Controversy has once again struck at the Colorado Capitol. But this time it concerns a sweeping land-use bill addressing the state’s housing crisis, not a partisan divide. 

The following is a breakdown of the bill and five considerations to remember as debates intensify.

What is Colorado’s housing crisis?

An estimated 80% of Coloradans live in a county with a housing shortage, with deficits ranging from 25,000 to 117,000 units, according to one 2022 report. As affordability hits a three-decade low, up to 46,000 permits per year are estimated to be needed by 2025 to meet statewide demand. To date, local entities have been unable to meet this growing demand.

What is SB-213?

Senate Bill 213 is a land-use proposal that would adopt a statewide perspective of Colorado’s housing crisis by superseding local limits on certain dense housing projects. The latest discussions — which are still heavily under debate in committee — include permission for up to four units on residential urban lots, additional dwelling unit allowances and elimination of occupancy laws pertaining to unrelated people.

Mountain towns may be excluded under the most recent debates.

Why SB-213 and not local control?

Local governments had their chance, and most spent decades failing to address affordable housing on their own. SB-213 is the response to that failure. If local governments could sufficiently address the housing crisis independently, they would have done it already.

Similar efforts across the U.S. offer insight 

Colorado isn’t the first to pursue changes to land-use laws. We should learn from others’ mistakes. 

In 2019, Minneapolis eliminated single-family zoning only to encounter a slew of existing rules that limited the ability to fulfill the new law as intended. Colorado lawmakers should work to further hone the new bill with these instances in mind.

The states of Oregon, California and Connecticut have also pursued versions of preempting single-family zoning, all of which demonstrate that a combination of approaches to addressing the housing crisis — not only ending single-family zoning — is necessary. 

For example, eliminating parking requirements for buildings near transit centers and increasing additional dwelling unit permits were among the most successful tools, two critical points given recent discussions trend toward relaxing parking rules.

Land-use reform efforts also fall squarely under President Biden’s federal effort to encourage communities to address the national housing shortage with federal grants for communities that can demonstrate improvements to their housing stock. Accordingly, the Colorado bill might spur the generation of local funds.

Bigger isn’t always better

When it comes to lifestyle, American homes are too big. In 1973, the average home was 1,660 square feet. By 2015, the average home size had increased to 2,687 square feet.

Single-family homes have since dropped a bit, yet the average home remains substantially larger than in past generations. This unnecessary enlargement has supercharged the nation’s housing crisis. 

To combat our need to keep up with the Jones’, simply requiring local entities to reduce regulations for minimum lot and home sizes could go a long way toward increasing the available land for development. This is also a win-win as smaller homes are more sustainable and cost-efficient, both very attractive to the next generations of buyers.

More building equals more carbon, maybe

The environmental impacts of building more housing without robust sustainability mandates elevate concerns of aiding one crisis while abetting another. However, at least in Colorado, existing laws may mitigate the impact. 

According to the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, last year’s HB21-1362 provided an ambitious framework for adopting statewide green building codes.

“Under this legislation, starting July 1, 2023, when local governments update any of their building codes, they must move to the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code,” said a spokesperson for SWEEP. “It also requires them to adopt electric-ready, EV-ready and solar-ready amendments.”

The Energy Code Board created by the same bill also directs the development of a low-carbon code by mid-2025, meaning that by mid-2026, local governments must adopt this code when updating their building codes. Given that most mid-sized communities update their building codes every 3-6 years, and implementation of the land-use bill would currently take effect in mid-2025, SWEEP estimates that 80-90% of the state’s population will have units that fall under the 2021 IECC. This includes at least half of units with solar-ready, EV-ready, and electric-ready requirements, and by mid-2026, communities will be moving to a low-carbon code.

In short, there will be an immediate carbon cost. However, by increasing housing density closer to where people work and reducing transportation, the bill is likely far more carbon conscious in the long run.

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Perfection is the enemy of the good

There is no such thing as a perfect bill. In this spirit, nothing about SB-213 is perfect. Much of it is, however, necessary, and much will continue to be improved and debated in committee. 

SB-213 is imperfect and heavy-handed, but given the state’s current and projected housing crisis, some version of it is necessary. That local efforts for decades weren’t enough is proof.

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio

Trish Zornio

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Trish Zornio

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio