published in the Boulder Daily Camera
February 26, 2019
By MARK WALLACH
Last week’s Daily Camera included a guest commentary whose argument consisted of a full-throated defense of Better Boulder and its high-density message. On its surface, the message seems to make sense: Many people want to live in Boulder, a community that has become increasingly unaffordable to lower- and middle-income families. Why not increase density in order to build enough housing to accommodate these families?
While the message has a certain surface appeal, it is, in fact, a mirage. The housing that will be constructed by Better Boulder’s reliance upon the market will be neither family-friendly nor affordable. How do I know? Because the market has failed to produce such housing in any large project in recent memory. How did it go at the Peloton West, which has recently been marketing units for up to $1.3 million? How affordable are the rents down at Boulder Junction? The only affordable housing associated with market rate developments are not even located on site, as every developer opts to use a cash-in-lieu payment option to relieve itself of its affordable housing obligations.
But what is worse, the Better Boulder, “build, baby, build,” high-density message conveniently leaves out all the key details. How much density do they want? (And, please, spare us the “gentle infill” language.) Where do they want to place all of these units? What will be the impact on traffic? (And, no, the additional residents will not all be riding bicycles to their weekend ski trips.) What do they imagine the full carrying capacity of Boulder to be? What will be the infrastructure requirements of this newly-densified Boulder, and how will they be met? And if Better Boulder’s dreams of density come to pass, what will be left of the community that so many care so deeply about? What will we look like, how will we actually live, in their Brave New World?
In a progressive city like Boulder, it makes strategic sense to clothe a market-driven chant for density in the language of social equity, but in the absence of specific answers to the questions I have posed above, it is nothing more than a slogan without content, and the real estate equivalent of trickle down economics. Let the market build to its heart’s content, and eventually we will have so much housing that the prices will come down. Voila! Affordability! You would think we would have learned after years of this type of thinking governing our tax policy, but apparently not.
Of course, there is one inconvenient truth that the advocates of density-to-create-affordability repeatedly, continually ignore. It hasn’t worked. Anywhere. For three decades I lived in New York, whose density increased continuously during that period. So did prices. Similar conditions prevail in San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., and on and on. Science teaches us that when the facts do not support a theory, there is something deficient in the theory. Only in the world of alternative facts does the density/affordability argument have merit.
Better Boulder advocates also argue that dense urban living is more environmentally productive. Well, it is. But on that theory, we should be building 20-story — no, 40-story — towers in order to minimize environmental impact, or restricting each citizen to 300 square feet of living space. Please. We live in the most environmentally conscious city in America. We are spending millions on a municipal utility; we promote every type of progressive environmental action possible. Stop trying to guilt-trip the population that they are criminals if they live in a single-family home.
There is a path to more affordable housing, but it is a path that will require a higher level of government involvement to create such housing, not the unbridled energy of the private sector. It will be illuminated by creative thinking on how to circumvent the current restrictions on rent control to create more affordable rental units, or by finding new financial structures by which the city can joint-venture with the private sector to create affordable housing. It will occur because of the middle-income housing initiative sponsored by Council members Bob Yates and Sam Weaver. It will not happen because Better Boulder wants to unleash the forces of unchecked development upon our community. Those who worship at the altar of density are following a false messiah.