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Boulder, Colorado

Daily Camera guest opinion

published by the Boulder Daily Camera

June 20, 2019

By MARK WALLACH

One of the few things almost every Boulderite seems to agree on is that we lack sufficient affordable and middle-class housing for families. Always an aspirational community, it is now Boulder’s ultimate goal that 15% of all housing units in Boulder will be accessible to low and middle-income residents. But where we devolve into passionate, virulent disagreement is how to get there.

A major part of the problem is the lack of adequate tools in our toolbox to create affordability. Inclusionary zoning produces some units, but in order to get those we must permit two to three times that amount of expensive, market rate units to be built for each affordable unit. The result? Vastly increased density, more strain on our infrastructure, and, most delightful of all, increased traffic. And the few affordable units we do get are a drop in the bucket against our needs. This has become a devil’s bargain, and a poor choice for Boulder.

Another proposed strategy to create affordable housing is to upzone and densify our neighborhoods through the proliferation of duplexes and triplexes in areas where single-family residences predominate. The problem is that this solution will give us all of the negative impacts of density and damage the character of our most beautiful neighborhoods, and it will not produce the affordable housing its advocates desire.

To understand, you have to do the math. Let us assume an astute developer purchases a lot for a mere $800,000 (well below the current median price for individual homes) and wants to create two market-rate units of 1,400 square feet each. By the time he has demolished the existing house and built new duplexes, he is probably in for another $400,000-450,000. Throw in some fees and marketing expenses and you probably have another $75,000-100,000. And let’s assume the developer will be content with a modest $100,000 profit on the deal. What do you have? Two units selling for at least $700,000 each, which are neither affordable nor middle-class, and which diminish neighborhood character. How does Boulder benefit?

Arguing for policies of density to create affordable housing that do not, in fact, create affordable housing is like undergoing the wrong chemotherapy: The treatment will not cure the disease, and the patient will suffer a number of painful and harmful side effects. It is a means to get more luxury housing but not the affordable housing we desperately need.

Why do we follow strategies for affordable housing that are so deficient? The easy answer is that this is Boulder: We see a problem and we try to solve it. The deeper answer is that we have too few tools to do so, and we now need to create better ones to achieve our goals.

Historically, it has been the role of government to build affordable housing, but in the absence of substantial federal support we now need state and local government to step into the breach and play a larger role in the creation of affordable housing. Sometimes (as with the Alpine-Balsam site) we need the city to acquire parcels of property so that it can have a strong voice in how they are developed. But when it does, we need to move beyond the old formulas of permitting the private sector to develop them as high-density, ultra-expensive projects in order to gain a few affordable units elsewhere. We need to be active participants in public-private partnerships, where the emphasis is on creating affordable and middle-class units on site, not market-rate housing.

We also need to explore new ways of providing funding to create affordable housing. Will Boulder citizens, who taxed themselves to acquire open space, do the same to meet its housing goals? If so, we can establish a new paradigm for the construction of affordable housing. If not, then it may be necessary to reassess whether our affordable housing goals are realistically achievable. What about a bond issue to provide funds for affordable housing? Let’s see if Boulder will walk the walk to fund affordable housing.

No one disputes that this city needs more housing suitable for low- and middle-income families. But the tired formulas and tired rhetoric about the benefits of density do not reflect the progressive and innovative thinking that Boulder requires. We need to create new paths to achieve our objectives. If we do not, the result will be a bloated city with terminal gridlock, insufficient infrastructure, and affordable housing that falls far short of our aspirations.