By Dom Nozzi
September 9, 2014
Much of the conversation regarding the Comprehensive Housing Strategy in Boulder Colorado has centered around the extremely important issues of affordability and neighborhood compatibility. The issue has been exceptionally controversial. A few suggestions to turn down the volatility:
- One of the most effective ways to create affordable housing in Boulder is to create more walkable, compact, mixed-use housing (what Boulder is now calling “15-minute neighborhoods“). On average, a car now costs about $9,500/year to own and operate. If a household is able to only have to own one car instead of two, or two instead of three — because compact neighborhood design allows such a reduction — those households would have almost $10K a year that could now be put into housing rather than motor vehicles. Personally, I could not afford to live in Boulder if I owned a car.
- A related, powerful affordability tool is to allow more housing where the price of the housing is unbundled from the price of the parking. Boulder Junction will be the first time that Boulder sees housing where the price of parking can be unbundled from the price of housing. Big savings, given how much parking (especially in Boulder) can cost to provide. In addition, the average parking space consumes something like 300 SF of real estate. The outdated, excessive minimum parking requirements that Boulder uses too often is making it impossible to build smaller, more affordable housing units on smaller lots, because so much space is needed for parking. We need to leverage this affordability opportunity by reforming parking regulations (mostly by converting minimum parking to maximum parking, and by making it easier to unbundle parking — or requiring parking to be unbundled).
- Boulder’s future will see a growing number of Millennials, and we know that demographic group (more so than earlier generations) is looking for more walkable, compact, mixed-use housing where the need for a household to own 2-3 cars is less necessary. Does Boulder provide enough of that type of housing for the coming growth in demand (and a more sustainable world where car ownership is less necessary and less affordable)? I don’t believe it does. An equitable, healthy community provides the full, adequate range of housing and lifestyle choices from urban to suburban to rural. In my opinion, Boulder has a mismatch of such choices. There is an oversupply and relative under-demand for drivable suburban housing. Conversely, there is a large (and growing) demand for compact, walkable housing, and a very scarce supply of such housing in Boulder.
- Increasing the number of unrelated adults who can live in a home, as well as easing up on accessory dwelling unit and co-op housing restrictions, are very important affordability tools. And one that causes relatively little neighborhood disruption.
- Neighborhood compatibility and neighborhood objections to new development are highly contentious in Boulder. Perhaps the most fundamental building block I know of for creating neighborhood compatibility (not to mention creating the much desired, yet elusive vision for Boulder and its neighborhoods) is to implement charrette-driven form-based coding, instead of the vision-less, conventional, outdated zoning-based coding that Boulder uses. An excellent example of the power of form-based coding is the code created by Dover-Kohl for North Boulder and the Holiday neighborhood. I believe that now is a wonderful time for Boulder to either adopt form-based overlay zones in targeted areas, or to engage in a citywide, perhaps incremental, replacement of conventional zoning codes with what are called Smart (form-based) codes. Such codes not only incorporate detailed, inspirational visions and compatibility tools (and most importantly, uniquely significant neighborhood buy-in), but are effective (when appropriate) in creating compatible compact, human-scaled, lower-speed and mixed use development that induce civic pride and powerfully achieve important City objectives.
- I am worried that actions taken by Council on the Comprehensive Housing Strategy might lock certain parts of Boulder into a highly undesirable status quo. There are many areas, such as East Boulder and important transit nodes, that are in desperate need of re-development — places that are overly car-happy, declining, parking lot-choked areas with a terrible economic and quality of life problem. These places, in particular, are overdue for restoration through catalysts such as the needed reforms to land development and parking that I outline above.
In sum, the Comprehensive Housing Strategy offers the City an excellent opportunity to implement the reforms I outline above.