A lot of moving parts

A rundown on affordable housing in Boulder County

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Even with visible construction across the county, the need for affordable housing far outpaces the supply.
John R. Ford

Known as a desirable place to live, with its high quality of life, progressive values and natural landscape, Boulder County has become increasingly unaffordable over the last several decades. For many workers — teachers, firefighters, civil servants and those in the service industry — rent and home prices are often significantly more expensive than incomes, making it hard to live in the communities where they serve and work.

The lack of housing options around Boulder County has become increasingly evident as well, inserting itself into the local conversation, no longer relegated to government meetings and negotiations with policy wonks. But discussions about affordable housing can also be confusing, with numerous programs, funding sources and strategies involved. And the amount of bureaucracy on federal and local levels can be intimidating both for those who need affordable housing, and for others in the community concerned about it.

While affordable housing has been a policy priority, at least in theory, in jurisdictions across the county for years, the need still far outweighs current supply, leaving room for myriad solutions from legislators, nonprofits, city planners, regulators, housing advocates and others. In the coming year, Boulder Weekly will explore the efficacy of different solution proposals to increase affordable housing in the region, as well as gaps in the system. This series builds off last year’s Unhoused project, which looked at different solutions to homelessness, just one end of the affordable housing continuum.

But first, we need to understand the current situation — the programs, policies and strategies local jurisdictions are using now to increase affordable housing across Boulder County.

Setting the scene

Affordable housing is offered in various ways across Boulder County, from federally funded Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8) for very low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities, to permanently affordable rental units and deed-restricted units for homeownership that limit how much value a home can appreciate to no more than 3% a year. Down payment assistance programs can also help residents purchase market-rate homes, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the entire issue, as many may still lack the monthly income to qualify for or afford monthly mortgage rates in an area where median home prices are rising. Longmont, for example, has a list of more than a dozen families seeking down payment assistance, but the City has seen an 8.1% increase in home values over the last year. In Boulder, the median home prices is over $1.5 million, according to Information and Real Estate Services, LLC.  

Home prices have ballooned across Boulder County, with a median price of more than $1 million in the City of Boulder.
John R. Ford

Despite aggressive goals to increase the percentage of low-, moderate- and middle-income affordable housing stock throughout Boulder County, today, only about 5.8% of all housing in Boulder County is considered affordable, as defined by a household spending no more than 30% of income on rent or mortgage, according to the Boulder County Regional Housing Partnership.

Although countywide collaboration for affordable housing began in the early 2000s, it was the 2013 flood that solidified the Regional Housing Partnership, as different jurisdictions came together to strategize how to best use emergency funding. Over the course of two years, the countywide coalition was able to produce about 1,000 units of housing, either rehabilitating damaged properties or securing new opportunities for people, which eventually led to the Partnership’s formal establishment in 2017.

Policymakers from across these jurisdictions (the cities of Boulder, Longmont, Lafayette and Louisville, along with the mountain towns of Lyons, Nederland and Jamestown, as well as Erie and Superior, and Boulder County) collaborate, share information and resources, and advocate in an effort to preserve and create diverse housing options across the region. But it is not a formal entity with any sort of regulatory authority. Still, the Partnership established a countywide goal of preserving 12% of the housing inventory as permanently affordable by 2035. Longmont is currently at about 6%, and 8.4% of units in Boulder are permanently affordable.

Boulder City Council has been discussing increasing housing costs since the 1970s, but many of the programs still in place today didn’t begin evolving until the late 1990s when rental prices and property values began to rise significantly. In 2000, Boulder adopted its comprehensive housing strategy, which is what the City has built its affordable programming on in the decades since. 

That same year, the City adopted its 10% goal at a time when less than 3.2% of housing was deemed affordable. The vast majority of Boulder’s current affordable housing stock comes in the form of rental units — only 799 of the total 3,767 total affordable units in the city are owned by individuals. In 2019, the City upped its goal to 15%, with the mandate that 1,000 of those homes be preserved for middle-income earners. And the goal is adjusted annually to account for market-rate development, which increases by roughly 1% a year.

“It’s an ever-growing target, which makes it challenging to accomplish,” says Jay Sugnet, senior planner with the City of Boulder, who has been working on housing issues since 2013.

In 2020, the City added 277 affordable units, the second largest increase since reporting began in 2000. 2015 holds the record at 356, while the average development rate over the last 20 years is 123 units annually.

“It’s definitely not a lot,” says Charlotte Pitts, chair of Boulder’s Housing Advisory Board, especially when considering the need. For example, when Boulder Housing Partners (the City’s housing authority) opened an interest list for 79 units last fall, 393 people signed up.  

In Longmont, the waitlist for affordable rentals is currently more than 100 households — the amount the City expects to serve this year — according to Kathy Fedler, Housing and Community Investment division manager for the City, although several hundred households usually apply. When it comes to affordable for-sale properties, Longmont doesn’t currently have a waitlist because there are no homes to offer.  

Longmont has also been focusing its efforts on affordable housing since before the turn of the century, establishing its housing fund in 1995. Currently, it has close to 2,500 deed-restricted homes in the City, the majority of which are also rentals (2,288 rental; 144 purchased). The City’s goal is to have 5,400 affordable homes by 2035, with plans for almost 500 over the next three years.

But the ability to reach affordable housing goals countywide, under the current system, really comes down to one thing: funding.

Where does the money come from?

“There’s absolutely nothing that’s inexpensive about affordable housing,” says Norrie Boyd, interim director for Boulder County Housing Authority (BCHA). “And yet the value there is that you have permanent affordable housing for people who literally couldn’t afford to live in the community otherwise. So I never doubt that it’s worth it.”

Federal funding for affordable housing has been decreasing for years, leaving more and more of the monetary burden of building and preserving affordability to state and local governments. (Although, President Biden’s American Jobs Plan earmarks $213 billion “to produce, preserve, and retrofit more than two million affordable and sustainable places to live.”) Currently, local jurisdictions in the Regional Housing Partnership, along with the housing development community, invest approximately $15 million in affordable housing across the region. But in order to reach the countywide 12% affordability goal by 2035, an additional $40 million is needed annually from local sources, according to Kristin Hyser, deputy director of Boulder’s Housing and Human Services and a member of the Regional Housing Partnership steering committee.

These local funds are then leveraged for federal dollars — for example, Sugnet says Boulder can take every $1 it receives in local funds and leverage anywhere from $2-$4 in federal funds to increase affordable options within the City. The largest source of federal funding comes in the form of low-income housing tax credits, an incentive for affordable housing written into the tax code through public-private partnerships with investors.

Locally, there’s a concerted effort to increase affordable housing funding through several different policy initiatives. In 2017, Boulder County voters extended the 0.5% Worthy Cause sales tax, which funds local human services nonprofits, including affordable housing developers like BHP and BCHA, through grants. There’s talk of a countywide ballot measure to increase local funding for affordable housing either through property tax increases or an additional sales tax in the next year or two. A similar effort in 2020 was put off by the coronavirus pandemic and the specifics of any future measure are still waiting on discussion and approval from County Commissioners, according to Hyser.

Cities also generate their own affordable housing funds. In Longmont, City Council designates $1 million of general funds, and half of the marijuana tax revenue, each year to affordable housing, Fedler says. Reinstating its inclusionary housing policy in 2018 has also increased the housing stock in Longmont. It requires that developers of new residential projects provide 12% of units at affordable rates, or the equivalent thereof. Units can be built on-site as part of a market rate project, or developers can pay a per-square-foot fee-in-lieu to the City’s affordable housing fund. (They can also donate land, use a combination of options or propose an alternative to meet requirements.) 

There are currently 26 single-family homes that have been built as a result of the policy (11 of which have already been sold), according to Fedler. One apartment complex currently under construction will have 33 affordable units out of approximately 280 total, she adds. Other developments are also including affordable units on site, like Veterans Community Project (VCP) and eight Habitat for Humanity financed houses that are a part of a larger residential subdivision in southern Longmont from HMS Development.

And more is expected, since Longmont has about $2 million worth of cash-in-lieu fees expected over the next three years.

Boulder also has a robust inclusionary housing policy, first implemented as part of its comprehensive housing strategy at the turn of the century. The program has continued to evolve since and is one of the main funders of affordability in Boulder today, due mainly to collected cash-in-lieu fees, as each new development is required to contribute 25% of total units as permanently affordable housing.

“We call it the workhorse of affordable housing in Boulder,” Sugnet says.

Although there may be the perception that this is just a way for developers to buy their way out of affordable housing commitments, Sugnet says it’s an effective way to increase affordable housing funds that can then be leveraged for more federal dollars. Between 2001 and 2018, Boulder’s inclusionary housing program brought in $66.7 million, with a high of $13.3 million in 2018, that can be used to fund affordable units throughout the city. 

By collecting these fees, the City can spread affordable units throughout the city instead of concentrating them only where new development is, Sugnet says. It also allows the City to preserve existing buildings that are affordable, slowing the speed of gentrification. 

John R. Ford
Charlotte Pitts, chair of Boulder’s Housing Advisory Board

Some housing advocates are critical of the model, however. As Pitts, from the Housing Advisory Board, says, “Affordable housing is only generated when market rate housing is built. So it’s this kind of odd, vicious cycle of luxury apartments go up and only then can we work on our service-class workforce housing.”

Also, inclusionary housing programs have long been contested across the state, with the Colorado Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that such requirements were a form of rent control and thus unconstitutional in what has become known as the Telluride decision. Many large jurisdictions, like Boulder and Longmont, however, have created workarounds to the legal challenges presented by Telluride, none of which have been challenged in court since. Legislation that would separate inclusionary housing policies from rent control, thus giving more cities the ability to implement it without opening themselves up to legal risk, is currently under consideration at the State Capitol.

“There are things that Boulder has done that many other cities in Colorado have essentially been afraid to do,” says Jonathan Cappelli, executive director of Neighborhood Development Coalition (NDC), a group of affordable housing nonprofits across the Denver-Metro region, including BHP.

Along with inclusionary housing, Boulder also levies a housing excise tax on new residential development, as well as non-residential additions, which brings in additional revenue to secure more affordable housing in the city for low-income households.

Recognizing that increased commercial space in the city creates jobs, which in turn increases demand for housing, Boulder charges commercial developers a linkage fee for new projects as well. In 2018, Boulder City Council increased this per-square-foot fee to $30, making it one of the highest linkage fees in the country, just behind Palo Alto, California, which charges $35 per square foot. Going fully into effect this year, the one-time commercial linkage fee will become a significant source of local affordable housing funds in the coming years.

While some people have argued this fee would stop new development within the city, that hasn’t been the case, Cappelli says, and Boulder’s commercial linkage fee has been used by advocates trying to get other cities, like Denver, to raise their commercial linkage fees.

Despite all of its policies to generate affordable housing funds, “Boulder still lags behind Denver and other cities in overall affordability of market-rate homes, and lags behind Denver in its relative investment in affordable housing,” Cappelli says. For example, dividing the total investment in affordable housing by the population of the city, Denver currently spends about $52 per person on affordable housing, with plans to increase that to $109 by next year when a new citywide voter-approved tax to combat homelessness kicks in, he says. By contrast, Boulder spends $47 per person on affordable housing. “Proportionately speaking, Denver is poised to spend 2.3 times more on affordable housing than Boulder by 2022,” Cappelli says.

But lack of funding isn’t the only thing preventing jurisdictions in Boulder County from more rapidly increasing affordable housing. Land use policies, neighborhood reluctance and market prices all come into play too.

Other barriers

“You don’t have to be a housing development expert to know that density caps are a huge part of why there is such a supply-demand issue,” Cappelli says. “When a city has a certain priority like affordable housing, then everything in the city should try to help deliver on that goal as opposed to fighting itself.”

Introduced in Boulder’s charter in 1971 in an effort to curb high-rise development and preserve mountain views, the height limit in Boulder has been especially contentious for decades. It currently caps all development at 55 feet, but through zoning ordinances, most of the city is restricted to a height limit of 35 feet, increasing to 38 feet for the downtown area and 40 feet for industrial buildings. Along with the height limit, past prioritization of single-family zoning over multi-family developments, setback requirements, and parking, lot-size and open space per unit minimums all make it difficult to increase density in many areas of Boulder. As does the current inability to subdivide large lots. (Some of these exclusionary housing policies are specifically targeted in Biden’s infrastructure proposal, with the possibility of new affordable housing grant opportunities for jurisdictions that eliminate them.)   

One way to increase affordable housing is to implement by-right zoning for projects that comply with the City’s stated affordability goals. This could streamline the approval of affordable housing projects by removing discretionary review processes that leave approval in the hands of certain staff or public boards and can be so time-consuming that they easily delay or even kill new development. Other communities also offer either partial or full waivers for planning, permitting and even infrastructure fees as a way to reduce cost and incentivize affordable housing development.

Boulder does not have such policies, however.  

“The City has made the policy choice to hold affordable housing to the same high standard as market rate housing,” when it comes to design and public process, Sugnet says. “But the City’s development review team does an excellent job of prioritizing the review of affordable projects when feasible, and the City’s Department of Housing and Human Services provides a subsidy to most affordable housing production to offset some development costs.”

And while the City doesn’t charge BHP city sales and use taxes, it also doesn’t have a fee waiver program. Such a policy may sound good in theory, Sugnet says, but it can also increase demand on city infrastructure and staff time to review plans, making it “more efficient to pay a subsidy directly and avoid the administrative costs of implementing a fee-waiver program.”

Longmont doesn’t give carte-blanche approval to affordable housing projects through by-right zoning either. But it does have some key incentives that help: Its fee waiver program allows developers constructing at least 12% of on-site affordable housing to apply for discounts for key infrastructure fees. Height and density bonuses, along with lot line adjustments, landscaping and parking reductions also hope to spark more affordable housing construction in Longmont.

“The incentives that we do provide — I don’t think other communities in Boulder County provide as many or as varied,” Fedler says. “We have really tried to use some of our regulatory opportunities to encourage and incentivize affordable housing.”

But it’s not just land-use codes that can stymie affordable housing development. The lack and cost of available land is a barrier as well, given that affordable housing projects often come with smaller margins and less capital than their market-rate counterparts.

“You can never resolve our housing problem if you allow the market to ration land to the highest bidder,” says David Adamson, an affordable housing advocate and executive director of Goose Creek Community Land Trust. A Boulder native, he’s been championing different affordability models within the city for years, and was an avid proponent of increasing density in areas like Alpine-Balsam, as the City looks to redevelop the old Boulder Community Hospital site it purchased in 2015 for $40 million.

“All the housing people — all the County’s housing people and the City’s housing people — they’re all trying to get a little more rental affordable housing, but our point is, it’s only going to make a small dent in the problem,” he says. “You can do this heroic effort and tax people, but you’re really not getting at the key need of so many people for housing and you can’t fix it unless you do what we do with the open space, and you say, we are going to shape the market.”

It’s a novel idea — allocating finances through a bond or some other funding mechanism to purchase land for affordable housing much like the City and Boulder County did for open space more than 50 years ago — but it has yet to find a footing among policymakers. And most efforts to increase density across the city, especially through zoning variances, have long been met with community pushback.

“One of the ongoing issues that affordable housing developers and service providers have is NIMBYism and a general reticence for people to allow density in their communities, especially when it comes to affordable housing,” Cappelli says.

Often in the name of preserving “neighborhood character,” public review processes for these projects generally result in much less affordable housing units than initially proposed. Other proposals to increase density — like the use of tiny homes, ADUs and increasing occupancy limits — have sparked lively community discussions, often resulting in little or only incremental change.  

“Neighborhood character has been used as a weapon against any sort of modest change that would mildly increase density in a very logical way,” Pitts says. Although, she admits, the conversation is beginning to evolve as different voices are often dominating City Council and Planning Board discussions. And in that way, the conversation around NIMBYism may be changing as well.

“NIMBYism is an interesting term because it often indicates an opposition to affordable housing,” Pitts says, “But I don’t want any more luxury development in my neighborhood.”

 The ultimate goal

Policymakers, housing advocates and affordable housing developers all agree on one thing: housing more community members is the point. Affordable housing contributes to a more diverse and inclusive community, which jurisdictions across Boulder County have publicly committed to facilitating.

Whether that’s those on fixed-incomes, with disabilities, seniors, those in need of permanent supportive housing or transitional housing coming out of homelessness or working-class families and individuals trying to make ends meet, more is needed. There’s also been a major push in the last few years to increase housing for middle-income earners, as affordability for this demographic is rapidly shrinking countywide as well. (Boulder’s 2019 voter-approved middle income down payment assistance program has been postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic.)   

John R. Ford

To that end, upward mobility isn’t always the goal. While some homeowners in the affordable housing program may be able to build equity and eventually move into a market rate home, the gap between affordable rentals and homeownership around the County is so large, that making that leap may remain unattainable for many people.

“In any given community, including Boulder, it just is the case that a big percentage of the workforce, based on the wages that they earn, are not going to be able to afford the housing that the local market provides,” says Jeremy Durham, executive director of BHP. When it comes to rentals, about 45% of those leaving a BHP property move into a market rate rental, while the others move to another affordable unit, he says. Other exit data tracking what happens to folks after they sell or move out of affordable units is lacking countywide, as it would require additional staff resources. For the most part, success is measured by increasing affordable housing stock, not overall outcomes of those living in it.

While local jurisdictions, affordable housing developers, advocates and policymakers continue their attempt to match supply with demand, many people may have to trade living in Boulder County for affordability elsewhere in the meantime.

Pitts, for one, is leaving Boulder in a few months to go to grad school. She currently rents in BHP’s Tantra Lake complex but is unsure if she’ll ever be able to come back to Boulder.

“I keep joking with people, like: I’ll come back when I can afford to buy here,” Pitts says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to, though.”

What’s next

Now that the scene is set, BW will explore several specific solutions to increasing affordability in the coming months. Next, we’ll take a look at how affordable housing is designed, both aesthetically and locationally, focusing on how this can change outcomes for residents. We’ll also revisit the role of homeowners’ associations (HOAs) in affordability, as lack of regulatory oversight at the local and state level can increase cost of living for affordable homeowners in apartments, townhouses and condos.

Transportation is a key component of affordability across the region, with a focus on mixed-use developments to allow people to live and work in the same neighborhood. But how well is this model working? We’ll also explore Colorado’s overhaul of regulations for mobile homes — the state’s largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing.

Despite a lack of affordable housing options, Boulder actually has a glut of rental units, an estimated 700 vacant homes within the city in February 2020. We will look at how voucher programs could place those seeking affordable housing into vacant market-rate residences, like is being done in other cities. We’ll also explore how growing technology companies can contribute to increasing affordable housing, like what’s being proposed (or has already been done) in other tech centers like Seattle and San Francisco.  

And lastly, we will explore the issue of commercial space affordability in Boulder County, with pilot programs in Boulder and elsewhere around the country already underway. As we continue to report on these issues, undoubtedly other ideas and topics will arise, with the possibility of producing additional stories beyond what’s laid out here. While this series will in no way present an exhaustive list of solutions, our hope is to present new ideas and continue the conversation around affordability in Boulder County through the coming year.  

This series is funded, in part, by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. 

If you currently live or have experience with Boulder County’s affordable housing programs or any of the topics listed above, we want to hear from you. Please email editorial@boulderweekly.com, with “affordable housing” as the subject line.