Connecting state and local government leaders
As a nationwide housing shortage continues to push people into homelessness, cities like Denver and Los Angeles are turning to data to help locate public land to put housing on.
Denver Mayor Mike Johnston late last month released a list of 11 properties—mostly owned by the city or other public agencies—that could host “micro-communities” of tiny homes or converted hotels under his plan to house 1,000 unsheltered people by the end of the year.
“These are sites that … we know have the materials that they would need,” Johnston said at a press conference. “They have access to public transit in the area, they have access to utilities. We have the amount of space we would need.”
The announcement came just over a month after Johnston declared a state of emergency on homelessness and activated the city’s Emergency Operations Center, which brings together dozens of city employees to work toward achieving the mayor’s housing goals.
Among those employees are experts in geographic information systems, or GIS. As a nationwide housing shortage continues to push people into homelessness, state and local governments like Denver are looking to develop units on publicly owned lands. But when the lists of potential sites include thousands of parcels, it takes smartly layered data sets and geospatial tech to narrow down the selection for viable options.
“The city and county of Denver has a bevy of GIS data at its disposal, and we utilized numerous GIS data layers in producing the preliminary prospective site list for the mayor’s housing initiative,” a city spokesperson said in an email to Route Fifty. The spokesperson added that the city is continuing to vet locations based on proximity to public transit and schools, and aims to distribute the micro-communities across the entire city to avoid overburdening one area.
Good data is critical to address housing shortages, said Dario Rodman-Alvarez, president of the Center for Pacific Urbanism, a research nonprofit based in Southern California. In Los Angeles, home to one of the largest homeless populations in the country, Rodman-Alvarez described a disconnect between people working in government and those in construction and development.
“There's just this challenge: Folks in government are not necessarily experts in real estate development and housing … at all,” he said.
Knowing what data sets to pull together—including those concerning slope, proximity to city services, ecological vulnerabilities and size—is an important step in identifying feasible sites.
In May, the Center for Pacific Urbanism published a study identifying more than 100 government-owned properties in Los Angeles that are suitable for housing development. The center conducted the analysis in parallel with Mayor Karen Bass’s executive directive issued earlier this year calling for the city to identify potential city-owned sites for temporary and permanent housing.
“Without geographic information systems, it's a very cumbersome review, to have thousands of parcels,” Rodman-Alvarez said. “And then to begin to look at the physical characteristics of those parcels, such as the slope and the access and infrastructure—the number of sites is prohibitive.”
But with GIS, parsing sites that are feasible for housing from those that are not becomes much easier and faster. Rodman-Alvarez and his team used GIS to identify sites that were larger than 10,000 square feet, weren’t recreational, had less than a 15% grade slope and did not have existing buildings on the property. The study also took into account distance from sewer lines, fire hydrants, freeways and many other factors.
Rodman-Alvarez and his team shared the findings with the mayor’s office, and those sites have been incorporated into a list of sites that are being considered for development.
Similar to Denver, Bass is hoping publicly owned land could help house some of the 75,000 people experiencing homelessness in her city.
“To save lives, restore our neighborhoods and house Angelenos immediately, we must urgently prioritize underutilized existing city-owned property,” she said in a February statement announcing the directive.
Denver and Los Angeles are not the first to turn to publicly owned property for housing. An ordinance in King County, Washington, requires that underutilized county-owned parcels where residential construction is feasible must be used for affordable housing development. Washington, D.C. mandates that at least 20% of units developed on city-owned land are affordable for low-income residents. And a 2016 law says unused federal properties should be turned over to help the homeless.