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.
A letter writer to Boulder’s Daily Camera pointed out something that should be obvious but seems to escape many on the political left: preserving open space makes housing more expensive. So if your priorities favor social justice over environmental preservation, you probably should be against purchases of open space.
It is unlikely that many (if any!) residents of Boulder regret decisions over the years to spend tax dollars buying open parcels of land. It has enhanced the quality of life in Boulder. But a clear side effect is to increase property values, both because Boulder is now that much nicer to live in and the amount of land available for housing is that much less. If you are voting in your own self-interest, and if you are a property owner in Boulder, you should always be voting for the purchase of open space. Your property will gain value and the quality of life will stay about the same or improve.
Of course there are other options for lowering housing prices than building on open space: you can increase density within the existing built-up area. Here in Boulder one option might be for the University to build enough high-density housing (apartments and dorms) for the 30,000 students so there isn’t the pressure on surrounding neighborhood rentals. You can remove height limits, you can remove limits on how many unrelated people can live in a house, etc.
A longer view, though, might suggest that the open space dilemma might be resolved when population starts to decline. Although it is hard to imagine in growth-happy Colorado, but the demographics point to populations declining over time. When population pressures relax, how happy will the remaining residents of Boulder be there isn’t that open space remaining? You could tear down abandoned buildings and replace them with something more useful, but built-over open space is unlikely to be restored to a more nearly natural condition.
One purpose of this blog is for GG to get grumpy things out of the way, and this is entirely a local topic most readers will want to bypass (though the New York Times has lately had a spate of Boulder articles, so maybe this is really national news). GG has the pleasure of a near front row seat featuring great bouts of hyperbole. On one side sits NIMBY, on the other government overreach. GG is not sure which is making him grumpier but wishes the whole thing would just go away.
The battle is over two undeveloped fields. One was owned by the Catholic church in Boulder, the other the school district. Both have remained open many years after the subdivisions around them were completed; both are within the county and do not touch the city. A few years ago (2006), the church considered selling their valuable downtown property and moving out here. At the time, noises started emerging within the neighborhood: this would bring too much traffic and noise and bother and affect the neighborhood (an actual quote: “This development will have a negative impact on property values due to the large increase of traffic, parking, car pollution, crowding and noise, not to mention the loss of scenic open space”). Nascent NIMBY-ism was nipped in the bud when the congregation demanded the church stay in town; happiness was in the neighborhood, but GG’s feeling was, be careful what you wish for. A church could be lots better than something else….
Unbeknownst to the neighborhood, the church discussed with the county up zoning the land so the church could build senior housing. The county pointed out that the land did not abut city land and so could not be up zoned to the density the church needed. Instead, the church put the land on the market by early 2012, eventually selling the land to the county prior to early 2013.
It is about at this point where all the fun truly begins.
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.