Brittle cities

As fire and inequality hammer the Front Range, affordable housing might be region’s best bet at resilience

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Two days into his COVID-19 quarantine, Johnny Williams’ mom burst into his room and shouted, “We have to go, grab everything you can.” The 17-year-old senior at Fairview High School and his family evacuated in 15 minutes. Fire was moving rapidly toward their Louisville home.

Before the Marshal Fire destroyed Williams’ house along with over 1,000 others, the Boulder metropolitan area was the seventh most expensive residential real estate market in the United States. As climate change increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters like wildfires and floods, more residents—especially those in poorer communities—will be displaced from their homes, exacerbating the housing crises and climate migration that already exist in Boulder County and around the globe.

While Boulder County’s two largest cities, Boulder and Longmont, have sought to build more housing with a focus on affordability, data suggests both are falling far behind their goals.

In 2000, under pressure to improve its affordable housing stock, Boulder’s City Council set the groundwork for today’s affordable housing goals by adopting an inclusionary housing policy that aimed to make 10% of Boulder’s housing permanently affordable to low- and medium-income residents by 2011. Under this policy, 25% of all new residential development must be made permanently affordable, or else developers can contribute an equivalent amount of money, land, or existing housing stock to be used in the construction, purchase, or creation of affordable homes. 

By 2019, the city still hadn’t achieved its 2011 affordable housing goal, yet Council voted to move the target from 10% of its sock to 15% by 2035. Jay Sugnet, a senior manager at Housing and Human Services who leads Boulder’s affordable housing program, is optimistic that the city will hit its goal this time around due to more recent improvements. From 2014 to 2020, permanently affordable housing comprised 38% of new housing added to the city’s stock (50% greater than the 25% required), and newly constructed houses composed slightly more than purchase-and-conversion of existing houses. 

But, according to analysis of Boulder’s housing data and data shared by Sugnet, the city won’t hit its 2035 goal; if recent trends continue, it’ll reach 15% affordable housing stock by 2050. If growth slips to the 25% required under the inclusionary housing policy, the city will not reach its goal until 2079. 

The city of Longmont, which has a largely identical inclusionary housing policy to Boulder, is in a similar boat: At current rates of construction and procurement, according to analysis of data provided by city staff, its goal of 12% affordable housing will not be met by 2035.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire 

“Part of the reason the fire was so devastating is that we’ve had a housing crisis for the last decade or so,” says Eric Budd, campaign co-chair of Bedrooms Are For People. The Marshall Fire, according to Budd, is fuel to that flame. 

Fire survivors are being subjected to soaring rental costs as they decide their next moves––moves that are being heavily constrained by insurance policies that fall short of the coverage needed to rebuild.  

In their fifth temporary home since the fire destroyed their house, the Williams family is feeling the squeeze. While insurance is covering their monthly rent of $4,000 for now, it will only be covering around half the cost of rebuilding their house––leaving his parents on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars. To make matters worse, Williams’ parents are still paying off their mortgage. 

Those who lost their homes to the fire aren’t the only ones affected by the overlapping housing and climate crises. Spencer Downing, interim director at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, says that “we’re going to have to revisit our budgets for the number of [permanent housing] units we think we’ll be able to acquire simply because housing prices have jumped so significantly; and we think it’s due to the press from the fire.” The shelter, just like renters and homeowners across the fire-impacted region, is getting priced out of housing because demand far outstrips supply––an ominous sign for those who were already homeless before the fire struck. 

While Downing says that the shelter has yet to serve anyone who lost their home in the fire, he points to research by the Government Accountability Office, which found that a $100-a-month increase of the median rent price in a locality is associated with a 9% increase in homelessness.

The Colorado Sun reports that Boulder County homes that would have been rented for $2,400 before the fire are now being listed for $3,000 or more. 

Sister Carmen Community Center, a non-profit that provides various forms of assistance to East Boulder County residents, is one of the organizations working to keep fire survivors housed, fed and clothed. In the month after the fire, it served close to 700 fire-impacted people and distributed $350,000 of financial assistance—five times the monthly financial assistance it had been distributing prior to the fire. 

“We know some of these people were struggling prior to the fire,” says Harian Aldama, a bilingual advocate at Sister Carmen. He worries about what will happen to these folks when the state and federal assistance dollars dry up or are inaccessible and they’re still facing unbearable rental prices. “[The fire] was an eye-opener for all of us—an eye-opener for the need for affordable housing,” says Aldama.

Green belt, white city

“We’re probably not going to stay in Boulder,’’ Willams says when asked whether his family plans to stay where they’re currently renting a house. “It’s a little pricey.”  

The history of unaffordability in Boulder dates back to settler-colonialism and genocide of Indigenous peoples

When gold was discovered in Colorado in the late 1850s, white settlers broke the Fort Laramie Treaty and the governor issued a proclamation of genocide against Indigneous residents. Under this proclamation, U.S. soldiers slaughtered as many as 800 Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre—a death count that likely downplayed or denied that women, children, and elderly noncombatants were included, according to the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation.

Shortly after settlers cleared the area of Indigenous peoples in the mid-to-late 1850s, members of the Boulder City Town Company divided the land between themselves and sold the rest of the downtown area for $1,000 an acre. During this time, open space outside of downtown Boulder was selling for about $1.25 an acre.

To conserve formerly inhabited land for recreation, the city and wealthy residents began purchasing nearby open space and farmland in 1898. Today, the city’s Open Space and Mountain Parks Department manages more than 45,000 acres of permanently protected land that forms a moat around the city. 

Austin Bennett, a member of Boulder County Democratic Socialists and the treasurer for Boulder County No Eviction Without Representation, observes that white settlers not only used conservation rhetoric to reinforce and anesthetize their control over Indigenous land, but to also remove Indigenous traditions of connection to nature. Pointing to the Marshall Fire and how Indigenous practices of fire stewardship on grasslands could have mitigated its destructiveness, he says, “This is going to happen again, we’re going to have hotter and drier summers. We have to ask how people before us did it.” 

Rather than grapple with the question of how to welcome more people into the city while maintaining spaces for connection with nature, Boulder voters have continued to externalize the question to other cities. 

Amid rapid population growth between the 1950s and 1970s, Boulder residents doubled down on slow-growth policies couched in conservationist rhetoric, according to Abby Hickcox’s analysis in “Green Belt, White City: Race and the Natural Landscape in Boulder, Colorado.” The policies included a 55-foot building height limit, a 1% growth cap, an elevation limit for water service, and a sales tax to purchase land for open space––all designed to limit growth inside of the city and the sprawl directly around it. 

Sugnet draws a through-line between the city’s “conservationist roots” and its high prices. “The land values in Boulder are extremely high compared to all other Front Range communities,” he notes. 

In addition to creating an enclave for the white elite, the consequence of these policies is that the city isn’t “building in and building up,” Budd says. The lack of infill and vertical development, he explains, has exacerbated a regional housing crisis that has priced out working class residents, increased development on fire-prone greenspace in nearby cities, and contributed to the state’s soaring transportation emissions.

Bennett, who works as a plumber, might soon become one of those residents. Having shelled out 40% of his income to rent in Boulder, he’s considering relocating somewhere more affordable. If he does, he’d join the ranks of the 64,900 workers who commute into Boulder each day.

The housing-resilience nexus

In the wake of the climate crisis-enhanced Marshall Fire, the city of Boulder is centering strategies for climate resilience—the sustained ability of communities to withstand, adapt to, and recover from climate-driven shocks and chronic stresses.

In late February 2022, city staff issued a memo based on its 2021 Climate Action Plan update, recommending that City Council put a climate tax on the November 2022 ballot. The tax would, for the first time, fund climate resilience initiatives, like weatherizing low-income homes, increasing tree density, and burying power lines, in addition to continuing to fund greenhouse gas-reducing initiatives.

In its current form, neither the memo, its recommendations, nor the Climate Action Plan update explore the nexus between resilience and affordable housing—a potentially harrowing sign for those impacted by impending climate-crisis-fueled disasters. 

In 2021, 40% of U.S. peoples lived in counties that were hit with natural disasters worsened by climate change. As communities across the country reel from increasingly frequent climate-crisis enhanced natural disasters, climate migration will also increase

While Carolyn Elam, energy systems senior manager at the city of Boulder, says that “climate migration is very real, and we’ve certainly seen it locally…and from California,” city officials around the county have signaled limited support for housing measures that would help keep those impacted by the Marshall Fire and future disasters in the region, and/or absorb those from other regions. 

East County Housing Opportunity Coalition is beginning to push governments in Louisville and Superior to allow the owners of scorched single-family homes to rebuild them as duplexes or townhomes, or with accessory dwelling units, according to Annmarie Jensen, the coalition’s founder and executive director. Giving homeowners the flexibility to build back denser would not only “help them afford to be able to stay in the community, [it’d also] create rentals for renters who lost their homes,” Jensen says.

While decisions about giving homeowners the flexibility to make these decisions are a few months away, Jensen points to research showcasing their importance for resilience: without such strategies in place, post-disaster housing is likely to be built back more expensively, thereby pushing low- and medium-income renters and homeowners out of the region.

Stocking up for a changing climate

High winds, record drought and a spark also catalyzed Southern Oregon’s Almeda Fire in September 2020. It destroyed more than 2,600 houses and racked up a $1 billion price tag in a county with an acute shortage of affordable housing. Unlike the Marshall Fire, however, most of the housing stock destroyed was affordable. 

Maya Jarrad, who has been leading Almeda Fire recovery efforts at Rogue Climate, says that “if there was more affordable housing, fewer people would have left.” While data about the number of people who permanently left the valley is anecdotal, the lack of affordable housing led to steep rent increases that augmented the financial precarity many working-class residents feel, according to the results of a survey conducted by Unete, a Southern Oregon-based farm worker and immigrant advocacy nonprofit. 

Boulder city and county officials interviewed for this story said that, while proud of collective efforts to keep Marshall Fire survivors in temporary housing throughout the county, they’re uncertain about how to permanently house those who were un- or under-insured and build enough affordable housing to abate the housing crisis at large.

“Without more money this isn’t going to happen,” says Kurt Firnhaber, director of Housing and Human services at the City of Boulder. 

Referencing a potential countywide ballot measure as a source of funding for affordable homes, Firnhaber says the county decided against running the measure in November 2020 due to concerns about its political palatability at the onset of the pandemic. A timeline for the measure has yet to materialize, according to county officials. 

Money for affordable housing exists at the federal level, but it’s currently hampered by congressional gridlock. For example, the Green New Deal for Cities Act of 2021 would direct $1 trillion in financing over four years to local governments for affordable housing of all kinds, including transitional housing while upgrades are taking place. It also requires that participating governments take steps to prevent rising housing costs, including rent control, rent stabilization, and other methods to prevent gentrification and stabilize property values.

Budd says that even if the money was there, the current suite of slow-growth policies in Boulder would likely prevent Boulder from hitting its affordable housing goal—a goal he says that Boulder will only be able to reach if it rapidly promotes infill and vertical development. If other cities want to preserve dwindling open space, he recommends they follow suit. 

While Boulder city councilors have signaled support for a few reforms promoting low- and middle-income housing, uncertainty persists around whether such reforms would be enough to achieve the 2035 goal of 15% of Boulder’s total housing stock permanently affordable. Since 2014, 38% of new housing added to Boulder has been designated as affordable, but to reach the 2035 goal, that rate would have to increase to 65% over the next 13 years. 

Bennett is skeptical. Even if Boulder had “strict tenant protections” and “more incentives for dense, affordable development,” he says, “I don’t think the market can ever meet human needs.” As climate crisis-fueled disasters destroy an increasing amount of housing stock in Boulder County and around the world, he argues that cities must start “buying up as much land and building as much affordable housing as possible to make a direct intervention into the market.” 

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Sam Becker is an organizer, writer, and researcher living in Boulder. He volunteers time researching the efficacy of low-barrier services and decriminalization for Wake Up Boulder and a local coalition of nonprofit leaders and citizens.

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