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Opinion: To expand housing, remove growth caps inside existing neighborhoods

We’ll never build enough “affordable housing” if none of it can be built next door, near transit lines

It’s not news that Denver, along with much of the state of Colorado, is facing a serious affordable-housing crisis. But with each new report and anecdote that emerges, it becomes more and more clear that we need to be looking into all available options to create more affordable housing for families.

Adam Estroff

This includes updating our outdated land use, housing and transportation policies and must include building more housing for low and middle-income families in transit-oriented neighborhoods—and fast.

 A newly released legislative report on affordable housing underscored the severity of Colorado’s housing deficit and estimated that for current residents alone, we need to build 225,000 housing units over the next couple of years and that number will be insufficient if even a single additional person moves here.

As we face this shortage, housing prices are skyrocketing, and many Coloradans simply can’t afford to keep a roof over their heads. According to the report, an estimated 315,000 households in Colorado paid over 50% of their income towards housing in 2019. When the median home price in Denver is $575,000 and the median income for a family of four is about $100,000, we clearly have a problem on our hands.

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The pandemic has only made things worse. From 2020 to 2021, the number of people who experienced homelessness for the first time in the Denver Metro area nearly doubled.

The seeds of the housing shortage were planted in the 1990s and early 2000s when homeowners who care more about things like traffic and blocked views than keeping roofs over the heads of our community members gained more power. This often-loud minority has weaponized our well-intentioned community-engagement and public-policy processes, and made them prohibitively expensive. Time after time, this has allowed the vocal and privileged few to prevent any projects that would benefit the many. Combined with the 2008 recession, NIMBYs basically shut down most housing.

For example, Denver Metro voters approved FastTracks to increase rail transit infrastructure and promote more sustainable living. Now that the train is built, affluent existing homeowners are lobbying to exclude others from that benefit by preventing the housing component from being built, basically “stealing” from the rest of the state that invested in the rail line. 

Similarly, wealthy homeowners in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood ran a campaign to defend an easement that requires land be kept as an “18 hole, daily fee, regulation length golf course”. This ballot measure has driven up costs for adding parks, housing, and anything not regulation-length golf to the site. 

If we truly want to tackle the housing crisis, we need to start thinking about collaborative, innovative — and most importantly, inclusive — policies. One recent win in that direction was Denver voters choosing to end an exclusionary occupancy cap by voting down ballot measure 2F in 2021.  We need more activists working  to stop anti-development, “not in my backyard” sentiments from shutting down conversations around critical new affordable and sustainable development.

The state has begun discussing ways to do this with legislation like Senate Bill 22-063, which was killed this year by lobbyists for exclusionary communities, would have prohibited “housing bans” like those in Boulder. The average home price in Boulder is approaching double the state average, while the city has actually been shrinking since before the pandemic. 

There will never be enough funding for affordable-housing projects, unless we choose to allow more homes in existing towns, cities and neighborhoods by removing occupancy caps, slow growth policies, and single-unit “exclusionary zoning”.

This critical change will allow us to preserve open space, opportunity, and affordability. The hypocrisy of funding affordable housing while lionizing the ability of local governments to prohibit its construction shows the lack of coordination on the housing crisis.

We must ask ourselves: In what way does maintaining property values in some of the Denver metro’s most expensive communities really our most important goal? Does the opinion of a single affluent homeowner mean we should not make riding a bike or taking a bus safer? Are we really that afraid of having folks of all different incomes in our neighborhoods? Finding a path forward on Colorado’s housing crisis will depend on our answer.


Adam Estroff, of Denver, is president of YIMBY Denver.


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