Are Boulderites NIMBY-diots?

Ah Boulder, favorite punching bag for those who seem simultaneously envious and angry with the town at the base of the Flatirons.  Lately the NY Times has taken Boulder as a prime example of a community destroying equality (really, guys?  With some of the most out-there, unjustifiable incomes in the country visible out your office windows, you have to look to Boulder?).  Basically the contention is that Boulder, by not allowing for a lot of high-density construction, is creating the kind of 99%/1% division that is shredding the social contract underlying American life.

Wow. And here the Peoples Republic thought it was saving the world, not destroying it…

As is often the case in such polemics, there are embarrassingly few numbers, so let’s look at this.  In the end, we’ll see that there are big problems that represent a conflict of ideals with reality with no easy solution.  Yeah, big surprise. There is really nothing new In GG’s review of this other than to point out that there really is nothing new about what is going on in Boulder, but here it is for those who might be curious.

The ideal is that the city would physically retain a low height limit, retain generally detached housing outside of core areas where high-density would be appropriate, and everybody who works in Boulder and wants to live here could. And so they’d walk or bike and cars would only exist outside of Boulder [Reading the paper here, you get the impression many would like Boulder to become a Rocky Mountain version of Zermatt in Switzerland, where private cars are effectively banned].

The base numbers (from a 2012 City report, p. ES8): as of 2012, there were 40,000 workers who live and work in Boulder, 60,000 who commute to Boulder to work and 10,000 who commute elsewhere to work. One oddity is that the number of people living and working in Boulder has declined by nearly 8,000 from 2006 with no net change in out-commuters, which seems to suggest a lot of folks are retiring and staying here.  This leads to insight number one: there is no way to house everybody who works in Boulder within the city limits without doubling the housing density.

Pretty much nobody expects that to happen. What this has led to (that the article missed but is very apparent in local politics) is an attempt to change the mix of incomes within the city by mandating the construction of “affordable housing.” However, the tone-deaf behavior of city and county officials has combined with state laws and rules have pushed the creation of such housing into suburban parts of the city and county, away from walkable parts of the city; instead of forcing developers to create the affordable housing in those walkable areas (places where there has been a huge increase in apartments and condominiums), the city takes a fee and then shifts roles to become a developer of low-income housing which, because of economics, is nearly always high density.  Not surprisingly, neighbors of these projects are wary of high-density “project housing” suddenly appearing down the block. So the city effectively punted on one of their great chances to actually make workable affordable housing while at the very same time claiming that the creation of such housing is the most important goal the city can have.  In a way this is an odd reversal of self-government: the city council is, in a way, better representing the interests of non-Boulderites than their own electorate. So insight 2: Nobody wants low-income housing forced on them–not developers who seek an optimal profit, not neighborhoods lacking high-density housing.

So, the mantra goes, the problem is that Boulder has too many jobs.  Hey, all we need to do is reduce the workforce by half! You can see this both at the end of the NY Times article and in a responding letter to the editor. This is the kind of thinking that gets Boulder its reputation for being a Peoples Republic.  Look at the price of office space in Boulder: over $22 per square foot.  The county as a whole (which includes Boulder) is at $17/sf. Why is this? It is because businesses do not exist in isolation: you can make more money where there are surrounding businesses that, simply by their presence, help you succeed. So businesses do not simply relocate to Lafayette or Longmont for much the same reason that businesses pay huge sums to have offices in Manhattan. So insight 3: Boulder is a job magnet, demolish it at your own risk. Remember, those businesses are helping to pay for lots of city amenities. Dropping half the workers might result in a lot less than half the businesses.  It is a tricky balance.

Boulder’s high property values are largely because of surrounding open space which both limits development and presents a major amenity; much like San Francisco or Jackson, Wyoming, it’s expensive because property is limited and  because it isn’t a forest of skyscraping apartment buildings. Unlike San Francisco or Jackson, though, Boulder has numerous highways to areas with far lower property costs fairly short distances away (from a national perspective; GG doubts there are folks commuting more than 100 miles, as has been the case in Los Angeles at times). Thus the 60,000 (well, more now) who commute in daily can find housing with the tradeoff of transportation. This has been the story of urban centers since before the automobile.

Boulder isn’t Aspen, where vacant second houses now might outnumber locals.  People who have houses in Boulder live in Boulder. This isn’t simply entitled rich displacing deserving locals, this is something more complex.

It all comes down to how much you want to fight laws of supply and demand and what your goals really are.  Is it that we need for our neighbors to include the schoolteacher, the janitor, the policeman, and the firefighter? Maybe we can solve that by changing laws or customs and housing them at publicly-subsidized rates (as, for instance, Jackson, Wyoming does). Or maybe just pay them a housing allowance. If not ability to pay, what determines your “right” to live in a town like Boulder? How long you’ve worked there? Some lottery? Or if you believe in the free market, perhaps lifting zoning restrictions and then allow the city to morph into whatever.  Sure there could be 30 story apartment buildings suddenly sharing the skyline with the Continental Divide, but the average rent will drop. Or simply confess that Boulder will be a commuter destination and build up the roads coming in and the bus lines and find a way for those commuters to have a presence in the community beyond their work hours. Any of these whack a chunk out of that ideal Boulder we started with.

But is Boulder real estate what drives the nation to have a privileged super-elite?  Nah.  For that, you need New York level arrogance. Hey, New York, why don’t you build on your green space, huh?  That Central Park would make a great apartment complex….

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