Sunday, November 1, 2015

Inconvenient truths about “affordable” housing in Boulder, CO (but applies to Marin County too)

Inconvenient truths about “affordable” housing and Ballot Question 300

By Paul Danish
Whatever else Ballot Questions 300 and 301 end up accomplishing, they have already succeeded in awakening the social consciences of most of the developers, builders, realtors and bankers in Boulder.
They’ll get over it, of course, but in the meantime a lot of trash is being talked about planning, development, growth and housing prices in Boulder.

And about Ballot Questions 300 and 301. Ballot Questions 300 and 301 would allow residents of neighborhoods to vote on zoning changes that affect their neighborhoods (Question 300) and require new growth to pay its own way (Question 301).

Here, in no particular order, are a few inconvenient truths that ought to be part of the conversation but aren’t:

1. Both liberals and conservatives say they’re for “more affordable” housing, but the very term “affordable housing” is meaningless. All housing is affordable — by someone. It isn’t “affordable housing” that we’re after. It’s low-priced housing.

2. The reason Boulder housing prices are high isn’t “a simple matter of supply and demand” as pro-growthers (both those with recently awakened social consciences and those with interminable liberal guilt) sometimes claim.
It’s a simple matter of demand and supply.

Boulder housing prices are high because there are a lot of relatively high paying jobs in the Boulder. When it comes to buying a house, chances are Boulderites with six-figure incomes will want more than a double-wide.

3. Apart from demand and supply, Boulder housing is going to be more expensive than comparable housing elsewhere in the metro Denver area for at least two other reasons. The first is location, location, location; if you want to live within walking distance of the Rocky Mountains instead of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, you’re going to pay a premium. The second is that the people of Boulder have made an enormous investment in maintaining Boulder’s environment and character — starting with the purchase of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of open space — which makes Boulder a highly desirable place to live and pushes up property values.

4. When it comes to Boulder housing, the 500-pound gorilla in the room is the University of Colorado. The current enrollment of the University of Colorado is about 32,000, and chances are it will continue to grow. Historically university dormitories and married student housing can accommodate maybe 25 to 30 percent of the student body, and that proportion is unlikely to change much in the future. The rest, more than 20,000, live in off-campus housing in Boulder or in surrounding towns. It doesn’t take a genius to see that as CU grows an increasing number of students are going to find accommodations outside of Boulder — in Westminster, Longmont, Lafayette, Broomfield, Northglenn, Frederick and so on, and commute to school.

Instead of trying to further densify the already over-crowded neighborhoods near the campus, a more realistic student housing policy for Boulder would be for the City to provide more parking lots near the campus.

5. There is no free lunch. The more Boulder grows, the more traffic-congested it is going to become. This is because a) Boulder is designed around the automobile, and b) thanks to Boulder’s geography, Boulder’s street network cannot be expanded much without doing real damage to the city. Buses, bicycles and hare-brained schemes like eliminating auto lanes on arterial streets in favor of bicycle lanes will not eliminate the added congestion that comes with added population or even mitigate it. Neither will the sort of densification that has occurred in the 28th and 30th Street corridors — that much should be self-evident by now.

6. Opponents of Ballot Question 300 are trying to define it as an existential threat to low-cost housing in Boulder. The assumption is that if neighborhoods could vote on up-zonings and land use changes that would result in higher density — like the back-door densification measures the Council tried to slip through a few months ago — such changes would almost always be voted down.

That may well be the case. However, it doesn’t follow that changing Boulder’s land use regulations to allow additional rental units in existing single family homes and on existing single family lots will result in lower rents.

Back in the 1960s, a lot of Boulder home-owners rented out basement apartments to students, and (even taking into account 800 percent inflation) the rents were moderate by today’s standards. And because the homeowners lived on the premises, there was a degree of adult supervision, which made the higher density more tolerable.

But as the old homeowners died off, their homes were acquired not by new owner-occupants who rented out a room or a basement, but by absentee investors who turned them into total rental properties and jacked up both the rents and the number of renters — often in brazen disregard of the city’s occupancy limits. In Austin, Texas such rental properties around the University of Texas are called “stealth dorms.”

7. The claim by opponents of Ballot Question 300 that it “pits neighbors and neighborhoods against each other” is hogwash squared and cubed. Boulder neighborhoods historically look out for their own interests, but I can’t recall an occasion where one neighborhood has gotten into a fight with another over a land use issue. Ballot Question 300 isn’t going to change that.

As for pitting neighbor against neighbor, as a Boulder City Councilman and Boulder County Commissioner, I’ve sat through dozens of public hearings involving proposed projects that would increase the density and change the character of neighborhoods. The most striking thing about those hearings was the unanimity with which the residents opposed those projects. The real fear of Ballot Question 300’s opponents isn’t that it will pit neighbor against neighbor, but neighbors against developers. They should be honest enough to admit it.

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