published by the Boulder Daily Camera
May 6, 2017 at 3:03 pm
By MARK WALLACH
It is time to create a new dialogue on the subject of Boulder’s future development and the creation of affordable housing. The current conversation has become toxic, with renters and homeowners at odds with each other, density advocates denigrating those who wish to restrict growth and low-density advocates seeing the destruction of Boulder in every new development. No one sees any validity in the perspective of others. The current debate is like a scene from “Game of Thrones:” only one viewpoint will survive, with the conquered prostrate in the dirt. Given that the future of Boulder is at stake, we need to do better.
But in order to do so we need to establish a common understanding of core principles, as well as a better recognition what it is possible to achieve in the real world. Allow me to suggest a few of these:
First, obviously, is that Boulder needs more affordable housing. There is no denying the stresses the current market places on young residents and workers who desire to live in and contribute to this community. We must provide help.
Second, we are not going to provide that housing simply by becoming dense. Density is a condition, not a policy. Density does not correlate with affordability; to the contrary, our densest cities, such as New York, San Francisco and Boston, are also our most expensive. Allowing market forces to create density without restraint will result in a sea of new market-rate rentals and expensive condominiums, with a dribble of funds made available for affordable housing from cash-in-lieu developer payments. It is certainly odd to see progressive Boulder rely upon such trickle-down economics as the core funding mechanism for affordable housing.
Third, at the same time, there are parts of Boulder that can reasonably accommodate greater density, and every such possibility should not be treated as the first step on the slippery slope to the destruction of Boulder. Some of these locations can even tolerate — hold your breath — 55-foot building heights. Specifically, there are industrial areas that could be rezoned for high-density residential, which would have the ancillary benefit of bringing our residential capacity more in line with available jobs.
Fourth, even as Boulder grows, the scale of the city should be afforded some respect. We have created a unique municipality — small, sophisticated, and surrounded by open space — and the rush to grow for growth’s sake is perplexing. Why be an imitation Portland when we can be an original Boulder?
Fifth, while it is our social obligation to build more affordable housing, it is an illusion to suggest that we can make Boulder an oasis of affordability. Locations become expensive because they are desirable to more people than can be accommodated. There are reasons why homes in Detroit or North Platte are cheaper than Boulder. Nor can we simply grow our way to an affordable future. The more we build, the more will come; that is a fact of life in a state experiencing Colorado’s explosive growth. Boulder is expensive, and the only way that will change is if we so degrade the quality of life here that our residents feel compelled to move elsewhere.
Finally, we need to think more creatively about how to actually build more affordable units in a national political environment in which funds for affordable housing are likely to be gutted. Plan Boulder recently published a provocative guest opinion arguing that all future annexations of land by the city should be dedicated to low- and middle-income housing. A good suggestion? Who knows, but this is the sort of idea we should be talking about. Perhaps it is time to make developers actually build and deliver the affordable units required by our inclusionary zoning. Perhaps it is time to replace some existing taxes with an affordable-housing tax. We do not lack the intelligence to find solutions, as long as we stop dealing with development as a battle of ideological conquest, rather than compromise.
We need to move beyond the rancid nature of our current public discourse and focus on practical solutions that will increase housing opportunities for the young and working families, maintain the overall scale of our community and do so with the understanding that we cannot solve all problems, but we can make things better. If we fail to do so, or if we destroy what is unique about Boulder in the process, we will have only ourselves to blame.