How CRE is Stepping Up to Address the Homelessness Crisis in Cities Across the West

Homelessness is not a new issue in urban environments, but 2020 has significantly exacerbated the crisis, prompting new conversations about the best way to address the growing needs of the unhoused in our communities.

Fortunately, we are seeing positive indicators of a growing will to meaningfully address various aspects of this crisis across the country. Few industries are as well positioned to collaborate on this than the commercial real estate industry – from property owners, managers and developers to architects and designers in our urban cores. And few industries stand to lose more if efforts fail.

Here are some of the creative ways the commercial real estate industry is helping to address homelessness in Denver, Austin and across the West:

Repurposing existing real estate assets

  • Colorado Coalition for Homeless purchased the Renaissance Downtown Lofts and repurposed it into 101 apartments for the homeless. Getting the financing was complicated and resulted in three different owners, but the result is a great example of how entities can come together to accomplish big things in Downtown Denver.  
  • ReHabit, an R&D concept from Denver architecture and design firm KTGY Architecture + Planning, proposes reusing vacant big-box retail spaces to create self-sustaining transitional housing.
  • Building affordable and workforce housing is a notoriously challenging economic and regulatory proposition in California, but the growing quantity of empty office and retail space could represent, what the Rand Corporation calls, “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reallocate portions of the built environment away from declining commercial demand and toward the urgent demand for affordable housing.”

Rallying public and private partnerships

  • ATX HelpsThe business community, leading a coalition of concerned citizens, is stepping up to do its part to help those in need. Driven by the Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Austin Alliance—as well as a number of other businesses, nonprofit entities, faith-based organizations, and individuals—ATX Helps launched late last year to bring a first-step navigation center to Austin. Their goal is to raise $14 million for construction and operation of at least one Sprung shelter that will provide immediate housing and other necessities for Austinites experiencing homelessness.
  • ULI Los Angeles is coordinating with LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office to help implement key recommendations from its report on homelessness. Two years ago, they gathered top-level architecture, landscape architecture and commercial real-estate leaders to assist in the City of Los Angeles’ “A Bridge Home” program, which is building safe and clean shelters to help homeless people transition to long-term housing. There are now 30 ‘A Bridge Home’ shelters open or in development across Los Angeles.
  • In Denver, Mayor Michael B. Hancock announced he would consider locations for sanctioned, professionally managed homeless encampments in Denver and asked City Council members to offer up a list of potential sites in their district, which will need the support of property owners.

New Approaches to Building Transitional and Affordable Housing

  • One of the most-talked about neighborhoods in Austin, Community First! Village is a 51-acre master planned community that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for men and women coming out of chronic homelessness. A development of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, this transformative residential program exists “to love and serve our neighbors who have been living on the streets, while also empowering the surrounding community into a lifestyle of service with the homeless.” Campaign partners span the real estate industry. Earlier this year, ICON delivered a series of 3D-printed homes for the community.
  • In Denver, three new affordable housing projects — including a stack of family-sized units — are slated to begin construction this fall. According to the Colorado Sun, these projects represents a turning point — instead of one-bedroom and studio apartments centered downtown, these are mostly family units and extremely affordable. 
  • Just this month, Los Angeles magazine invited 13 of the city’s top architectural firms to share their ideas for innovative concepts for affordable or permanent supportive housing. The results are pretty incredible, and many have applicability outside of Southern California.

While none of these ideas are a panacea, one thing is clear: No one can do this alone. Real solutions come from strong, inclusive public/private partnerships. And CRE is poised to be a leader in the effort.