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Understandably, some Coloradans are confused about proposals to address Colorado’s affordable housing crisis through land use bills lauded by Gov. Jared Polis and pending at the Capitol.

Steve Pomerance, an opinion columnist from Boulder, argues loudly the crisis can’t be solved by “simply building more market-rate housing,” a true statement backed up by data if there ever was one, if the affordability push in Colorado were truly just allowing developers to build more.

Perhaps the governor or one or more supporters of bills to expand zoning for accessory dwelling units (ADUs), increase housing near transit, or reduce parking requirements, believe the market alone will solve affordability. But we don’t have a king in Colorado. This year’s proposals include initial affordability components, and there are other state and local affordability efforts too.

The details of how Polis’ land use legislation is deployed and what else we do will determine whether, together, Colorado eases the affordability challenge and for how many families. The next installments in this series — “Build Affordable” — will provide more details on the potential of ADUs, and density around transit, to deliver.

Yes, we hear too-vague claims that new housing, whether that is accessory dwelling units, new condos or increased density, will translate automatically into affordability. But the legislative effort in 2024 includes specific plans to create new affordability. The ADU legislation would create a fund that could be prioritized to help low-income homeowners build their own attached-dwelling units, and a significant renter protection bill is awaiting the governor’s signature, For Cause Eviction limitations. These statewide efforts and numerous local efforts to”Build Affordable” could work hand-in-hand with land use changes to move the needle down on the insane housing market in Colorado.

California and Oregon’s sweeping land use reforms have been a model for Colorado legislation. But they both have for cause eviction and “rent caps” too. California also has a housing trust fund with reliable funding and inclusionary housing is widely implemented there. They have seen more ADUs than Colorado and more constructed homes that are guaranteed to stay affordable alongside market-rate unites as they build up.

Unfortunately, some of these policies met early opposition from some of the very leaders who champion land use reform efforts. Fortunately, that opposition has softened.

The prior failure to discuss affordability specifics along with land use proposals opened Colorado to Pomerance’s brand of distrust and the ambivalence reflected in conflicting poll numbers. The anti-development numbers he cites, and those he didn’t, which show the same Coloradans support ADU zoning by 78% and increased housing density near transit by a majority.

Majorities also support rent limits, inclusionary housing and eviction protections. We have an uncertain and largely silent majority in our state, neither NIMBY nor YIMBY, which played a role in dooming last year’s land use bill because no broad base of impacted residents struggling with affordability rose up to help overcome inside-the-dome hurdles.

It may seem tempting to close the door behind those of us already enjoying life in the Centennial State, if it were possible in a free country, and if it worked. Boulder, Golden and Lakewood tried limiting housing growth. Their populations grew anyway along with median home values, which have climbed to nearly $1 million in Boulder. Many areas without new density in Denver like Washington Park, Elyria-Swansea and West Denver saw higher rates of increase in home prices than areas with growth between 2016-2020.

According to Colorado’s demographer, fully one-third of the next decade’s population growth will be from births outpacing deaths, or “natural increase.” Many of those needing new housing will be our own kids growing up and fleeing our nests. Our 65+ age group will explode, mostly as current residents age, but perhaps also with a few grandparents with the audacity to move here to be near and help out with our kids, their grandkids.

We will have unprecedented demand for and a shortage of medical providers and caretakers, which will drive some migration from elsewhere. If we like teachers and doctors and construction workers, and the taxes they pay toward schools, roads and open spaces, we’ll also need workforce replacements for the Baby Boomers as they leave work en masse for well-earned retirements.

Gov. Jared Polis speaks to a crowd on the west steps of the Colorado State Capitol to unveil a land-use and housing legislative package on March 22, 2023. The legislation would have allowed landowners to build accessory dwelling units and promoted development along transit corridors, but it died during the legislative session that spring. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Coloradans have some development fatigue and want more evidence growth will produce affordability, but it is beyond the pale to suggest we’d eliminate excess births, new household formations among our next generation, and the workforce needed to sustain our state in the interests of saving minutes in traffic or shortening the wait at the ski lift. Which is precisely the nihilistic path reducing population would require.

It’s not just an urban housing crisis. Colorado Health Foundation’s Pulse Poll found that 80% of those from the Eastern Plains and Western Slope describe the cost of housing as an extreme or very serious problem. One in four worried about losing their home. Severe housing cost burden impacts every Colorado county based on Division of Local Affairs data, meaning owners or renters pay more than half their income for housing. Families in Gunnison, Montrose, Alamosa and Otero face severe burden at rates equivalent to the worst Front Range counties (15-17%). Rural counties from all four corners of our state, Montezuma to Phillips, Moffat to Baca, and others in between range from 10-13%. Custer County is tied for second statewide with 23% of residents staggering under severe burden.

Most pending legislation would reform land-use only along the Front Range and in Grand Junction. But rural and mountain resort challenges are just as important, so it’s good there are also proposals requiring housing plans and offering voluntary land-use incentives statewide.

We can’t build our way out of a housing crisis, but it won’t get better without building housing paired with affordability funding and strategies. Colorado’s future isn’t written yet. Democracy is a team sport best played with those most impacted by the affordability challenge informed and engaged. Our elected captains have a full spectrum of land use and affordability plays, and if they call them right, Colorado will field a strong housing offense in a game dominated by, but not abandoned to, the market alone.

Robin Kniech was an at-large Denver City Councilmember from 2011-23, served on the DRCOG board, and was a sponsor of Denver’s Affordable Housing Fund, Homelessness Resolution Fund and other affordable housing policy measures. She is a Bell Policy Center Economic Mobility Fellow. Read more @robinkniech on Substack or Medium.

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