Tiny homes, big controversy

Joe Basel stands in front of an artist’s rendering of Sand Creek Commons, the tiny homes village for the homeless Basel hopes to build in Southeast Colorado Springs. He presented the plan to a group of city residents and advocates on Dec. 5, 2019. [Express photos/Regan Foster]

Would village plan solve homelessness crisis? Southeast, nonprofit leaders not convinced.

By Regan Foster
The Southeast Express

The property, at first glance, doesn’t look like much. It’s about 18 acres of sandy and vacant land, dotted with some trees and surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with a few strands of barbed wire. Signage on the fence warns passersby about video monitoring and high voltage.

A portion of Sand Creek cuts a diagonal swath across the western edge of the parcel, which lies just west of Powers Boulevard and about halfway between East Platte Avenue and Airport Road. Aerial images show one corner of the land is in the direct flight path of the diagonal runway at Colorado Springs Airport.

It could be easy to overlook this industrially zoned parcel, to which the El Paso County Assessor attached a market value of $391,822 in 2019.

But when Joe Basel looks at the land, he sees a village. Basel, a one-time political operative with roots in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, wants to turn the property at the dead end of East Pikes Peak Avenue into a 250-unit, fully integrated tiny home village that could provide what he calls “radically affordable” housing for the homeless.

He envisions on-site wraparound services that include health care, addiction recovery support, counseling, a permanent address, shuttle and bus transportation, a so-called “tiny bank,” shopping, co-working space, a farm and opportunities to earn income. Services would be provided and the site managed by a yet-to-be-formed nonprofit, while Basel’s new for-profit corporation, Washington, D.C.,-based Practical Revolution LLC, would act as landlord and collect rents.

While floor plans aren’t solidified, Basel told the Express he would like to see the units in the 200- to 500-square-foot range. Roughly a quarter of the units would lack indoor plumbing, a conscious decision, Basel said, designed to force residents to leave the homes and interact in communal kitchen and restroom spaces.

Between 70 and 80 percent of the units would be occupied by the heretofore homeless, with the remainder by so-called “intentional residents” — people Basel believes would leave traditional homes to live in the village and assist in its mission. Rents would start at between $300 and $350 per month for the homeless residents, and increase to near-market rates in the $750 to $1,000 range for intentional residents, depending on the unit, Basel said in an interview. At the low end, that would put monthly rental revenues for the property at $97,500 per month, before expenses.

Basel introduced — or reintroduced, as the case may be — the plan, dubbed Sand Creek Commons, to a group of city representatives, nonprofit leaders and community advocates Dec. 5 during a public meeting at the Penrose Library. He based the development on Housing First, a model that prioritizes permanent homes for the homeless as a jumping-off point for reintegration into society.

“We believe in Housing First; we believe in the research of Housing First. It is working” in major communities, Basel told the assembled group Dec. 5. “There’s been … success there, but as we can all agree from driving around our communities, we can do better. We can do more.”

Nonetheless, the idea has some Springs-based homeless advocates and Southeast leaders raising red flags.

“If this were a people-centered approach to addressing homelessness, it would have started with people experiencing homelessness, it would have started with providers,” said Aimee Cox, the former chief of Community Health Partnership and one-time city community development manager. “It would have been programmatic-centric and brought in housing after.”

Cox recently relocated to southern California, where she and her husband are tackling homelessness issues. Her new home is coincidentally not far from where, according to the Practical Revolution website, Basel and co. hope to build 50,000 tiny homes.

 

No new idea

The vacant property on which Basel hopes to build the village is currently zoned light industrial, and is located in a partial flood plain and directly in the flight path of one Colorado Springs Airport runway.

Basel originally shopped this idea to a group of municipal and nonprofit leaders early in 2019. Then, and now, he spoke fondly of the model, a much-heralded permanent supportive housing development called Community First! Village that is run by Austin-based nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes. He even took a delegation from Colorado Springs on a tour of the Texas facility.

But an investigation by Express sister paper the Colorado Springs Independent threw doubt on his ties to Community First! and, in the end, some former supporters had second thoughts about the project.

One-time partner, local commercial real estate expert and former City Councilor Tim Leigh has since severed ties with Sand Creek Commons. He previously represented land-owner Armstrong Financial Services, LLC, a company that Basel said has subsequently come on board as a partner in the project. Armstrong officials did not return a call for comment by deadline; however according to Basel it plans to donate the parcel for the project. As of Jan. 2 it still held the title to the land, according to El Paso County Assessor records.

Leigh seemed surprised that Basel had regrouped and is once again pursuing the project, this time with business partner and NFL offensive tackle Austin Howard.

“If it gets going, I’d certainly be willing to help in any way I can,” Leigh said, adding that he’s also working on his own, multi-tiered solution to the homelessness epidemic in Colorado Springs. While he wouldn’t go into detail, Leigh said he is bringing multiple stakeholders into the conversation.

“Coalesce a lot of people at a high level in the community. … People who truly have the best interests at heart,” he said. “I’m all about trying to solve the problem.”

 

A parcel of problems

As for the Sand Creek Commons project, at least as it originally emerged, Leigh said, “We felt like there might be better solutions.

“The big part of the problem with that project,” he continued, “there were some physical limitations to the site we were working with. One, it’s in an airport overlay zone, and I’m not sure that’s a real problem but it’s one that was posed to us. The other is there is no bus directly to it.”

In addition, the land is zoned for light industrial use and is considered in an aviation accident-potential zone.

Lonna Thelen, city principal planner, said in an interview the project would be considered a human services shelter requiring a use variance — essentially the blessing to use the land in a way other than allowed within a particular zone. The application would be subject to both staff and Planning Commission review, and Thelen said the department would seek Airport Advisory Committee recommendations on how to handle the proximity and risk associated with flight paths.

Ultimately, the blessing for the project would come from the city’s Planning Commission; City Council would not have to sign off, Thelen said, unless the commission’s decision was appealed.

Nonetheless, Basel said his proposal hasn’t changed much from the one he floated last year. He downplayed some of what Leigh called the “physical limitations.”

“Part of the [airport overlay] was always meant to make sure someone’s home is not too noisy and to make sure you’re not building a tall structure in front of the runway,” he said. “We’re more than a mile off of [the angled runway] and it’s very rarely used. … It’s one of those things where if you look … other developments … are built in this zone in the city.”

And as for the transportation issue, Basel said at the meeting he would build a bus stop on the site.

Then there’s the fact that a portion of the property lies in the Sand Creek flood plain. “The city’s hike and bike trail goes through the flood plain there a little bit, but we won’t be building anything on that section,” he said.

If we were looking at concentration of poverty, you might not even be able to bring 250 units to this neighborhood if you were going after federal funds. Please bring all the stakeholders into this conversation.” — Beth Roalstad, director of Homeward Pikes Peak

Questions remain

But not everyone is convinced. On Dec. 5, Southeast community advocates and nonprofit leaders pushed back on the idea, questioning its impact on the community and its oversight.

Joyce Salazar, a 30-year resident of Southeast Colorado Springs and head of the multi-agency RISE Coalition, worried that the village doesn’t gel with the area’s changing culture.

“We’ve been out of sight, out of mind, so now with the collaborative work of the coalition, we’re starting to see momentum and cohesion,” she told Basel and Howard. “While this is a great asset to the city of Colorado Springs, residents of Southeast Colorado Springs … feel like this tiny home village will be an added burden to an already-burdened community.”

She called his vision of wraparound services within the development a “slap in the face” for a community that drives or rides a bus across town to access those same services.

“We currently have the largest minority population, highest poverty rates, highest health-disparity rates” in the city, Salazar said. “This is why I talk about the burden of things like this. Can Southeast Colorado Springs afford this tiny homes village?”

Basel countered that two major health systems are looking at the project as a possible future clinic site.

Beth Roalstad, the director of Homeward Pikes Peak, worried whether the unique rehabilitative needs of the chronically homeless would truly be met. Nearly 65 percent of the chronically homeless population have severe mental illness and addiction issues, she told Basel, and she worried that, because the Sand Creek project will be privately funded and not include grant dollars, it won’t be held to the same standards as federally funded service providers like hers.

“If we were looking at concentration of poverty, you might not even be able to bring 250 units to this neighborhood if you were going after federal funds,” Rolstad said. “Please bring all the stakeholders into this conversation.”

Pastor Ben Anderson echoed those concerns. The executive director of Solid Rock Community Development Corp. said before he could support the village, he would need to see more details. Specifically, Anderson wanted to know more about Basel’s vision for transportation, investment and employment opportunities.

“We’re trying to build something here in terms of economic development,” Anderson said. “That [project] does not improve community as a whole.

“I’m not against [supporting the homeless], but [Practical Revolution is] bringing a population that needs a whole lot of assistance and … has no plans for it.”

He also said it was critical that Basel engage the Southeast neighborhood and listen to its feedback before breaking ground. Basel said he intends to do just that, after he submits the application for the use in the coming weeks.

Regan.foster@southeastexpress.org

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