Development reality check

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Joel Dyer | Boulder Weekly

I can’t remember how many times I’ve started off a column or news story with my favorite Harry S. Truman quote, but it’s happened a lot. There is just something about the short memory of Boulder County politicians and some residents that seems to keep it relevant. So without further ado, Harry says, “The only thing new in this world is the history that you don’t know.”

If you don’t like Truman, I could always go with the classic: “The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over, and then expecting different results.”

Yes, these are clichés, but clichés exist for a reason, namely they tend to be true. In the case of Boulder, this “clichéd truth” applies to the city’s never ending struggle to limit growth while simultaneously trying to keep housing affordable.

Recently, I was perusing a document titled “Comprehensive Housing Strategy.” It was an informative read, which had a section dedicated to the causes of Boulder’s lack of affordable housing, which the report attributed to four things:

1) “Boulder has a strong employment base, which is connected to the high wage, advanced technology and communications sector. It is projected that job growth in Boulder will increase 30 percent over the course of its build out.”

2) “Boulder has always been an attractive community, which includes a beautiful physical setting as well as a rich cultural environment. It offers both small town familiarity and the cosmopolitan resources and activities of a bigger city. For these reasons, Boulder attracts a national market driven by those who choose their residential location based on quality of life factors.”

3) “There is a large student population whose housing needs are met predominantly within the community. The University of Colorado has plans to increase enrollment over the next 10 years by 7 percent, or 1,800 students on a base of 25,100. These students compete directly for housing affordable to low and moderate-income residents.”

4) “Boulder has a long history of growth management and open space preservation. These policies effectively limit the supply of land for future residential development. The ability to provide housing in Boulder is impacted by existing policies, regulations and programs, including the Residential Growth Management System (RGMS), the Open Space Program, and the Comprehensive Plan.”

I was surprised. I completely agree with this assessment of the causes of Boulder’s high housing costs and its lack of affordable housing for people who make under $75,000, which is the upper economic limit the report noted for people who can’t afford to live below the Flatirons.

The document then went on to suggest steps that would keep Boulder “affordable” for working and lower income folks. I’ll summarize: Build as much darn housing as humanly possible in the existing space inside city limits. Yep, that’s pretty much what it said.

It was suggested that in areas around the campus, Boulder should encourage as many housing units as possible, particularly on the “Hill.” It suggested there should be a major push including a marketing campaign to encourage people with homes to build accessory units on their lots that could be rented out. It encouraged high-density housing be built on every available empty lot inside city limits. It suggested buying all the trailer parks in town to make sure that they would remain a viable affordable option for folks.

And finally, it suggested having more exemptions for developers and streamlining the process for developers so they could move more quickly in a cost-effective manner to “build, baby, build.”

You have to admit it sounds like a plan; so aggressive, so seemingly progressive. Unfortunately, it is also so shortsighted, so unsustainable.

The proof?

The document I’m quoting from and describing was the City of Boulder’s 1999 Comprehensive Housing Strategy. This was the plan to keep housing affordable for the middle class a decade and a half ago. So how well did it work?

I suggest the next time you’re waiting 10 minutes to get through the third green light at the same intersection, you take that frustrating opportunity to look around and then answer that question. I think you’ll agree it didn’t, unless you’re a developer.

So let’s look at what this document got right and what it got wrong. As I said, I think it nailed the reasons for Boulder’s lack of affordability on the real estate front. When you have a small island of land surrounded by open space that prevents outward expansion, and you couple such a severe restriction with height limits in order to make sure that the view of the Flatirons remains unobstructed in perpetuity, and you do this in a highly desirable town with a worldwide reputation for food, culture, natural beauty, safety and affluence, it is simply impossible to hold back housing price escalation. The market will always consume the existing stock and pressure the price upward, no matter how many little units are crammed into every nook and cranny inside the moat.

How do we know this for sure? Because we have been infilling Boulder with housing units for 30 years and housing prices have never been higher and the city is less affordable today for the working class than it has ever been.

Boulder’s problem is similar to that of our prison system. Any criminologist will tell you that you can’t fight crime by building more prisons. In the 1970s, there were thousands of crimes being committed for every prison bed in the U.S. and the system was overcrowded. Over the next 35 years we tripled our number of prisons and beds — nearly bankrupting our higher education system as funds were diverted to prisons — only to find that the system is now even more overcrowded and there are still thousands of crimes being committed for every cell. It doesn’t work. You can’t build your way to lower crime, nor can you build your way to affordable housing, unless you remove the restrictions that are driving housing prices upward, namely open space and height limits.

Which brings us to today.

Boulder’s elected leaders should know all this. They seemed to understand it 15 years ago. The report noted the pressure that Boulder’s job and housing demands were putting on other communities in the county, causing them to grow as well. The document argued that solving public transportation issues from East County, where Boulder workers were moving due to the lack of affordable housing was paramount and encouraged Boulder to reach out and make housing cost/transportation a regional discussion with a regional solution.

They were right… about that, but they were wrong about developing every square inch of Boulder as a solution to affordable housing.

The place we call Boulder is finite by choice. It can’t grow out and it can’t grow up. I find it hard to believe that Boulder’s leaders can’t understand that without the ability to spread out or up, Boulder will reach build out. Actually, I find it hard to believe that they can’t acknowledge that Boulder reached its build out a while back. Now we’re just tearing down single story things with a little space around them and replacing them with three story flat squares that run lot line to lot line. Such uglification is still profitable for developers, but it doesn’t do anything for affordable housing or Boulder’s quality of life.

Places like Longmont and Lafayette can continue to grow for now without excessive increases in housing prices or loss of quality of life simply because they have not radically restricted their ability to spread out and grow as market demands increase.

Sure, this translates to sprawl, but the point is that a city’s growth can only be sustained in three ways: spreading outward via sprawl, upward via taller buildings and infill.

Boulder has purposely eliminated two out of the three options and exhausted the third.

So now it appears that Boulderites have had enough of this infilling in the name of affordable housing. Neighborhood activists are preparing to take matters into their own hands by putting a couple of amendments to the City Charter on the ballot — amendments that will give individual neighborhoods control over their growth as opposed to leaving such land-use decisions to the City Council. Is this a good idea? I can see it creating all kinds of unintended negative consequences for everyone from the business community to the area’s homeless citizens. It will make NIMBY the law of the land, pitting one neighborhood against another.

That said, I understand where this neighborhood power grab is coming from. If the members of Boulder City Council can’t open their eyes and admit that Boulder is built out and that the affordable housing train left the station decades ago and for good, then the people of Boulder who do see that are going to take the growth issue into their own hands. Why should someone watch the quality of life in their neighborhood be destroyed by development that serves no real social purpose? The answer is they shouldn’t. Neighborhood activists are acting because Boulder City Council isn’t.

The same four reasons given for excessively high housing prices in 1999 are still the same forces driving Boulder housing prices ever higher today. The 1999 belief that building more housing units faster — all within the finite city limits of Boulder at less than 55 feet in height — would somehow allow Boulder’s working class to live here has run its course with the predictable results. It was wrong-headed for all but the developers and has resulted in a town that is more crowded with more traffic and a lower quality of life while being no more affordable for the middle and lower classes.

So what is the answer? A reality check would be a great place to start. Why can’t Boulder simply accept what it is today — a wealthy, beautiful college town with really expensive housing in lovely neighborhoods that are being diminished by overdevelopment.

It’s time to stop sacrificing Boulder’s quality of life in a futile effort to make the town affordable for middle-income workers. It can’t be done without building a good number of high-rise housing units on open space, which seems a tad unlikely. Love it or hate it, Boulder chose to be what it has become and the people living here chose to live here because of what Boulder is.

So let’s stop wasting time and resources on this ridiculous and unattainable idea that if enough units are built, everyone who wants to live in Boulder will be able to do so at an affordable price.

Just think where we would be today if we had taken the advice in 1999 to make housing a regional issue with the emphasis on effective mass transportation between all of Boulder County’s communities. You might not be sitting through all of those stop lights.

It’s never too late to do the right thing. We can either keep pissing in the wind by turning Boulder into a giant 55-foot-high square apartment building that still isn’t affordable, or we can make this a county-wide discussion centered on public transportation solutions. If we don’t do the right thing this time around, Boulder won’t even be recognizable in another 15 years. It will simply be a less attractive, more crowded place that still isn’t affordable for the vast majority of its middle class work force, who will still be commuting 100,000 at a time from their affordable housing to the east.