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It’s Time to Rethink Housing and Zoning Density

It’s Time to Rethink Housing and Zoning Density


The cost of simply being alive in today’s world is rapidly spiraling out of control. Inflation, driven by record breaking corporate greed, has made everyday choices like food, rent, and insurance even more of a struggle. Though this sort of problem seems complicated and almost out of our control, there are advocacy groups throughout Boulder county that are fighting to make life more affordable for everyone. 

One of these groups is the East County Housing Opportunity Coalition, ECHO, an organization that advocates for affordable housing in Boulder County. Just how bad is the problem they’re up against? According to Annmarie Jensen, president of ECHO, housing is considered affordable if someone making 80% of an area’s gross median income only pays roughly 30% of their income in rent. 

Based on statistics from the U.S Census Bureau, the median income in Boulder County is roughly $90,000. For a housing unit to be considered affordable, rent must be $1,600-1,800 a month. According to market data, the average rent in Boulder county as of the writing of this piece is $2,349 dollars

This data shows just how bad Boulder’s affordable housing problem is. With the rent as high as it is, and so many Boulder County workers living further away to combat this, it is hard to see where to begin. 

Jensen believes that one of the best ways is to fight to get affordable housing built by working to solidify deals between builders and local governments. When asked about ECHO’s biggest accomplishment, what she’s the most proud of, she mentioned Willoughby Corner, an affordable housing project in Lafayette that recently broke ground after years of planning and deliberation. She claimed that the deal behind Willoughby Corner was tough. ECHO worked with Immaculate Conception Church to negotiate with the Lafayette City Council to keep the deal from falling apart. With the project now underway, Jensen hopes that more like it will come along soon, providing much needed affordable housing to a county that desperately needs it. 

While Willoughby Corner is a remarkable accomplishment in its own right, ECHO has also worked hard to navigate and change the complex regulatory and legal red tape around affordable housing. A lot of this work includes advocating for affordable housing ordinances, which requires developers to make a certain percentage of affordable housing units per large development. 

However, under Colorado state law, developers can also abide by these ordinances with alternatives, such as offering cash to the county that they can use to build affordable housing on their own. Also, many inclusionary housing ordinances have run into problems after the Marshall fire. 

ECHO has also devoted a fair bit of energy to working on zoning laws, which, according to Jensen, should help ease Boulder County’s problems with affordable housing and climate change. Jensen argues that single-use zoning in use in Boulder County, and throughout most of the country, is insufficient. American style development, including car-centric suburbs and sprawl, does not produce the density necessary both to keep emissions down or provide affordable housing for the people who need it. Single use zoning effectively means that certain areas of the city only allow one type of building. 

What Jensen and ECHO are proposing is effectively a change in zoning laws that will allow for residential units to be built in immediate proximity with commercial units. Jensen argues that greater residential density would keep prices down, allowing workers to live where they work, and allow people to more effectively get to work by walking or using the bus.

While much criticism has been levied at Boulder County’s public transportation system, Jensen argues that mass transit inherently requires density in order to be effective. According to her, mass transit systems can only make enough money to sustain themselves and operate efficiently if they serve a large population, something that RTD does not currently do given the massive spacing between residential communities in Boulder County and throughout Colorado. Ergo, Jensen and ECHO believe that mixed use zoning is the key to reducing emissions and creating walkable, affordable communities that Boulder County workers can not just live, but thrive in.

Another large problem that ECHO is working to combat is one of resource allocation. Simply put, most communities in Boulder County use Boulder County’s housing authority as their own, and many city councils don’t have an official liaison for matters of housing. As a result, housing legislation and building orders can take a long time to go through at the local level, so much so that there is really no hope of most communities in Boulder County matching the demand for housing any time soon. By the time a community has built the affordable housing it needed five years ago, its population will have massively increased, leading to an even greater demand for housing.

The issue of housing and affordability is multifaceted, and difficulties arise both from the laws around housing — which ECHO is working to address — and the way workers are treated and paid in Boulder County. 

One of the organizations fighting for fair pay  is the Boulder Area Labor Council, a sort of union of unions that represents and fights for unions throughout Boulder County. According to president of this organization Geoff Cahoon, stagnating wages are an equally important part of Boulder County’s struggle for affordable housing. 

His organization has been calling to raise the minimum wage to $25 an hour by 2028. He argues that this is necessary in order for workers to “live in dignity in Boulder County” according to a press conference on the matter. He believes that, while building more affordable housing units and changing zoning laws and regulations is a fantastic start, wages must also change in order for workers to really be able to live where they work.

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