Published in the Sept 1, 2016, edition of the Lyons Recorder.
COMMENTARY: What’s the future of affordable housing in Lyons?
A conversation about “market jihadists,” affordability, and economic growth
by Amy Reinholds
Here in Lyons, we are familiar with a healthy (or maybe unhealthy) suspicion of government at various levels. Some Town of Lyons residents or some unincorporated Boulder County residents in our surrounding areas talk about how they don’t trust Boulder County government. I’ve had conversations during the almost three years since the flood with people who have great disdain if neighbors or the town government take money from the federal government for some recovery-related costs, but they are fine with other services from the U.S. Government that they or their businesses benefit from. In Boulder County, we have our own real-life versions of the lovable Ron Swanson character on the “Parks and Recreation” TV series, who hates the government but works for the government.
But the other side of the coin is giving free rein to the free market. An affordable housing advocate from San Francisco, who will speak in Boulder in September, warns of what he sees as a new trend across the country where economic booming metro areas with a housing crisis are pushed to build more market-rate housing as a solution, but it backfires when only high-end homes are built.
“There’s a curious debate in this county, arguing that the way to produce affordable housing is to allow developers to produce more market-rate housing,” says Calvin Welch, a founder of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, who will speak at an annual dinner for PLAN-Boulder County, a citizen group that has been promoting sustainable land use and environmental protection in the Boulder area since 1959.
Welch speaks the Sept. 23 event for PLAN-Boulder County, which I understand is a “slow growth” group that has been encouraging open spaces and protected land in Boulder for decades. I’ve been curious about what PLAN-Boulder County thinks about affordable housing. Are park lands more important than housing? I was surprised to see that the topic Welch is discussing at the PLAN-Boulder County event is “Priced Out! Left Out! Freaked Out! Why Can’t I Afford My Parents’ House?” I asked Welch more about the complex social, economic, and political influences on housing costs that he will discuss in Boulder.
“There is a very similar battle (in Colorado) that we’ve faced where market jihadists insist that deregulating housing and increasing the supply of housing will trickle down and reduce housing costs,” Welch said. “Political elites have bought into the notion that the market will dictate housing. The government is retreating on housing policies,” Welch said, saying that the current budget for housing, with a Democrat in the White House today, is only 14% of what the Carter administration spent on housing programs.
Yet the problem of attaining housing that is affordable is growing wherever the economy and jobs are growing, Welch said. “Every metro area that has a thriving economy has a housing crisis. People are spending 50-60 percent of their income on housing.”
“There is actually an economic belief that helping the market do its magic is the most legitimate role of government,” Welch said. “But in the end, the market is not always right.”
Welch said that developers driven by profit are not motivated to build affordable housing, although policies that remove restrictions end up rewarding for-profit developers and the financial industry that is part of that development. “Some policies end up being gifts to market-rate developers,” Welch said. “We need other tools.”
He said tools that have worked to keep some low-income, moderate income, and retired people in San Francisco are some rent control policies and requirements on new developments to include affordable housing and contribute to public transit. “Regulation of the market gives space for working people to survive.”
When there is a lack of land available for housing, like in San Francisco, or other areas like Colorado where open space land is protected from development, Welch said what works is increasing density in the right areas. “More dense development in already developed areas is how to deal with population growth.”
But housing is not the only investment, he said. “There’s got to be an investment in infrastructure, transit, services for people like libraries, community centers, child care centers, senior services, schools… a full spectrum of investment to ensure high density living has a high quality of life.”
“Jobs and the economy change much faster than housing can be built. There needs to be a coordinated regional plan that links jobs, transit, and housing together,” Welch said. “To talk about housing without transit and economic and social context leads to projects that fail.”
You can find out more about PLAN-Boulder County, including the upcoming event where Welch will speak, at http://planboulder.org.
For history of post-flood efforts for affordable housing in Lyons, you can read previous columns posted on my blog at https://lyonscoloradonews.wordpress.com. All town meetings of the elected Lyons Board of Trustees and appointed, volunteer town boards and commissions are open to the public and posted on the town calendar at www.townoflyons.com/calendar.aspx. If you have any questions, comments, or complaints about this column, please contact me directly at areinholds @hotmail.com.
Amy Reinholds served on the Lyons Housing Recovery Task Force from December 2013 through its end in February 2015. She is currently a member of the Lyons Human Services and Aging Commission and served as a liaison to the Special Housing Committee in the past year. She has lived in Lyons since 2003 and in the surrounding Lyons area since 1995.