Boulder City Council Must Give Up Building Or Growth Limitations To Include Middle-Income Housing

To get more housing that teachers and store managers and bookkeepers and police officers can afford, Boulder will need to give up something.

Whether it's the height restrictions that cap buildings at 55 feet or the tight growth boundaries that surround the city with open space and drive up the price of land or the strict regulations that dictate what types of housing get built, something will have to change if Boulder is to produce more housing that moderate-income people who work here can afford.

That was the message Charles Buki, a founding principal at Virginia-based planning firm czb, left with the Boulder City Council after an at-times-difficult study session on developing a long-range housing policy.

Buki opened the session with two questions for the City Council: Who do you want to live in Boulder? How committed are you to making this an outcome?

Most council members said they wanted the city to have housing for people of all ages and income levels. They noted that most surrounding towns have much larger populations under 18, indicating that families with children can't afford to live in Boulder, and many seniors have to move when they retire. More than 50,000 people drive to work in Boulder every day, raising the city's carbon footprint.

Since 1997, the city has had a goal of making 10 percent of its housing -- roughly 4,500 units -- permanently affordable to low- to moderate-income households. That's defined as those earning up to 80 percent of the area median income, or $66,950 for a family of three.

Since then, almost 3,000 permanently affordable units have been created, but that includes housing for the very poor, such as the 272 beds at the homeless shelter and in transitional housing.

The city added its "middle-income goal" in 2009. That calls for adding 450 permanently affordable units for households earning between 80 and 120 percent of the area median income, up to $100,200 for a family of three.

City Council members said Boulder does a good job providing very expensive housing for the wealthy, and it does a decent job at providing subsidized housing for those making less than 30 percent of the median income, though demand far outstrips supply.

For people in the middle, though, there is little housing.

Buki said Boulder's high cost of housing is driven largely by the quality of life, which he described as "rocket fuel."

"We could cool down all these problems by making Boulder a little crappier," he joked. "That housing strategy works for Buffalo."

But from that joke, Buki pressed the City Council members to think about what they would be willing to "pay" -- whether in tax dollars or in a political price for allowing more density or growth or in a trade-off with another dearly held community value like open space -- to get more affordable housing in the city.

"I have a hypothesis," Buki said. "Your policy makes this happen. This is what you want. My sense is that you don't fill the middle because you don't want to."

Councilman Ken Wilson said he believes many Boulder residents are satisfied with the high cost of housing. Councilwoman Suzy Ageton noted that voters rejected a ballot measure to fund more affordable housing.

The City Council will take up the topic again at a study session in May, but the outlines of some of the potential battles were already visible Tuesday.

Councilman George Karakehian said he wants to see the height limit lifted, and Wilson said he would be open to that change for areas east of 28th Street.

Councilwoman Lisa Morzel said she was adamantly opposed to lifting the height restriction or expanding outward. She said Boulder should look at easing restrictions on accessory dwelling units on existing properties and change rules that make it more difficult to create cooperative housing. In most parts of the city, no more than three or four unrelated adults can live in the same home or apartment.

Councilman Macon Cowles said the desire to go "up" came from people who want "penthouse living" and wouldn't provide more affordable housing. Karakehian countered that the city could require small unit sizes on tall buildings to encourage more affordable housing.

"Higher up doesn't necessarily mean larger units," he said. "Isn't that on us? We could say that if you go up to seven stories, the maximum unit size could be 800 square feet."

The meeting concluded with City Council members asking the staff to research the makeup of Boulder's workforce, how much space would be necessary to allow various percentages of that workforce to live here, how other cities have used density bonuses to get developers to build more affordable housing and what city regulations might be pushing up the price of housing. ___

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