As Boulder housing prices continue to rise, with the cost of an average home now over $1 million, the city council has begun evaluating a variety of options to maintain a middle class of people able to live inside city limits. One of the first steps council has taken is to update the existing, never-used cooperative housing ordinance, which is one tool to improve Boulder’s ability to house low and middle-income people. The goal of a cooperative housing ordinance is to create sustainable, communal, and affordable options for housing while placing reasonable constraints on impacts to neighborhoods.
Cooperative housing fits many of the city council’s criteria for “gentle infill” in existing neighborhoods, providing modest amounts of new housing capacity without the need to build new structures. Co-op housing is one possible type of infill the city council may pursue, and they might later permit tiny homes, accessory dwelling units (ADUs), and subdivided lots. All of the proposals try to minimize neighborhood change while allowing moderately more occupancy or compatible housing. Housing cooperatives can provide a number of benefits to Boulder by providing unsubsidized low-cost housing for communities that conserve resources and produce engaged, socially conscious people.
Boulder’s affordable housing program covers less than 10% of its housing stock and raises money from impact fees paid by new development. By allowing occupancy similar to existing Boulder cooperatives, new co-ops could enable monthly housing costs closer to one-half or one-third of other available options in a single-family home or rental unit. Combined with savings from reduced per-capita energy, water, food, and shared transportation, co-ops create real affordability through collaborative living.
Conserving resources also has positive environmental benefits. Boulder’s existing recognized cooperatives (and some of its sub-legal cooperatives) started a joint bulk food buying program, allowing them to cheaply and efficiently share group meals while reducing food waste, trips to the store, and packaging. By letting more residents occupy the same space in a typical Boulder home, co-ops consume 28% of the electricity and 31% of the water per person of the average Coloradan, according to data collected on existing co-ops in Boulder—and capital investments to reduce energy use can spread across a greater number of people.
While co-ops provide affordability to residents and help meet a range of city goals, they can also act as a stabilizing force in neighborhoods, particularly ones with large numbers of rental units. The proposed ordinance would allow for both ownership and rental cooperatives: ownership cooperatives will operate similarly to home-ownership, while rental cooperatives will provide more permanence than existing rentals. An ordinance that requires certification of co-ops in the form of written bylaws, regular democratic meetings, and resource sharing will help support careful membership processes that result in cooperative homes with less-variable turnover and strong cultural concern for community.
Furthermore, the proposed ordinance contains provisions to address neighborhood compatibility and potential nuisances like noise, trash, and parking, including a limitation on the number of vehicles associated with each cooperative. These provisions make handling potential nuisances more enforceable than with a typical rental. For example, a noise complaint will be associated with the offending property itself, rather than an individual, and multiple complaints can result in fines or revocation of the co-op’s permit.
The broader impact of cooperatives forming in Boulder will be limited in the proposed ordinance, both by an overall cap on the number of new cooperative permits issued each year and by provisions limiting the concentration of cooperatives. The new law would currently permit only five rental cooperatives, five nonprofit cooperatives, and five ownership cooperatives to form each year and would limit the concentration of cooperatives so they do not overwhelm any neighborhood.
Neighbors can find further comfort in other parts of the ordinance. Permits will be temporary and linked with the group forming the cooperative, rather than with a landlord or developer. A permit must be renewed after four years if the group continues to operate as a cooperative. Adding an overall cap on the number of residents in a cooperative may also help calm neighbors’ potential anxiety.
Boulder must acknowledge its housing crisis. While cooperative housing is a small piece of the city’s middle-income housing strategy, it can enable real affordability, sustainability, community benefit, and allow seniors to age in place without building additional housing. I support creating more co-ops, and stand with a group of people diverse in ages, incomes, and backgrounds—both homeowners and renters—who want to get a workable cooperative housing ordinance.
Eric Budd is a member of the Boulder Community Housing Association. You can tweet him at @ericmbudd.