A drawing of an affordable housing project called Viña in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood in north Denver. The first phase of the apartment complex will have 150 units, many of them multi-bedroom. (Denver City Council)

In Colorado, there are only 50 affordable homes for every 100 families earning between $35,000 (one person) to $50,000 (family of four). In our cities of Aurora and Denver, we’ve led the charge to increase funding and expand affordable housing access for struggling families. We’ve worked with our cities to strengthen accountability and capacity to implement new initiatives. 

But we’ve been working with one arm tied behind our backs because we’ve been unable to use one of the most effective tools of local government to promote affordable rental housing: local land-use standards.

Whenever possible, we’ve tried to encourage voluntary inclusion of affordable housing in new developments, but with limited success. A few who needed city funding or other support have done the right thing, but the vast majority of new development has not only failed to include any designated affordable homes at all, the overwhelming majority has been priced as luxury.

Robin Kniech and Crystal Murillo

Denver, Aurora and our metro area are hardly alone in this dilemma. Our counterparts in other parts of the state, like mountain tourist destinations, face similar or greater pressures, and often even less land to work with.

The inability of job centers to house the workers we rely upon is also creating more price pressure on neighboring rural areas, resulting in longer commutes that raise the transportation costs of struggling families and climate impacts on our state. 

Fast-growing communities can’t fulfill our obligations under state law “to plan for and regulate the use of land” in order to “balance basic human needs of a changing population with legitimate environmental concerns” if we can’t consider affordability.

Across the country, most local governments have the power to require developers to include affordable homes in new housing developments, a tool known as inclusionary zoning. Nationwide, inclusionary housing policies have created more than 110,000 affordable homes. 

But 20 years ago, a court decision cut off the ability of Colorado cities and counties to promote this kind of affordable housing through inclusionary zoning. Since then our state has grown by 1.5 million people and housing costs have outpaced the ability of Coloradans to afford the communities where they work and live. 

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Families paying excessive amounts of their income for housing often have insufficient resources remaining for other essential needs, including food, medical insurance and health care. These tradeoffs can threaten the health of all family members, particularly children.

Denver alone has seen 62,483 new apartments since the court decision in 2000. If even 10% of those units had been affordable we’d have 6,200 more affordable homes than we have today. 

In spite of the pandemic, metro Denver is ranked as the third most competitive market nationally for more multi-family housing in the future by real estate and investment firm CBRE. As we seek to align more new housing near transit, cutting family transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions, our region is missing critical opportunities. 

Similarly, we are missing opportunities to address disproportionately high rates of housing instability among Black, Latino, Native American and other families of color. Colorado’s housing crisis has detrimental effects on our economy, city budgets, and hinders people’s ability to transition out of this global crisis.

Inclusionary housing is not the solution to every housing need in our state. It’s designed to create a modest but steady supply of housing for workers earning moderate salaries, like school guidance counselors, administrative assistants, carpenters and others. But every new affordable home created through inclusionary policies allows state and local governments to focus other, limited resources on lower income households or reducing homelessness.

This session, the Colorado General Assembly will consider House Bill 1117, legislation to return land-use authority over affordability in new development back to local governments, where it belongs, so that each community facing the pressures of new development can evaluate its unique economics, needs and options for promoting affordability.

Local governments are best suited to engage all stakeholders, including developers, to strike the right balance. The legislation would ensure that at least one option, in addition to providing housing on site, will be offered, with local communities determining whether that be dedication of land or fees that can help build affordable housing elsewhere or another creative option.

We are poised and ready. The need in our communities is great and urgent. Polling shows a high level of support for the goals of this legislation.

We urge the legislature to pass HB 1117 and ask that it be signed into law swiftly. We must act soon before Colorado’s affordable housing crisis gets even worse.

Robin Kniech is an at-large Denver city councilwoman. Crystal Murillo is an Aurora city councilwoman.

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Crystal Murillo

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @Murillo4Aurora

Robin Kniech

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @KniechAtLarge