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After decades of tossing around the idea of the state stepping into local land use decisions as a way to combat rising home prices, the Colorado legislature is vowing to take meaningful action on the concept this year. But not without pushback from the people whose power they may overstep.
Cities and towns are grappling with ways to protect local control as some of their power to make zoning decisions seems to be on the chopping block.
“We do need help from the state, but not through changes to land use regulations,” Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula wrote in a letter to the governor. “What would help us create more units is funds.”
While few pieces of legislation have been introduced so far, Democrats are hinting they will bring bills that could reshape housing policy across the state by dangling incentives to encourage transit-oriented development, making it easier to build accessory dwelling units and removing other barriers imposed by local governments, such as minimum parking requirements.
“This is far beyond just a local problem,” Gov. Jared Polis said in his State of the State address last month in which he used the word “housing” more than three dozen times. “We have to break down government barriers, expand private property rights and reduce regulations to actually construct more housing to provide housing options at a lower cost so that all Coloradans can thrive.”
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Whether a plot of land is developed into a few dozen single-family homes or hundreds of apartments can turn on how the land has been zoned by a local government. Those decisions by elected officials impact the number of homes and apartments available for generations and often, they face massive pressure from their constituents to block developments that would increase density.
Polis and Democratic leaders at the Capitol say now is the time to take a hard look at Colorado’s statewide land-use rules, which haven’t changed since about 1974 when Colorado’s population was 2.2 million. As of the 2022 census, there were about 5.8 million people living in the state.
“Pretty soon, if we don’t take this on with some sort of speed, we’re gonna wake up and it’s gonna be too late to make some of these changes,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat.
But the Democratic governor may be at odds with Democrats in the legislature over how to ease the housing crisis. Polis has already said he’s “skeptical” about a proposal that would allow local governments to enact rent control policies, telegraphing that he’s likely to veto the measure if it makes it to his desk.
The debates around housing may prove to be a testing ground for how Colorado politics, now filled with more Democrats than ever, will proceed into the future.
Pretty soon, if we don’t take this on with some sort of speed, we’re gonna wake up and it’s gonna be too late to make some of these changes.
— Senate President Steve Fenberg, Boulder Democrat
Cities and towns react
The discussion regarding land use comes as the median single-family home price in Colorado has more than doubled to about $530,000 since 2010, according to a study released by the Colorado Association of Realtors in December. That’s led to workforce shortages in the high country and made homeownership unattainable for many in the Denver metro area.
Average monthly rent, meanwhile, is 6.5% higher in the metro area than a year ago and 23.4% higher than two years ago, according to the Apartment Association of Denver. Statewide, overall monthly rents are up 20.3% in the past two years, according to Apartment List.
“We really need to have this very important land-use discussion now, because after the fact is super late,” Polis told a group of business leaders at a luncheon last month. “It’s not something that fixes every problem we have tomorrow, but it fundamentally means in three years or five years, there will be more housing people can have close to where jobs are, which means less time commuting, less traffic on our roads.”
Democrats are debating several issues among themselves, including whether to give homeowners carte blanche to build accessory dwelling units, sometimes called ADUs or granny flats, with greater ease. In Denver, for instance, ADUs may be built only in certain zoning districts and the size of the structure is governed by lot size. The units must meet several other requirements related to things like appearance and accessibility.
There is also talk of changing parking requirements for developments and banning local growth caps, or restrictions on how much development can occur in a municipality or county over a certain time period.
Colorado has historically been a state where such land use and zoning decisions are determined at the local level, so city and county officials are nervous about what may be coming from the legislature.
“This is going to be major,” said Claire Levy, a Boulder County Commissioner. “It’s a major shift in policy for the state of Colorado.”
Levy, who also served seven years in the Colorado House, said she’s generally open to ideas from the legislature on how to address housing, but she’s concerned about the state mandating density without considering infrastructure and water needs. That’s a common refrain among local leaders and advocates opposed to the idea of the legislature interfering with zoning decisions.
Boulder’s city council Thursday voted 5 to 3 to support certain bills expected to be introduced by the legislature, including reducing the barriers for ADU’s, minimum housing density standards around transit, reduced parking requirements and conducting regional housing assessments.
When explaining why he recommended the change in policy, Carl Castillo, Boulder’s chief policy advisor, said the measures are likely to happen and by showing support, the city can help shape them.
“If the city wants to have influence in being able to affect the language of the bill, one of the best ways to do it is to communicate to the governor’s office, to the sponsors at the legislature that we are conceptually on board but we need to make sure our interests are protected,” he said.
Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul said he’s torn over some possible policies, such a ban on growth caps like the one approved in his city in 2019. That ordinance limits growth of residential units in the city to no more than 1% of the total housing stock per year.
This is going to be major. It’s a major shift in policy for the state of Colorado.
— Claire Levy, Boulder County Commissioner
“I was opposed to our antigrowth initiatives. I think they’re a disaster,” he said. “There’s potential legislation that looks at making (it) so that can’t happen in the future. In some ways, I think that’s good policy. But on the other side, that’s truly going against local control.”
Wheat Ridge Mayor Bud Starker said he agrees with the governor’s goal of addressing housing needs but is hoping there’s room for discussion around the methods. “I don’t think it’s necessary for the state to start dictating land use regulations in order to achieve a more affordable Colorado.”
But Fenberg said any forthcoming land use legislation won’t strip local governments of all of their control.
“The state’s not going to be involved in permitting,” he said. “The state’s not going to be involved in approving projects. That still is a local issue, and I don’t think (that) ever is going to change. It’s really about, ‘What does a property owner have the right to develop?’”
Local control over the years
The debate over the state’s role in land use isn’t a new one. As Sam Mamet, longtime executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, puts it: “It’s always been there.”
Mamet, now retired from the position, worked for the nonprofit that represents the interests of towns and cities across the state for 40 years with the final 14 years as its leader. While the debate was consistent throughout his time working at the Capitol, Mamet has seen few examples of the state actually taking such action to override local governments.
“Because It’s complicated and complex,” he said. “And there’s never a guarantee that any amount of law that’s passed or put on the books is going to address a problem.”
It’s also because past leaders in the state have worked together with local governments on these issues, said Kevin Bommer, the current leader of the Colorado Municipal League.
Bommer wants to ensure that the legislature understands that many of the initiatives being discussed have already been enacted in numerous cities and towns.
“It could get adversarial, but I hope it doesn’t,” he said. “I think there’s room here to work on and identify what the common goals are and then start navigating what’s the best way to achieve them working together.”
Though Republicans lack political influence at the Capitol, they, too, are concerned about the state getting involved in local decision-making around housing.
“Every time the government gets involved, it just increases the price of housing,” said Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton. “If we’re trying to get to that American dream, that’s everybody’s dream that they want to own their own home, then we should be thinking of ways to make housing more attainable for people and increasing regulations based on what you think is best for everybody is not making it more attainable.”
Kirkmeyer said she’s concerned that if a certain level of density is required when developing land, some communities may choose not to build any additional housing.
Assistant House Minority Leader Rose Pugliese, a Colorado Springs Republican and former Mesa County commissioner, said she knows housing needs to be addressed.
“I just want to make sure that we are really focused on the issues that the state can affect and should affect, which are regulations and water, a whole myriad of issues,” she said. “But leave local government issues to the local government.”
Rent control and eviction limitations
Beyond those on local control, Democrats are planning to introduce dozens of bills related to housing. One of the few pieces of such legislation that has been introduced is a bill that would lift Colorado’s 1981 statewide ban on local governments enacting rent control policies.
If approved, counties and municipalities would be able to regulate how much rent in their community can increase in a given time period.
Rep. Javier Mabrey, a Denver Democrat, is a prime sponsor on the bill, along with Rep. Elizabeth Velasco, D-Glenwood Springs, and Sen. Robert Rodriguez, D-Denver.
“It is really important that people have a way to build intergenerational wealth through homeownership,” Mabrey said. “However, if you are not stable as a renter, you will never be able to buy a place.”
Fenberg believes communities should have the right to make their own decisions about rent control, but said he’s not sure if House Bill 1115 has the votes to pass both chambers.
“I genuinely don’t know if it’s a bill that’s going to pass this year,” he said. “I think some Democrats will support it and some will oppose it. And I’m not sure where it comes down yet.”
Even if the bill does pass the legislature, the governor appears unlikely to sign it into law. Polis has been vocal about his opposition to the concept in the past, going so far as to threaten to veto a bill that would have capped rent for mobile park residents last year. Economists have found that rent control can at times worsen affordability in cities.
Leave local government issues to the local government.
— Assistant House Minority Leader Rose Pugliese,
Colorado Springs Republican and former Mesa County commissioner
“Gov. Polis is skeptical that rent control will create more housing stock, and locations with these policies often have the unintended consequences of higher rent,” Conor Cahill, a spokesman for the governor, said of House Bill 1115.
Mabrey also recently introduced House Bill 1171, which would limit when a landlord can evict a tenant. The legislation would restrict the reasons a landlord could evict a tenant to include failure to pay rent, illegal activity, violating a lease or creating a nuisance for other tenants.
The goal of the bill is to prevent tenants from being displaced from housing without specific cause, Mabrey said. One example of what the legislation is aimed at stopping is a landlord who chooses not to renew a lease and eventually evicts a tenant based on things such as race or gender or in retaliation for complaints.
“We believe that tenants in good standing, who aren’t breaking the rules, who are on time with their rent, shouldn’t be removed without cause,” he said.
Other housing bills that have been introduced include Senate Bill 1, which would dedicate about $13 million to develop workforce housing on vacant state land, including $2 million for a parcel near Vail. There’s also House Bill 1095, which would outlaw certain technical provisions in rental agreements, such as prohibiting tenants from joining class action lawsuits.
Rep. Andrew Boesenecker, D-Fort Collins, is also sponsoring a bill expected to be introduced shortly that would create a right of first refusal for local governments trying to add long-term affordable housing. Under the proposal, the government would have the right to match any acceptable offer for a multifamily housing unit and purchase the property. They would then be required to set rental payments based on area median income in a given region.
There are also ongoing discussions on a long-term solution to keeping property taxes — which impact housing affordability — from skyrocketing.
A proposal coming from Democrats that’s likely to have more support — including from the governor — is one that would encourage or require housing density development along transit corridors.
Polis, Fenberg and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, have all expressed support for the concept, though the details remain in flux.
Paul, Lakewood’s mayor, said the idea makes sense but voiced concerns about how it would play out.
“You also need a functioning transit agency, right?” Paul said “I don’t think you can really start getting rid of cars in some areas, without having a bona fide alternative.”
While many specific policies haven’t yet solidified, conversations are ongoing, Fenberg said.
“There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes and a lot of conversations with cities, counties, the governor’s office, environmental groups,” Fenberg said. “I think we fully suspect some big policies still to be introduced.”
Colorado Sun staff writers Jesse Paul and Tamara Chuang contributed to this report.