Affordable Housing in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

February 20, 2017

I posted a quote on Facebook meant for the many people I know in Boulder who believe that as much as possible must be done to stop growth and development:

“The opposite to bad development is good development, not no development.” – Padriac Steinschneider

Someone replied by stating that “[n]o one said anything about no development and growth. This is discussion about affordability which is a separate issue. We can grow a lot and build mostly unaffordable housing, or we can grow less and preserve the affordable housing that we have and build mostly affordable new housing. Those are 2 very different affordability outcomes unrelated to growth.”

My response:

The underlying hope — and often the quite outspoken belief — for a great many in Boulder is no growth. I’ve lost track of how many times I see people in Boulder fight to raise development fees or call for more meetings for a proposed development plan (mostly for added opportunities to stop the development).

Or state that population growth is our number one threat.

Since fees are so very high in Boulder already ($11 million in fees paid by Solana, for example), and since added time is very expensive for developers, higher fees and more meetings is, for many who call for such things (if they are honest), an effort to prevent development.

For many in Boulder, Al Bartlett is a patron saint. Over and over again, he sounded the alarm that population growth is a huge threat (and implicitly, for many who hear his message, that population growth must be stopped in Boulder).

Since there is no humane or practical or constitutional way for Boulder to stop population growth, the next best thing has been to fight to slow it down as much as possible (while hoping that such efforts will eventually stop growth or at least push it to towns outside of Boulder).

One way to clearly see how stopping growth is the underlying objective is the extreme opposition to density increases in Boulder. Since Boulder cannot grow outwards beyond city limits (without great difficulty), or upwards due to severe height limits, fighting against density increases is another way to stop growth in the near future.

I don’t see how growing less preserves affordable housing, or how growing more removes affordable housing. Most people I know who support more compact, walkable growth and more housing are, like me, supporting the idea of making it easier to build such things as backyard cottages (or other forms of ADUs), co-ops, smaller houses/apartments, and converting some industrial and surface parking land to housing. Each of those tactics inherently provide more affordable housing.

By contrast, those pushing for slower growth or no growth often strongly oppose each of these options for more affordable housing.

It must be noted that growth in Boulder is already very slow when one considers how very desirable the quality of life is here, and the fact that we have had a very low maximum annual residential growth cap — I think that cap still exists.

Instead of supporting the affordable housing tactics I note above, many slower growth advocates call for heavy-handed local government market interventions, which I believe is unsustainable — in part because it leads to many unintended consequences. Slow growthers are forced to adopt such a “command economy” tactic because the idea of creating the new and relatively affordable housing I mention a few sentences back would mean more people, and for too many of the slower growthers, that is not in any way acceptable. Al Bartlett, after all.NIMBY-protest-Toronto-Boston-SanFrancisco-neighbourhood-airport-housing-preservation-Condo.ca_-512x341

I would love to see the slower growthers support building new housing that is affordable, as you say above, but all I see is opposition to such new housing. I see opposition to:

1. ADUs.
2. Co-ops.
3. Loss of parking – often as a way to create more housing.
4. Providing less parking for housing or unbundling the price of parking from housing (both of these are powerful ways to create more affordable housing because parking is extremely expensive).
5. Reducing the amount of parking that a developer must provide.
6. Smaller lots or smaller houses.
7. Buildings taller than 1-2 stories.
8. Adding smaller shops or offices into residential areas or incorporated into the same building.
9. Smaller building setbacks and smaller open space or landscaping requirements for new developments.

Personally, I would love to see in Boulder a big increase in smaller homes, without parking, that are an easy walk to shops and offices. I would love to buy such housing, as I’m sure a great many in Boulder would want to as well. But the supply of such walkable housing in Boulder is vanishingly small. And the demand is huge (and growing due to the fact that many Millennials seek such housing). That bids up the price of such inherently affordable housing artificially. Given the very loud opposition I hear from so many of the slower growthers (which I increasingly call the anti-city, anti-environment folks), I’m not optimistic that the supply of such greener, more sustainable, more affordable housing will grow much at all.

One cynical form of optimism on the affordable housing front is that since cities such as Boulder now have way more drivable suburban housing than the demand for such housing, we can expect that such housing will be relatively affordable in future decades, because supply will far exceed demand.

Most of Boulder was built during an era that put low-density, single-use-zoning, drivable suburbia on a pedestal (in part by adopted zoning regulations that make compact development illegal). In the coming decades, it will be the cities that are able to incrementally make such unsustainable places more walkable (and create new neighborhoods with such housing) that will have a future. That inevitably means more compact housing, which means a more affordable and greener lifestyle (because the huge expense of paying for car travel will decline and the huge per capita environmental impact of car travel will diminish). It also means more people living in neighborhoods, which is anathema to those who seek to retain a drivable lifestyle.

Christopher B. Leinberger, on Dec. 20th, 2006, had this to say on the topic (he is the author of The Option of Urbanism):

“…walkable urbanity is entirely different than drivable suburbanism. The underlying financial and market principle of drivable development, aka sprawl, is that “more is less”; more development reduces the quality of life and financial returns, leading developers and their customers to perpetually go further and further to the fringe in a fruitless search for very things (open space, drivable convenience, perceived safety, etc.) this development promises. It is a downward spiral.

Walkable urbanity works under financial and market principles that “more is better”; as more dense development takes place with mixed-uses within walking distance and multiple transportation options to get there, the place gets better. Hence the environmental, fiscal (government tax base), community building AND project financial elements all become better. It is an upward spiral.”

And Vince Graham:

“If what you sell is the perception of privacy and exclusivity, then every new house is a degradation of the amenity. However, if what you sell is community, then every new house is an enhancement of the asset.”

 

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