In the middle of an acute housing shortage, Denver residents had an opportunity to turn a defunct golf course into a new neighborhood. They said no. Why?
Had the voters of Denver approved Question 20, a conservation easement would have been lifted by the city on Park Hill Golf Course and replaced with housing, park space, and retail shops. The question bitterly divided Denverites. Those in favor of the plan accused opponents of being NIMBYs. For their part, the opponents pointed out that the land represented Denver’s last major open space and insisted that preserving it was an important concern of residents who live closest to the golf course. It failed by a stout 59-41 margin.
Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to look at why Denverites actually rejected the measure.
I obtained precinct-level vote totals on Question 20. I paired them with demographic information collected at the Census Block Group level and aggregated them up to the precinct level. What I found is that areas with high homeownership were most likely to oppose the measure even when controlling for income, education and race, and that proximity to the open space had little effect on voters.
In other words, it might actually be the NIMBYs — and that means, when it comes to the future of housing politics in the state, the road ahead for housing advocates will be challenging.
Opponents of the measure insisted that their opposition was not motivated by a desire to preserve home values, and that the core of the opposition was led by residents of northeast Denver eager to keep open spaces open. The data do not support this narrative.
Looking across all voting precincts in Denver, the average homeownership rate (the percentage of residents dwelling in an owner-occupied unit) is 54%. In precincts where the measure passed, 77% had homeownership rates below that average.
Only 5% of precincts in the top quintile of homeownership supported the measure, while 63% of precincts in the bottom quintile of homeownership supported the measure. Homeownership was overwhelmingly associated with opposition to Question 20.
Even when looking at homeownership rates among other factors likely to influence vote choice — such as income, education, and physical distance to the proposed development — homeownership rate remains the biggest predictor of opposition to the development. The only other indicator of opposition that comes close is the percent of a precinct my analysis estimates to be white. A full analysis (including code to replicate the analysis yourself) can be found here.
Nor was opposition to Question 20 hyperlocal.
Throughout the campaign, Yes For Parks & Open Space, the leading campaign against the development, insisted that opposition was driven by the health concerns and interests of the residents in the immediate vicinity of the proposed development. This is a compelling argument: even if homeowners throughout Denver saw the need for more housing, they might have opposed it if they saw that local residents opposed the measure because of a burden placed on residents in the immediate vicinity. While the data available don’t allow for an analysis of what voters believed, there is scant evidence that proximity to this particular development site was related to vote choice.
When precinct results of the vote are plotted on a map, it becomes evident that residents in the immediate vicinity of the project were somewhat more likely to support the project than Denverites at large. Areas near, but not immediately next to, the golf course that opposed the project, like the precincts in the Park Hills neighborhoods, have some of the highest rates of homeownership city-wide.
Where do we go from here?
Cities across Colorado are experiencing an acute housing crisis. Decreased housing supply relative to demand has created a surge in the costs of housing and pushed more Coloradans out of homes and onto the streets. In mountain towns, homeowners trying to make ends meet by renting out their own properties are being cast as villains. Easy solutions are hard to come by, and some municipalities have resorted to building tiny homes to house teachers.
Colorado is in dire need of additional housing, and Question 20 was an opportunity to convert a former golf course into homes for Denver residents. To be sure, the proposed development was not without its flaws, but the voting patterns on the question were textbook. Given the opportunity, existing homeowners are unlikely to support the construction of new homes that will lead to greater home affordability.
One solution that has worked elsewhere in the Mountain West is to move authority over housing construction from the local to the state level. Gov. Jared Polis’s bill to do just that was met with strong opposition from those defending “local control.”
Without intervention at the State level, Denver and cities across the state appear unlikely to overrule homeowners incentivized to vote against new housing development. But when “local control” extends to a right to exclude, it conjures up images of dark moments in the not-so-distant history of the United States. While local control may be a political principle worth defending, shouldn’t Coloradans also care about protecting the opportunity of others to call a place home?
Michael Greenberger, of Denver, is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver.
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