The reporting for this story by Alexis Kenyon and Jacob Agatston
10_17_23_veteranscommunityproject Alexis Kenyon
On a 2 1/2-acre plot of land a few miles west of downtown Longmont near the city airport, Jennifer Seybold, Executive Director of Veterans Community Project, is showing me around the partly-finished lot of Longmont’s new tiny home village.
“You’re looking at the village space, the community center in the middle of the village here, is where all of our services, on-site case management will happen,” she says.
There are 26 quaint but sophisticated-looking tiny homes. They have stone siding and large covered porches and will soon become transitional housing for unhoused veterans in Boulder County.
“You can see ceilings are pretty high in here. Makes it feel a little bit bigger. We don’t do loft design,” says Seybold as we step inside one of the units.
The rooms are light-filled and there’s space for a table and a full size bed.*
“So it’s got everything your standard home has, it’s just smaller,” says Seybold.
This project is part of a county-wide effort to end homelessness using a strategy called Housing First.
The idea is that homelessness is caused because people don’t have anywhere to live, and so if you want to tackle homelessness or solve it, you should start with giving people somewhere to live.
Nicole Speer is a Boulder City Council member and says the county committed to this housing-first approach in 2017.
“Since 2017 when we started this, we’ve housed about 1,600 individuals, which is a pretty substantial amount, and I think we can also see that it’s not really enough,” said Speer.
One of the biggest hurdles for the county, other than sky-high housing prices, has been finding a place to build communities for unhoused people.
Kevin Mulshine is a Longmont real estate developer. He says that initially when the City of Longmont approached him about incorporating housing for unhoused communities in his real estate development, he was sure it didn’t make sense.
“And it’s really for the same reason that developers will always shy away, and I would shy away, from helping homelessness in a new development, which is, you can’t sell houses next to a homeless encampment. And that’s understandable,” he said.
In an effort to prove to the City of Longmont that it could not be done, he decided to go on a tour.
He stopped at five different places where developers attempted to incorporate housing for unhoused communities within an otherwise typical real estate development.
At his very last stop, Mulshine went to the flagship Veterans Community Project in Kansas City, Missouri.
“And what really did a 180 for me was it was such a vibrant campus and so volunteer-centric,” he said.
“That I thought, ‘you know, a new development, there’s always this competition who can come up with the greatest amenity?’ which means the size of the pool and the workout facilities and all that. I thought, well, maybe one of the amenities you could do in a village like this. I’m 63. I’d love to walk down the street and help a, you know, a veteran with a resume or something. Maybe instead of a negative, we could actually turn it to be a positive because people will embrace compassion as an amenity.”
When Mulshine got back to town, he agreed to donate 2.4 acres of land to VCP for the tiny home village. Another bonus though, is that Longmont expedited his development process.
He remembers one particular meeting with the mayor of Longmont and the founder of the Veterans Community Project, Jason Kander.
“Jason said, ‘Look, we’re on comment number three of about 500.’ Jason Kander said, ‘I don’t mean to be short, but could we get to every comment that’s so important that I’ve got to go count homeless on the streets tonight?’ And that stopped the meeting and the mayor said, ‘We’re not doing this. Let’s just go to the important things, address them, and move on with this project.’ And it’s things like that, where he just said, ‘Stop, we need to help these veterans who are homeless.’ And so they probably saved us two years, and frankly, expediting the project didn’t cost the city a dime,” he said.
Mulshine says, for the most part, the entire experience has been a win-win. He sold the VCP community as an amenity to the builders, and the people who moved in say they like to be able to walk over to the campus and work with the veterans.
“Please don’t take this as being cold, but I think I’m pretty close to the general population where maybe I have a little bit of a fear of living next door to a lot of homeless people. I don’t have a fear of living next door to the VCP campus, in fact, I live about a mile from this VCP,” said Mulshine.
“But I think if you then go to the other fruit that’s also low-hanging, could you help single moms? You know, no kids should be homeless, and maybe someday we’ll get to where a developer could do a housing solution for the general homeless population, I’m not sure. But being honest, we thought of the low-hanging fruit, which is homeless veterans, and match that with VCP services, and we said ‘We’d do this all day long.’ It’s a nice thing to do, and everybody wants to help a veteran.”
And as friendly and accommodating as VCP’s model is to the housed community, for the unhoused community and individuals living in it, the model leaves out a lot of them.
According to Jennifer Seybold, VCP’s Executive Director, VCP does randomized drug tests, so tiny homes are only available to veterans who have a record of being clean and sober and can stay that way.
They won’t take veterans with a recent history of violent crime, and the tiny homes aren’t ADA-compliant, so no veterans with wheelchairs or major disabilities.
“And then in terms of moving into the village, I mean, the biggest thing I will say is it’s just a willingness to engage in working on yourself,” said Seybold.
“And so if you’re not willing to engage in that, it’s probably not going to be the place for you. But other than that, I mean, there’s really no major, like, disqualifiers. We can’t have sex offenders just because we do have family units.”
For all the people who don’t qualify to live at VCP housing or are not up for so much oversight, Seybold says they can look for services from other community partners.
“I mean, that’s VCP’s philosophy, and that’s why I say we don’t reinvent services. We partner with people who do those things well. That’s really how we operate. I have to say it is a community issue to solve, and frankly, I am incredibly proud of what the City of Longmont has done, but truthfully, I think it’s just been a community-wide effort, and I see it as a partnership among all of those people,” she said.
Kevin Mulshine thinks developers, and also cities, can learn a lot from the way the City of Longmont dealt with the Veterans Community Project.
“Any time I see a large development approved that doesn’t have any affordable housing,” he said.
“I think ‘local government, you kind of missed an opportunity there because it wouldn’t have taken much,’ you know.”
And while Boulder County is on track to be the first sub-region in the metro area to reach functionally zero veteran homelessness in the past few years, more and more people are entering homelessness for the first time.
Boulder City Councilwoman Nicole Speer says just in Boulder City limits, 300 BVSD students experienced homelessness last year. That number is close to 800 countywide.
“We also really have to be focused on prevention because without focusing on prevention, we can keep putting more and more and more money into enforcing our camping ban, and you know, putting people into housing and these building home programs, but it’s like trying to put a Band-Aid on a dam that’s about to break,” said Speer.
The first four VCP tiny home residents moved in at the end of August. More will be able to move in as they complete the construction of the tiny home village in the coming months. In order to complete the project, Seybold says, they still need to raise about $1. 2 million in capital. All said and done, the project will cost $7 million.
Jacob Agatston also reported on this story.
*a previous version of this story incorrectly states that the tiny homes fit a queen-sized bed.