Initiative development project under construction in Los Angeles, using purpose-built modular components to create residential units as a means of cutting construction cost. With a few additional considerations made for the connections of walls, cabinetry and finishes at the seams between modular components, the on-site construction time drops dramatically. Currently, it is still more environmentally efficient and cost effective to construct purpose-built modular components in an off-site warehouse rather than repurposing previously used shipping containers; however, the modular width remains the standard 8’6” of a shipping container to simplify the transportation process. With the inherently narrower dimensions, modular construction naturally lends itself to smaller units, such as student housing and affordable developments.

Reducing housing costs can include factors beyond individual rent or mortgage payments. The cost of living for a resident of Denver goes well beyond a single monthly payment. Including the cost of meals, child care, maintenance and entertainment within the larger design solution can create further opportunity for reducing living expenses, in addition to employing reduced unit size or construction cost. These marginal reductions ultimately can have a substantial impact of housing attainability.

The idea of building a community with the shared mission of support, sharing and cost-consciousness is not new. In the 1960s, Denmark began establishing cooperative communities, sharing in daily household operations that are typically handled individually by families. These co-living developments evolved over the years to include mission-driven communities with a variety of focuses: environmental sustainability, health and wellness, social connectedness, senior living, or co-parenting. Our R+D concept, Co-Dwell, addresses how housing attainability could drive a co-living community. Using four-bedroom units, each with two divided wings with separate entries, and sharing a small living space, the unit square footage remains low, decreasing rental costs. Pairing the small, shared units with a variety of amenities that encourage community sharing of meals, laundry facilities and entertainment can further reduce residents’ financial burden. Additionally, by building a strong, connected community, neighbors can further support one another with maintenance, skill building and child care needs.

All these ideas for increasing the attainability of housing in Denver, while they may seem unrelated, ultimately spin from one common thread: Cost of living is more complex than a simple rentable square footage multiplied by a cost per sf factor. Many approaches can prove effective for addressing the need for attainable housing and those approaches can all have merit, especially when the needs of the future residents remain the primary focus. Creating curated communities, intentionally crafted to provide the most value for the residents, increases value beyond the pure cost of rent and makes attainability that much more attainable.

Featured in CREJ’s August 2019 Multifamily Properties Quarterly

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.