Growth and density: great for developers, not for housing affordability

| Mar 4, 2022

By Mark Wallach
Boulder City Council Member

It must be the silly season. During the past week the Daily Camera published two more progrowth, prodevelopment columns on housing, each filled with attractive slogans, but a bit short on accuracy or an understanding of the consequences of the policies they support.

In the first, former member of Council Jan Burton explicitly argues that Boulder’s Open Space, Blue Line and height restrictions are policies that foster exclusion, and that more growth is what we need as a corrective (Jan Burton: “Boulder is moving away from its antigrowth past toward social equity,” Feb. 22). This is part of a continuing attack on those policies by developers and those who believe that greatly increased growth is all that stands between our high home prices and an affordable, diverse and inclusionary community.

Council Member Wallach
(Source: City of Boulder)

Here we go again. The idea that growth and density will lead to affordability and diversity is the modern-day equivalent of the flat Earth theory. I have asked before in this paper: is there an example of any city — anywhere — that has achieved affordability through densification?

Keep those (non) answers coming. In every case more development results in higher prices. No desirable city that people flock to for better jobs, outdoor recreation, or culture is going to be able to grow its way to affordability. Boulder, like other destination cities, cannot do so.

The density theory appears to be that if we can build enough housing, we will outstrip demand and prices will crash due to an excess of units. It is a ridiculous proposition (the housing equivalent of trickle-down economics) and terrible development policy. We have 60,000 daily in-commuters and a virtually infinite demand to live here. That is the inconvenient truth that the author ignores in arguing that higher growth will result in greater affordability.

And, by the way, Boulder is already a dense city. At 4,000 residents per square mile, we are denser than Houston, Dallas, Austin, Phoenix and New Orleans, among others. We are denser than most of the cities in this country whose population exceeds 100,000. Which begs the question: how dense does Ms. Burton want Boulder to be?

Nor does she discuss the lack of housing diversity in the growth she supports.

Here is what the private sector is currently providing us: ultra-luxury townhomes and small, luxury, stacked-flat rental apartment buildings. In the many buildings developed or in development at Boulder Junction, Diagonal Plaza, and every other large project in Boulder, how many of the units are middle-income? How many are designed for working families with children? How many are attainable for first responders, not tech workers? How many provide ownership opportunities?

Have any of these projects actually fostered inclusivity and diversity? If not, why advocate building more of them? It is not the number of units that counts, it is the type of units, and Ms. Burton’s vaunted growth coalition is producing some of the least attainable housing in Boulder, housing that serves as an expensive waystation until its occupants leave for other communities to start a family.

Great for developers, not so much for Boulder.

Next, take our height limitations. Does anyone really believe that if we permit 10-story buildings that they will be developed as anything but the most expensive housing in Boulder? Think of the views! I am eager to learn how Boulder’s affordability and diversity will be improved by luxury high-rise buildings.

We do have some ways to productively create affordable and middle-income housing. Boulder owns various tracts of land that could ultimately be used for that purpose, such as the Planning Reserve and the Boulder Airport. When the City owns the land it can make it available to developers at no or minimal cost and then require them to build the housing we need, not the housing they want. Land cost is the single greatest driver of home prices. But Ms. Burton is a fierce opponent of using the 179 acres of our airport for any purpose other than for noise- and lead-polluting aircraft. Go figure.

The second column was from Lauren Brockman, a principal at a real estate development firm. Mr.Brockman’s thesis is simple: build more without restraint, remove those pesky regulations that inhibit development, and please, please never consider any form of rent stabilization that could impact profits. It is the standard developer’s wish list.

As for regulations, here is what we never hear on this issue: precisely what regulations are being complained about? The ones that add cost, but promote safety? The ones that add cost, but address our climate action goals? The ones that permit community input? I am always in favor of cutting red tape to assist those creating housing, but I like to know what is behind the red tape I am cutting.

As for rent stabilization, I know first-hand from my years in New York the pitfalls of any rent stabilization system. But it is certainly worth a robust debate in this community, particularly in connection with our manufactured home communities housing some of our most vulnerable residents.

The diversity that comes with affordability results from actually creating affordable and middle-income housing, not merely building more luxury housing. Attempting to cloak the drive to further gentrify Boulder under the buzzwords of affordability and inclusion, or to try to characterize our Open Space, Blue Line or height limitations – all of which are overwhelmingly supported by the community – as intended to foster exclusion and discrimination, is both misguided and inappropriate.

This column first appeared in the Daily Camera, Feb. 27, 2022. Reproduced here with permission of author and publisher.

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