Published in the March 28, 2019, edition of the Lyons Recorder.
COMMENTARY: What’s the future of affordable housing in Lyons?
Goals to stop the net loss of affordable housing
by Amy Reinholds
Our Lyons community, and all of Boulder County, can use a variety of tools in the affordable housing toolbox. Not all tools apply to our small town, and they are not one-size-fits-all. We might determine that some tools could be dangerous if used incorrectly, or they might give us the opposite effect that we want. In my opinion, our community should be a like a good carpenter and learn what tools are available, and how to best use them, so we can be equipped with the best possible options for repair or building to meet our goals.
I recently learned about the PLAN-Boulder County’s Affordable Housing Strategy, which identifies some ideas I hadn’t spent much time considering before. PLAN-Boulder County is a citizen group that has been promoting sustainable land use and environmental protection in the Boulder area since 1959. The group published an Affordable Housing Strategy at the end of 2017. Some of it is focused specifically on the City of Boulder, but a great deal of it applies to the broader Boulder County.
Two of the recommendations that stand out to me are “Most new housing should be permanently affordable” and “Preserve existing affordable housing” (in particular, “The net loss of currently affordable units must be stopped.”).
Leonard May, a PLAN-Boulder County board member who worked on the strategy, pointed to a loss rate of 1000 units per year in the City of Boulder that had been affordable to middle and low-income renters but were lost through gentrification and redevelopment. He attributed that number to data from Boulder Housing Partners (the City of Boulder Housing Authority).
For example, the redevelopment of the Eastpointe apartment complex, at Arapahoe Avenue and Eisenhower Drive in east Boulder, increased density but still “decreased affordability for middle and low-income renters,” May said, because rents went up for the new luxury apartments.
“What is built is at the high end of the market right now,” May said. “Of the new housing in Boulder, there are requirements on developers that 20 percent is permanently affordable to middle and low income [called inclusionary housing], but 80 percent is market rate.”
“While we are big supporters of inclusionary housing, not connecting that program to affordable housing losses resulting from gentrification and redevelopment, is short-sighted, and wasteful,” May said. “And at the end if the day, we have less affordable housing.”
You can read the entire plan here: planboulder.org/development/plan-peoples-league-for-action-now-boulder-county-affordable-housing-strategy. May said PLAN-Boulder County “will be updating the strategy on a continuum, to address issues as they arise and to include new ideas as we learn about them or develop them.”
“Affordable housing is not a simple supply and demand issue as many try to distill it down to,” May said. “The problems today are a result of a 40-year federal government retreat from the housing business, quantitative-easing policies that arose from the 2008 financial crisis, Boulder’s and Boulder County’s real estate market being focused toward the high-end, a 50-year decline in wages relative to cost of living and a host of other elements, all interacting with each other.”
May said that PLAN-Boulder County gave input to the Boulder County Regional Housing Strategy and supports that strategy. He said that Boulder County is expected to put a 2020 ballot issue on the county ballot to increase sales tax for a county-wide affordable housing fund to raise revenue for preserving affordability and purchasing land, “exactly what PLAN Boulder County has on our housing strategy.”
PLAN-Boulder County also supports working with elected representatives in the state legislature who are considering introducing a bill to change Colorado’s current prohibition on rent control, stating this change in state law would “create opportunities for preserving affordability of housing over time.” If it makes it through both houses and becomes law, local municipalities would be allowed to create their own policies that limit rent increases.
Boulder missed an opportunity for more permanently affordable rentals when it approved its accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinance that now allows carriage houses on single-family zones, May said. May said he had hoped that although homeowners who built ADUs on their properties would be allowed to begin renting at market rate, the ADU ordinance would constrain the rate of increase in rent after that. For example, he said the allowed maximum increase in rent each year could be based on a formula such as half of the gap between increase of local rental market and the rate of inflation. (If the local market increased 10 percent, and inflation was 2 percent, a landlord would be allowed to increase the rent by no more than 4 percent.)
He noted that some towns like Wellfleet, MA, have created grants or no-interest loan programs for longtime homeowners with moderate to low incomes who need assistance building or remodeling ADUs, but in exchange they accept the permanent affordability requirements (limits in rent increases).
May said that allowing ADUs without permanent affordability primarily benefits property owners at the expense of renters, which means benefiting people higher on the economic ladder at the expense of those lower on the ladder.
I think that the Town of Lyons also missed that opportunity for permanent affordability in our ADU ordinance, but maybe it could be added sometime in the future as a condition for approving ADUs for homeowners who request this conditional use.
Lyons lost about 76 to 94 destroyed homes in the 2013 flood. In March 2015, a proposal for using part of Bohn Park to build subsidized, affordable Boulder County Housing Authority rentals and some Habitat for Humanity for-sale affordable homes (a total of 50-70 homes) was rejected in a town vote, 614 to 498. However, $4 million of federal Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery funds were still set aside for affordable housing in Lyons, and the State Housing Board voted in February to approve Summit Housing Group’s application for those funds for building 11 single family homes and 29 homes in multifamily buildings on land the company plans to buy in Lyons Valley Park. Until Summit’s proposal, a few concepts for subsidized affordable rentals were pursued, but nothing got very far in the process. The only post-flood, permanently affordable housing actually in the construction phase is at 112-116 Park Street where Habitat for Humanity of the St. Vrain Valley is building three duplexes (a total of six, for-sale homes).
This column is a commentary (opinion column) in the Lyons Recorder. For a history, you can read previous columns from both Lyons-area newspapers at lyonscoloradonews.wordpress.com. If you have any questions, comments, or complaints about this column, please contact me directly at areinholds @hotmail.com.