Boulder is one of the most progressive cities in America. If you don’t believe it, just ask any member of its city council.
Boulder is also a lily-white country club with a 45,000-acre open-space moat that pushes real estate prices up and many local employees out. Having taken three-quarters of its land out of circulation, housing prices are high and supply, particularly among starter homes for young people and rentals at reasonable rates, is low.
Like many cities, it has tried to address this problem with a subsidized housing program. Recently, it has realized it’s not just lower-income people who can’t afford Boulder’s market prices, it’s also middle-income people. So now they’re launching a middle-income housing subsidy, too.
What they won’t do is meaningfully address the problem of supply because that would imply they recognize the law of supply and demand, which city leaders apparently believe is a myth propagated by capitalists for their own benefit.
So 60,000 workers commute into town each workday, many of them city employees and service workers who serve the deeply progressive single-family homeowners lucky enough to live there already.
Neighborhood organizations rise up in alarm at any proposal to build new housing, particularly multifamily housing. They insist this is not because they are selfish or racist, as their more strident critics sometimes allege. It is because they take a very dim view of developers.
Not necessarily the ones who built the homes they live in, many of them now worth seven figures. Back in the day, housing developers were more benign. But these days? Don’t get them started.
Wait, you might say, aren’t those 60,000 commuters spewing carbon all the way? What’s progressive about that?
Well, yes, according to the city, 80% of them are driving single-occupancy vehicles because that’s still the fastest way to get to and from their jobs. Luckily for Boulder, most of their carbon spewing occurs outside Boulder city limits, and Boulder measures emissions only within the city limits. So no problem there.
In his exit interview with the Daily Camera, longtime Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett lamented that two projects focused on workforce and permanently affordable housing were killed as a result of local opposition.
Every two years, all of this gets thrashed out again in (relatively) polite municipal elections as Boulder selects city council members. They are held in odd-numbered years, which keeps turnout low. There’s another one Tuesday in which six of the nine seats are available.
The community organization that has dominated Boulder politics ever since the hippies arrived in the 1960s — PLAN-Boulder County — has endorsed a slate of candidates. So has Boulder Progressives, the latest iteration of PLAN’s 21st-century opponents. There is no overlap between the two slates.
PLAN does not like the suggestion that it dominates city politics. It portrays itself as a group of concerned citizens battling special interests. So, back when I worked at the Daily Camera, I asked Mara Abbott, a Boulder native, Olympic cyclist, and budding journalist, to look into it.
Research is one of Abbott’s numerous strengths. By the time she was finished, she had a reserved seat at Boulder’s Carnegie Library for Local History and a five-part series documenting PLAN’s success over the years in getting majorities of slow-growth advocates elected to city council.
PLAN stands for People’s League for Action Now.
“Now” is 1959, when the organization was founded.
For 1959, PLAN is very progressive. It fought against urban sprawl and for environmental protection. It backed a height limit for buildings, the blue line that blocked development in the foothills, and the open-space purchase program that provided Boulder’s glorious rural playground.
Times changed. PLAN did not. The chief concern of the environmental movement “now” is climate change. In urban areas, the 21st-century environmentalist’s handbook calls for denser housing options that reduce humans’ per capita carbon footprint and allow them to walk or bike to work and shop and play.
Many of Boulder’s longtime residents don’t want denser housing. They like Boulder the way it was when they got there, which is a mid-20th-century suburban/rural model. They are not responsible for the fact that one of America’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas has grown up all around them, making their suburban/rural utopia increasingly expensive and elitist.
Will Toor is a former Boulder mayor and Boulder County commissioner. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. He is currently executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, named to the post by Gov. Jared Polis.
For years, Toor has focused his efforts on battling climate change, running the transportation program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project between his tours of public service. As part of that focus, he has advocated denser housing and walkable neighborhoods in Boulder.
In 2015, when PLAN supported a ballot issue that would have given neighborhoods an effective veto over land-use changes — like, say, up-zoning to allow for denser housing options — Toor led the opposition. Boulder voters defeated the ballot issue, as well as a companion proposal that would have dramatically increased fees on new development.
For many PLAN supporters, that put Toor in league with the capitalists. Toor has spent more time and effort fighting climate change than all the leading referendum backers put together, but that did not keep more extreme no-growth advocates from demonizing “Will Toor and cronies” as destroyers of Boulder.
Following that 2015 setback, PLAN rebounded in 2017, restoring a six-member slow-growth majority to the council. Which brings us to Tuesday’s election.
Independent journalist Shay Castle gathered her comprehensive coverage of the race, complete with highly entertaining candidate profiles in both English and Spanish, here. (If you care to support independent, non-hedge-fund journalism in Boulder, you can do so here.)
Alas, the outcome of these biennial progressive food fights matters less than the combatants would like to think. Sixty years later, PLAN’s country club is secure. As Thiem pointed out, no candidate is challenging the enormous open-space moat that assures the price of precious Boulder real estate will surge ever higher.
That economic fact will also keep the council’s periodic pronouncements about the importance of inclusiveness and diversity comically disconnected from the local reality.
As Thomas Frank pointed out in his book “Listen, Liberal,” concern for those at the lower end of the economic ladder was once foundational to self-identified progressives. These days, some delicate Boulder souls care more about prairie dogs.
Boulder homeowners who make modest salaries or have retired will tell you they’re not rich, meaning their wealth is mostly tied up in homes bought years ago when prices were much lower. But as those properties turn over at today’s prices, the town is likely to get more affluent, not less.
No matter who wins on Tuesday, Boulder will continue to grow more slowly than the metropolitan area, meaning the law of supply and demand will push up the cost of its restricted housing inventory more quickly than in surrounding communities. That will keep it overwhelmingly white, its alleged support of diversity notwithstanding.
How white? Well, 88% white in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. For comparison, Colorado’s other progressive mecca, Denver, was 68.9% white.
Boulder’s Anglo (non-Hispanic) population was 91.3%. In Denver, that number was 68.2%.
Aurora, Broomfield, Colorado Springs, Greeley, Lafayette, Lakewood, Longmont, Pueblo and Thornton were all more diverse than Boulder, according to the census, as was Boulder County as a whole.
The most remarkable reflection of Boulder’s lack of diversity is the black population. The census reported 876 black residents out of 97,385 in 2010, or less than 1% of the population. (Denver’s was 10%.)
Dig down a little deeper and you find the census includes the University of Colorado Boulder campus, which reported 1.8% of its 24,807 undergraduates in 2010 were African-American. Do the math and that’s 446 black undergraduates that year.
Even accounting for a few of those college students living outside the city, that leaves fewer than 500 black non-students out of roughly 75,000 non-students living in Boulder that year.
How does Boulder reconcile its self-image as inclusive and progressive with these exclusionary numbers? It doesn’t. It just looks the other way.
You don’t have to explore the historic use of single-family zoning to maintain racial segregation to understand this is Boulder’s dirty little secret. Racism is rooted in ignorance. The lack of viable minority communities in Boulder allows ignorance about those communities to blossom there.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, one prominent slow-growth advocate asked me why I thought Bernie Sanders was faring so poorly among black voters in southern primaries. I told him Sanders had spent his entire career in Congress representing Vermont, a tiny, rural, very white state — the Boulder of states, as it were. Black voters in the South knew Hillary Clinton. They didn’t know Sanders.
He responded it was black voters’ responsibility to get to know Sanders. He believed Sanders’ policies would be good for them. They were not getting on board. Something was wrong — not with Sanders, not with his campaign, but with the black voters voting for Clinton.
Outside of Boulder and other similarly white enclaves, most liberals have come to understand that paternalism is a form of racism.
Due to a combination of 20th-century environmentalism and 21st-century NIMBYism, Boulder’s demographic homogeneity is not likely to change. The city council can pass a resolution welcoming Syrian refugees, as it did a couple of years ago, but it won’t provide housing for the roughly 30,000 commuters who have indicated on city surveys they would live there if they could.
Too many of the residents don’t want their town getting any more crowded. They think it’s too crowded already. They like it the way it used to be, generally on or about the day they arrived.
Call it progressivism, Boulder-style. If you’d like to join in at this late date, you’d better earn six figures or have a trust fund.
Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. @davekrieger
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