Boulder’s Struggle to Meet Its Ideals

This piece first ran in The Denver Post.

Boulder, Colorado prides itself on progressive values, striving to lead in sustainability and limiting climate change. But as city leaders grapple with unaffordable housing and pressures from growth, attempts to find balance in a changing character cause Boulder to fall short of its ideals on many fronts.

In housing specifically, the city council speaks for their desire to create “15-minute neighborhoods” where residents can walk and bike to services, to improve bus and bike infrastructure, and build housing for the “missing middle” as a greater number of middle-income families can no longer to afford to live in Boulder. But an example of one recently proposed housing development accomplishing many of those goals was unanimously rejected by Boulder’s Planning Board.

The housing development “Iris and B” would have provided 50 middle-income housing units on the city’s most active transit corridor. The project would have fulfilled many of the stated goals: providing a neighborhood coffeeshop or restaurant, a diverse mix of housing targeted at 80 to 120% of the median area income, connecting to a bike route and having a six minute bus ride downtown. The units would have ranged from small efficiency-style up through three-bedroom condominiums for families, using smaller footprint designs that reduce the amount of heating, cooling, and water use per person.

The planning board ruled an increased zoning for the development would be “too dense” for the neighborhood, even though Broadway is a four-lane arterial with frequent bus service. Concerns about worsening traffic from this relatively modest development drew criticism, even though a majority of traffic on the corridor in peak hours results from commuters outside of the city limits, part of Boulder’s 65,000 regional daily in-commuters. Rather than supporting a project which meets its long-term goals of reducing vehicle miles traveled and providing more affordable housing options, Boulder’s planning board instead supported a development pattern which worsens the city’s long-term difficulties.

Another example is Boulder’s effort to pass a workable cooperative housing ordinance. A housing cooperative is a group of individuals who share meals and housekeeping tasks to improve affordability, reduce energy use, emissions and food waste per person. Boulder, like many cities, has laws limiting occupancy of unrelated people living in a house, setting a limit of three people per house in low-density zoning areas. Reducing the number of people living in a house, particularly when new homes continue to increase in size, greatly limits affordable housing options for people outside of a traditional family or without a high income. Passing an ordinance to enable housing cooperatives would gain community benefits while limiting impacts on existing neighborhoods relating to the potential for additional noise, trash, or car parking needs.

On Tuesday December 6th, the Boulder City Council met to update the proposed draft ordinance which would permit groups to create up to fourteen co-ops per year, allowing up to twelve people, and requiring separation between housing cooperatives to limit any impacts on neighborhoods. Yet by the end of the evening, some council members, responding to concerns of neighbors, insisted that occupancy be more heavily restricted by square footage per person, house size, and lot size, such that most of the currently legal or potentially legal co-ops in Boulder could not exist under the new law. Now several co-ops risk eviction with the proposed law as written. On the same night, Boulder City Council unanimously supported a climate goal of an 80% emissions reduction by 2050, showing a significant disconnect between policy ideals and laws that directly accomplish those ideals.

Boulder is a community that has both the wealth and resources to carry out its ambitious plans. Now Boulder needs to take the real steps required to make a lasting impact on sustainable climate in ways that promote a diverse and inclusive community.

Eric Budd is a resident of Boulder working on equitable housing and transportation policy. You can tweet him at @ericmbudd.

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Key items to making a workable cooperative housing ordinance in Boulder

My email to Boulder’s City Council on Sunday, December 4th. Please considering writing the city council at council@bouldercolorado.gov and BCC’ing legalizecoops@gmail.com with support for a cooperative housing ordinance.

I support the proposed cooperative housing ordinance — as you’re reading lots of email on co-ops, I’ll keep this to what I see as the few most important items for council discussion on Tuesday 12/6.

1. Occupancy – The two main adjustments council could make to occupancy are in the range of total co-op size and square feet per person. In low-density zones, it’s critical that council enable co-ops of at least 12 people and/or 200 square feet per person. The main reason for this: existing legal and sub-legal communities have formed in the range of these numbers to get a workable scale and affordability.

An existing co-op of 14 people at 200 square feet per person, if moving to either 10 people or 250 square foot per person, would lose several members of their house and show an increase of rent by 40% in the former case and 25% in the latter case, seriously putting the economics of entire houses at risk—not only for rent, but for food, water, and energy purposes, which all decrease per capita in larger homes.

2. Minimum house size and concentration – Both of these adjustments have significant effects on the supply of available houses to create co-ops, so I would like to see great care in moving these numbers from the current proposed ordinance as written. In low-density zones, the current minimum house size at 2,000 square feet has uneven effects of limiting the supply of available houses across the city, which may be a desired outcome to limit co-ops in neighborhoods like Martin Acres, but combined with the current 500 foot separation, even more greatly restricts the number of available houses in parts of town with larger homes.

BoCHA’s analysis of the city housing data shows that only 28.4% of rental houses in the city are greater than 2,000 square feet, and only 53.6% of non-rental houses. I ask that council really dig into the relationship between these two pieces of data to ensure co-ops can actually be created with the proposed restrictions.
On a personal note, I think council has gone above and beyond in engaging with the community and housing advocates. Thank you for your hard work and effort to understand the important details required to get to a workable cooperative housing ordinance.
Eric Budd
3025 Broadway St. #38
Boulder, CO 80304
@ericmbudd