Irrational Expectations

GG lives sort of in Boulder, Colorado, a place that is struggling to see what it wants to be.  Reading reports of planning meetings feels like watching blind men feel an elephant.

Here’s the short story: Boulder has about 100,000 people; another 60,000 come in from outlying areas to work in Boulder. Housing prices are such that the city estimates that 40% of residents struggle to pay for housing. So arguably there are 60,000 living comfortably in Boulder and well over 100,000 who would like to live there (the 60,000 commuters probably have families in many cases) but have trouble making it work. Boulder has surrounded itself with green space that it prides itself on. The city has a goal of making 10% of its housing affordable. City residents clearly want to keep the city as it is, with largely single family housing and relatively low density.

Here is the irrational part: all the goals stated are impossible to achieve together. To accommodate all the people who would want to live in Boulder with housing they can afford while retaining current open space, the city’s density would have to more than double. If, on the other hand, the housing stock remains as it is, not only will lots of folks still be unable to live in Boulder, but prices will continue to rise, and of course the greater the fraction of housing that is subsidized, the higher the prices will be for the remaining housing. So most of the arguing going on simply ignores that the city has painted itself into a dead end.

There are precisely two ways out: improved transit and higher business taxes.  There is a lot of cheap real estate well to the east on the plains. If people could easily live there and commute to Boulder, the pressure for affordable housing in Boulder would decline. Yes, the city would have a different demographic mix, but that’s life with a free market. Alternatively, the city could really crank up business taxes and basically push a bunch of employers out of the city. Reduced employment in the city would reduce the demand for housing; ideally you’d keep the pressure up until the number of jobs roughly matched the number of workers living in the city.

Realistically, pushing out business isn’t going to happen, so the only plausible solution to Boulder’s problems will be to improve transit far to the east. That there is no plan to do this makes clear that the city and county have no realistic understanding of their situation. This isn’t the only place with problems like this, but it is striking that a community with a lot of well educated people can’t see their way through this.

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