Kill growth caps, environmental and housing advocates tells Polis | News

A wish list presented to the governor by a group of housing advocates includes prohibiting local governments from maintaining “growth caps,” embracing a regional approach and preferring denser neighborhoods around transit hubs.

Growth caps are measures that seek to limit new housing developments. Proponents often argue such caps are key to maintaining residential home values, as well as the “character” of neighborhoods, with some nodding toward protecting open spaces and the environment. Others, such as the drafters of the wish list, say the artificially constrained housing supply leads to wide-ranging trickle-down effects that touch many of the challenges the state faces, including water, environmental stewardship and transportation.

The list from Colorado Sustainable Housing Coalition gives some of the first indications on the ideas being considered for affordable housing legislation. 

Proponents include Conservation Colorado and SWEEP, the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, along with affordable housing advocates like the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Enterprise Community Partners, transportation, disability rights, and community justice groups. 

The list comes as the housing and land use has come into sharp political focus in recent weeks. Gov. Jared Polis dedicated a notably large portion of his State of the State address toward the issue, and with good reason: Colorado is struggling with housing access, particularly in metro Denver, even as the state has poured in more than a billion dollars on the issue over the last year years.

The list also comes at time when Colorado’s legislature is reexamining the idea of local control and whether to wrestle some of that away from local governments in order to pursue what some lawmakers argue is a greater state need. 

The coalition said their goals with the wish list is to increase housing choice for a range of income levels, ages and abilities; reduce car dependence, promote smart growth and climate friendly, water-efficient development, and “foster collaboration between state, regional and local governments.”

Jessica Goad of Conservation Colorado told Colorado Politics everything is interconnected. The environmental community wants to “statewide policies put in place to address the environmental problems that come out of the affordable housing and transportation crises,” she said. 

But that may be a tall order, given that local governments are already concerned the goals could interfere with local control, something guaranteed to local governments in the state constitution.

The 2023 legislation on affordable housing, which is at least weeks away from introduction, also raises questions about what will happen to programs already in place to deal with the affordable housing crisis. Since 2021, the legislature has allocated more than $1.2 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan Act for affordable housing and services. Those funding processes, under the Division of Housing at the Department of Local Affairs, are already well underway. 

Last November, voters also approved Proposition 123, a ballot measure that would set aside $300 million out of TABOR surplus revenues for new grant and loan programs for local governments and nonprofits, partly under the Office of Economic Development and International Trade and partly under DOLA

Through a spokesman, the governor’s office indicated Polis “is focused on gathering input to work with legislators and develop the best possible proposal we can for Coloradans.”

“As this legislation is developed, we need to hear more from communities, businesses, local officials, the conservation community, as well as housing advocates, and anyone who wants to help create more housing for every Colorado budget,” the spokesman said. “As the governor said in his remarks, housing policy cuts across many areas of our daily lives. We look forward to hearing more from various voices about how to help get this done in a way that works for all Coloradans.” 

The coalition’s list includes:

  • Plan for and deliver housing that serves community needs and accommodates population and job growth. The coalition asks that the legislation evaluate housing needs and set targets, through a “regional housing needs assessment” that would figure out how many homes would be needed to serve current and future needs. That assessment would look at a range of needs, from those experiencing homelessness through those at the low-income level. The assessment would be followed by “housing production strategies,” to be developed by local governments every five years. Those strategies would be required to include “equity and access to opportunity, reduce emissions, and protect the environment. Access to certain state funding programs will be limited to local governments that are meeting their housing production targets, the wish list said.
  • Housing types, to include “denser, mixed-use neighborhoods around transit stations,” to combat what the coalition said is too much land allocated to parking at transit stations instead of housing. The goal is to create more “walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods around transit.” Goad said transportation is the number one source of greenhouse gases, with cars the biggest contributor. “We need to modernize our laws” to allow people to live closer to where they work, and that requires updates to state policy to address the climate crisis, she said. Part of the reason for a statewide approach, Goad added, is that pollution doesn’t respect county boundaries. “Policy solutions in the last few years have not been working,” leading to both the affordable housing and climate crises, she said.
  • Legalize attached housing types in single-family zones. The problem, the coalition said, is that 70% to 80% of residential areas are single-family zoning, allowing for only one home per lot and which prohibits attached housing options like duplexes, triplexes and townhomes. In addition, “single-family zoning is rooted in the racist practice of redlining and has historically served to further racial and economic segregation.” In medium and large cities, the coalition said, those multi-family units should be allowed, as well as “cottage clusters” and up to six units per lot if two are affordable. The coalition also suggests reducing minimum lot sizes.
  • Legalize another type of housing, known as accessory dwelling units. That would include carriage houses, garage apartments or so-called “granny flats” that would be built on existing single-family lots. “Legalize ADUs in single-family zones and prevent local governments from creating overly burdensome barriers to their construction,” the wish list said.
  • Encourage smart growth and climate-friendly land use, through integrating transportation and land use planning, which appears to primarily address urban housing issues. The wish list calls for prioritizing state funding for growth in already developed areas, around existing infrastructure, and in areas planned for sustainable, transportation-efficient development. This is also where water comes into the mix: the wish list says water conservation and “water-wise development” should align with water supply standards and with long-term growth needs.
  • Prohibit local growth caps, which lead to higher housing costs and urban sprawl, the wish list said. The solution? Prohibit local governments from enforcing residential growth caps.

Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, is taking a “wait and see” approach.

Local governments are the experts in land use and zoning regulations, he told Colorado Politics. He doesn’t favor a state-mandated land use planning approach, although he’s hopeful that his organization and Colorado Counties Inc. can show how they can be helpful — along the lines of state-local partnerships — in order to avoid an “unproductive” fight over the issue. 

He also pointed out the money already set aside to work on the affordable housing issue. “It’s ridiculously premature to say how to mandate to do those things” that are already in progress. 

CML’s annual survey on the state of cities and towns in Colorado found affordable housing ranked third – behind inflation and the tight labor market – on the list of concerns from its members, about 160 out of the state’s 270 incorporated cities and towns. More than one-third of municipalities reported not being aware of the affordable housing programs offered by the state, and of those who are aware, 46% had low or no confidence in applying for them. 

But the survey also found two areas of agreement with the wish list: 73% indicated a high degree of interest in accessory dwelling units and 52% in increased density on small lots. CML respondents didn’t like promoting certain types of zoning, with 23% responding in favor, as well as parking requirement reductions, which saw 33% support.

CML respondents favor partnerships with other local governments, including counties, and housing advocates. The state as a partner? Not on their list.

They also favored seeing vacant public land used for affordable housing, which Polis promoted during his State of the State address; and building those affordable housing units themselves.

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