Big Housing Pains Bring Tiny Solutions to Denver

As rents climb in Denver, residents are choosing smaller spaces to get the urban lifestyle they want at a price they can afford. So far, developers have been happy to comply.
Turntable Studios made headlines earlier this year when plans were announced to convert the former Hotel VQ near Sports Authority Field at Mile High into Denver's first micro apartment building.

Of the 179 units at Turntable, 168 are considered micro units. The tiny studio apartments are about 335 square feet, and rent for $900. When the doors to the Jefferson Park property opened on Sept. 2, more than 50 percent of the building had already been leased.

Denizen Apartments, located at 415 S. Cherokee St. near the Alameda light rail station, began leasing apartments and townhomes in its two-building development this summer. Though the units at Denizen range in size from 360-square-foot micro studios to 1,300-square-foot two-bedroom apartments, the majority are studios under 550 square feet.

Denizen's south building is already fully leased -- and the smallest units leased the fastest. Thirty-two 420-square-foot units leased in 30 days, most of them sight unseen to young people moving to Denver from another state.

"That leads me to believe it comes back to affordability," says Dan Cohen, development manager at D4 Urban, the real estate development firm behind Denizen. Cohen believes renters want to get the most they can out of location and amenities, and are willing to sacrifice some space for that.

Liat Schindler, a leasing consultant for Denizen and a Denver native, is moving into one of the 420-square-foot units. The fact that it was within her budget played a big part in Schindler's decision, but it wasn't the only reason she decided to move in. "I chose it because I like a cozier home," she explains.

Like Turntable, the small spaces at Denizen are enhanced by large windows and efficient floor plans. Even the tiniest apartments have a washer/dryer, full kitchen, and full bathroom. To make up for the lack of living rooms, Denizen also has several community areas, including a large second-floor patio with grills and an outdoor bar.

The units in Denizen's north building are just beginning to lease, and Cohen expects them to be snapped up as quickly as the ones in south building.

Tiny homes lagging Denizen Apartments, located at 415 S. Cherokee St. near the Alameda light rail station, began leasing apartments and townhomes in its two-building development this summer.

Though tiny apartment developments have arrived in Denver, tiny houses have been slower to take hold. Currently, there are many more micro apartments in the city than tiny homes.

"I think it really speaks to the trends in Denver's population. An increase in a younger population coupled with an increase in housing costs," says Ryan Winterberg-Lipp, associate city planner.

One reason for this could be Denver zoning laws. Wheels are a popular design feature of tiny homes -- but they make the dwellings illegal in Denver.

A Denver resident who wants to build a tiny home on her property would first have to look at city zoning codes for her area to see if an accessory dwelling unit is allowed. Then the structure would need to meet housing code standards and environmental health standards, which include a permanent foundation and connections to water and sewer.

"We have to look at every property on a case-by-case basis, knowing that the zoning standards are unique and site conditions are unique as well," says Winterberg-Lipp. "Sometimes we have requirements about the number of units that need to face onto a street, but I think there's certainly a lot of flexibility in how that could be accommodated, depending on the zone restrictions."

There are other forces at play in Denver that make residents less likely to choose to build a tiny home, such as the real estate market and the cost of land. "There's not a lot of people that want to spend so much money on a piece of land and put a 400-square-foot house on it," says Andrea Burns, communications director for
Denver Community Planning & Development Department.

The first tiny home built by Marcus Hyde and Denver Homeless Out Loud nears completion. Vision for a village

Tiny home villages have made appearances in cities across the U.S., from Portland, Oregon, to Austin, Texas. Denver zoning codes and real estate prices have prevented a tiny home village here, but one group is hoping to change that.

Denver Homeless Out Loud's Tiny Homes Project has been working for a year and a half to make a tiny homes village a reality in Denver. In July, the group staged an event showing off tiny homes. Representatives from Dignity Village in Portland attended the event, which was geared toward promoting tiny homes as a solution to homelessness.

The Tiny Homes Project has built three houses so far, ranging in size from 60 square feet to about 180 square feet. DHOL has worked with several organizations, including Backyard Bungalows and Architecture for Humanity. The group has design plans for tiny houses that can be built for just $2,500.

Right now they're taking a break from building to figure out where these homes will end up. DHOL is hopeful they may have found a partner for the tiny homes village in 430 Years Church of God in Christ, located at 23rd Avenue and Washington Street in Five Points. Ideally, they would like to develop something similar to Portland's Dignity Village on the church property, with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities.

Marcus Hyde, organizer with DHOL sees tiny houses as a way to empower people and solve the housing shortage in Denver. "My dream is that homeless people manage their own lives," says Hyde.

Whether or not the church is able to use part of its land for tiny homes ministry will depend on area zoning codes.

The current trendiness of the tiny house movement could help DHOL's cause -- though Hyde points out that poor people have always lived in tiny homes.

Micro apartments and tiny houses help people strike a balance between the life they want and the square footage they can afford. Though it might be awhile before Denver sees a tiny house community, the city will definitely see more micro apartments in the near future.

Nick Costanzo, chief operating officer for Boutique Apartments (which manages Turntable) sees the micro studio trend continuing. "I think it does show Denver's popularity," says Co stanzo. "It's a sign that Denver's becoming a big city."

And, one way or another, this new big city is going to have to make room for all the people who want to live here.
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Read more articles by Sarah Harvey.

Sarah Harvey is a Denver-based writer and editor. She is currently editor of the Denver VOICE.
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