Colorado affordable housing advocates push land-use reforms

As Colorado lawmakers reconvene with housing top of mind, state leaders and a constellation of groups urging them on hope to wrest some control of development from cities and counties, risking clashes with local officials in a bid to spur denser and more affordable growth.

Supporters say the effort will likely span multiple legislative proposals and multiple years. The exact details are still being worked out, and no bills have yet been drafted as a growing coalition of housing, business and environmental groups coalesce around specific policies. But a proposal circulated by those involved includes prohibiting residential growth caps, changing parking requirements, legalizing smaller and denser developments across the state, and prioritizing builds near transit corridors.

These policies are generally under the control of local governments, and a statewide approach to them would signal a paradigm shift in how Colorado regulates zoning writ large. The first-in-decades effort to reform land use here will almost certainly ignite howls from local officials. But Gov. Jared Polis seemed to give the push’s broad strokes an early endorsement Tuesday during his annual State of the State address. One housing official said the governor’s presence in the debate will take heat off of legislators and give the broader effort a prominent boost.

The shift to state centralization of zoning is needed, supporters and Polis say, because of the scale of the housing problem and its placement at the intersection of several other commanding issues.

“It’s clear that the actions of one jurisdiction impact others,” Polis said.

Housing policy extends beyond buildings and development, he said, and encompasses climate, economic, transportation, water, equity and health policy, too. It was the dominant topic of the first major address of his second term: In all, Polis mentioned housing more than three dozen times.

The need is mounting: New housing builds have cratered since the 2008 financial crisis, according to analyses by the Common Sense Institute and the Colorado Housing Affordability Project, as migration into the state and prices have surged. Colorado needs to build tens of thousands of new units each year to just keep the market stable. Supporters of reform say the best way to kickstart that growth is through statewide land-use reform that’s geared toward supply, speed, density and affordability.

“Housing is the foundation,” said Peter LiFari, who leads Maiker Housing Partners, an Adams County housing authority, and is a supporter of land-use reform. “It is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What we’re seeing right now is out of this desperation. The wolf is not just at our Colorado door; the wolf is in our home, and it’s consuming our ability to thrive across all sectors of our economy.”

Urgency meets local control

The coalition looking to reform land use reflects the intersectional nature of housing: Discussions have included officials from Maiker, Conservation Colorado, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Enterprise Community Partners. Healthier Colorado has been involved, as have various business groups. J.J. Ament, the CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that the group looked forward “to working with the governor, local officials and so many other stakeholders to remove unnecessary barriers to supply” and improve affordability.

In a separate statement to the Post on Thursday, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill said the governor was still focused on gathering input on a path forward.

Where Polis’s speech was short on exact details, the coalition’s proposal provides a fuller insight into land-use discussions. In a nod to private property rights, it calls for accessory dwelling units — like carriage houses — to be allowed by right on all single-family zones and for the state to “prevent local governments from creating overly burdensome barriers to their construction.”

Multi-unit builds — duplexes, triplexes, townhomes — would be allowed on single-family lots under the proposal, and parking mandates would be eliminated for those developments. Parking takes up space that could be used for housing, experts said, and its construction is pricy — as much as $10,000 per spot on surface lots alone.

Transportation and land-use planning should be integrated, the coalition says, and “denser, mixed-use neighborhoods” should be allowed near transit stations. That, in turn, would incentivize the use of that transit, cutting down on traffic and pollution. That’s where the environmental groups come into the picture.

Healthier Colorado generally supports the coalition’s aims as a health concern. People with unstable or unaffordable housing — where they may need to choose between rent and medicine, for example — often have worse health outcomes, said Kyle Piccola, the vice president of communications and advocacy.

“There are many ways to help improve Colorado’s housing crisis,” Piccola said. “One major barrier to that is there aren’t enough homes and there aren’t enough types of homes that people can afford to buy or rent in Colorado.”

Cities and municipalities are well aware, and on the front lines, of the state’s unaffordability crisis, Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League. The league, along with Colorado Counties, Inc., and the Special District Association, aren’t part of the coalition but are aware of it.

While there are broad agreements — Bommer’s members don’t want dirty air and agree that housing has links to things like water policy — he cautioned against any action that his members would see as pre-emption, or the state usurping municipal rights of home rule.

“There’s this false narrative being perpetuated, at least at that level — the state-of-the-state type discussion — that local governments are the problem and the state and state preemption are the solution,” Bommer said. “We just firmly disagree.”

He pointed to the number of cranes still seen over the metro area as evidence that local regulations aren’t stifling building in the state. He agreed that the right types of units might not be getting built and suggested state-and-local partnerships through programs like the housing funds from Proposition 123, rather than mandates, as solutions.

“Shortage of units is not the only part of the issue when it comes to affordability of units, and I think any economist would tell you it’s not.”

It’s unclear what specific policies Polis and the legislature will support. But the governor’s hints were well-received by land-use reformers.

“What is being discussed … is the idea that you have to set baselines around what types of development you’re going to allow,” said Brian Connolly, a land-use attorney and co-founder of the Colorado Housing Affordability Project. “We just know that we have not been building the most affordable types of housing, and that’s because we basically allow single-family homes and we allow big, luxury apartment projects to be built, and we don’t allow much of anything in between.”

Affordability and supply

Drew Hamrick, a senior vice president of the Apartment Association of Metro Denver, said he supported many of the policies hinted at by Polis and fleshed out in the coalition’s proposal. There’s broad agreement, he said, that more housing is vital and a statewide approach to getting there is needed.

Where Hamrick had concern, he said, was with the coalition’s support for affordability and anti-gentrification measures. Some housing experts have warned that upzoning — like allowing for multi-family developments on single-family lots — can fuel displacement and gentrification, as developers are incentivized to sell at higher prices because their land is worth more. If the state wants to encourage more building by setting zoning baselines, advocates argue, it should also create benchmarks to ensure a certain slice of that housing is affordable.

That’s the position of Cathy Alderman of the homeless coalition and Kinsey Hasstedt of Enterprise Community Partners. The coalition’s proposal suggests the state create “a menu of strategies” to promote affordability and prevent displacement while requiring local governments to pick from that list.

“By just enabling new developments and pushing supply without being extremely mindful of affordability and anti-displacement measures — whether through funding resources, incentives, requirements — we really stand to hurt communities who have been hurting for a long time, rather than helping them,” Hasstedt said.

Hamrick said he wasn’t against affordability measures being included in the approach; he just wanted some financial incentive — like tax credits — to offset losses from affordable housing requirements.

What will be trickier — and remains to be worked out — is how to simultaneously set statewide zoning standards while reckoning with different income levels across Colorado communities. As Polis noted in comments to reporters Tuesday, Denver has different average income levels than resort communities. That makes it harder to set a uniform affordability benchmark: What is affordable in the high country may still be out of reach in Denver.

Eric Bergman, policy director at Colorado Counties, Inc., said the group’s members fall across a spectrum of philosophies, and he warned against one-size-fits-all policies. Some have aggressive growth-management strategies, while others are more likely to leave it to the free market, he said.

Automatic upzoning, or the right to build more densely without the strict review that some counties have, is a particular tension point, however. In some cases, the infrastructure for things like water and sewer just may not be there for denser development, Bergman said, which is why many counties have stricter reviews. That’s in addition to concerns with community feel.

“The outcomes (the governor is) looking for, we are in agreement,” Bergman said. “But some of the ways you might be approaching some of these things, it might not bear the fruit you’re hoping it will bear.”

Piccola, with Healthier Colorado, countered that the price is already being paid for lack of infrastructure, just in different ways — like congested freeways as people are priced into sprawl.

Part of the coalition platform would require local governments to assess their housing needs, and Connolly, the land-use lawyer, said that prescribed affordability benchmarks can be tailored from those assessments mitigating the different income levels across the state.

But the fundamental problem, he continued, is that Colorado isn’t building enough.

“Affordability requirements can be good,” Connolly said, “but they need to be tailored to what the market can actually produce (to) not result in suppressing housing construction because if you require too much affordability, you risk developers just choosing to leave the local market.”

Whether there will be friction within the coalition — let alone the legislature — about any affordability requirements remains to be seen; for people like Hasstedt and Alderman, it’s a priority. For others, it’s a secondary question.

For now, the group is pulling in the same direction.

“There’s plenty of fertile ground for us to till together,” LiFari said, “if we can move away from this civil war of if it’s affordable enough or if it’s too expensive. … When it comes down to it, we can’t scuttle the ship because either side feels their most important interest hasn’t been prioritized. This is the grand bargain.”

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