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Local News

Denser Development Envisioned in Colorado Democrats’ Landmark Affordable Housing Bill

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by Sara Wilson, Colorado Newsline

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and lawmakers unveiled a long-awaited plan Wednesday to spur residential development and increase the housing stock in the state by encouraging the construction of non-traditional housing types.

It is a major proposal as the state grapples with how to responsibly accommodate explosive population growth — and how much control local governments should cede to the state.

“We’re at a real fork in the road for Colorado. Do we want to go down a route we’ve seen in other states like California, where there are cities with average home prices about $1 million … or do we want to create a better way, a Colorado way, to plan for a future that is livable, affordable and works for all of us?” Polis said at a Wednesday press conference at the Capitol in Denver. Polis, in his campaign and during an address to the Legislature earlier this year, said housing is a priority of his second term in office.

The plan rests on a few key components and came together after over 100 meetings with stakeholders that included local government officials, housing leaders, business executives and environmental advocates, Polis said. It resulted in a 106-page draft bill.

The bill lays out various requirements for municipal categories, with more requirements for larger cities. Tier 1 cities — think the Denver metro area, Grand Junction, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs and Pueblo — could see the biggest changes. Tier 2 cities are in a metropolitan planning organization smaller than Tier 1 cities, and are in a county with a population greater than 250,000. They include cities like Monument, Berthoud and Fort Lupton. Rural resort job centers include places like Aspen, Breckenridge and Vail. Other municipalities larger than 5,000 people fall into a non-urban category.

The bill would remove restrictions in the state’s largest cities on building some of the most affordable housing types, such as multiplexes and accessory dwelling units, which are smaller living spaces that are an extension of an existing property.

Many cities have restrictions on how and where ADUs can be built, and the housing plan aims to eliminate a lot of the “red tape” surrounding that development, which is an increasingly popular way to increase housing stock without sprawl.

Tier 2 cities, rural resort job centers and non-urban municipalities would be allowed to block multiplexes but would still need to allow ADUs.

“We know that this crisis, especially in large metro areas, doesn’t abide by local borders. It’s a statewide and regional issue and it deserves that kind of attention,” said Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat who will be a lead bill sponsor. “Research has shown that increasing housing supply, like building units like duplexes and townhomes, can increase affordability. Yet these types of housing are often prohibited in many of the communities that need them the most. That doesn’t make sense.”

Moreno is sponsoring the bill alongside House Democratic Reps. Iman Jodeh of Aurora and Steven Woodrow of Denver.

Under the plan, Tier 1 cities would also need to allow multifamily housing development along transit corridors, specifically around fixed-transit stations. It would also create density and affordability standards in those cities. Supporters say this would reduce people’s reliance on personal vehicles, lowering emissions and environmental impact, and allow people to live closer to where they work.

The draft Senate bill was due to be introduced Wednesday evening. Democrats have large majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

Growth cap prohibition

Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities could not impose minimum square footage requirements for residential units under the bill, unless doing so is “necessary for health and safety in the urban municipality.”

The bill also requires more planning from the state and local governments to address housing needs. Tier 1 cities, Tier 2 cities and rural resort job centers would need to create periodic housing studies with plans that detail strategies to address affordability and housing stock concerns.

If a municipality fails to meet the minimum standards outlined in the bill, it would need to adhere to a state standardized zoning code that would be developed by the Department of Local Affairs.

Under the bill, governments could not enact occupancy limits that differ based on the relationship of the people who live in the unit.

“There’s still some work to be done,” said Boulder Mayor Aaron Brockett of the bill. “I’m sure there will be changes hashed out and it will take additional work and collaboration to get to the finish line, as is inevitable with a bill of this scope.”

Brockett was the only mayor to speak at the press conference on Wednesday, though the Lakewood mayor and Greeley city manager offered statements of support.

A second bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. William Lindstedt of Broomfield and Rep. Ruby Dickson of Greenwood Village, would prohibit cities from enacting growth caps.

“Arbitrary limits on growth undermine housing from being built and contribute to long commutes, poor air quality, and lead to higher transportation costs and negative health outcomes,” Lindstedt said.

The Colorado Municipal League is opposed to the legislation and argues that the requirements would take control away from local governments and give it to the state and developers.

“It is a breathtaking power grab,” CML executive director Kevin Bommer said in a statement. “Although the bill is being sold as a ‘menu of options’ with ‘flexibility’ to create affordability, it mainly benefits developer interests to the detriment to the quality of life and access to local elected officials expected by Coloradans and with no guarantees that anything built will be ‘affordable.’”

This story was written by Sara Wilson, a reporter at the Colorado Newsline, where this story first appeared.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.