Commentary

Boulder agrees on the problems. Scholars agree on a simple solution.

Abundant, dense housing is the answer to many of the city’s ills

September 14, 2021 4:45 am

The sprawl of single-family residences is seen in Superior. (Courtesy of EcoFlight)

Nearly everyone in Boulder agrees:

Our open space is amazing but not if we can’t go outside because of the air quality; the University of Colorado has done a terrible job providing enough affordable student and faculty housing; the city, too, has a dearth of affordable housing and housing prices are out of control; we have an ongoing and horrible homeless problem; traffic and parking keeps getting worse and worse; climate change is real and this summer is %$*@$#! hot; and COVID sucks, and the vaccine is a much better choice than ivermectin or a ventilator.

What feels challenging is when all of us are in agreement we disagree on the apparent solution, and when otherwise good, well-educated, neighborly neighbors just can’t see eye-to-eye. And what if the prevailing science all pointed to a very simple solution? Wouldn’t we all agree? Wouldn’t we all just mask up and get a vaccine?

Of course we would. We have.

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That’s exactly what we’ve done when it comes to COVID. Our vaccination rates are way higher than national and state averages, people are mostly respectful about masks, and we damn well wish the rest of those people would just put aside their selfish lack of reason and follow the science. When it comes to COVID, Boulderites have put the common good way in front of individualism.

We understand this concept deeply — common good requires personal compromise and sacrifice. Many have been appalled, frustrated, deeply saddened and angered at how 40-plus years of trick-the-down economics and four years of former President Donald Trump have eviscerated the social safety net, enriched the 1%, put rugged individualism dressed up as patriotism way ahead of the common good. As one neighbor recently noted on a NextDoor thread about Bedrooms Are for People: “Our past administration has made very public and transparent the willingness of a small minority to place personal gain over public good time and time again.”

And what if the prevailing scholarly legal, economic, cultural race/class, and environmental/climate literature and thought on Boulder’s ills all pointed to the “no-growth” and “exclusionary” zoning, land use, and housing policies like Boulder’s and noted that the minority of privileged single-family homeowners here and in other wealthy, predominantly white communities with our policies are the unequivocal culprit?

  • “The central problem of land use, according to much of the scholarship, is that most land use controls are imposed by local governments and are heavily influenced by the concerns of homeowners, rather than broader interests. Even in big cities, homeowners in neighborhoods where projects are proposed end up playing a dominant role in zoning decisions, giving them the power to exclude as well.” — “Exclusionary Zoning’s Confused Defenders,” Wisconsin Law Review (forthcoming), David Schleicher, Yale University Law School
  • “Today, exclusionary zoning remains widely used. In fact, this discriminatory practice is as much — or more — a disease of liberal U.S. states as it is in their less progressive neighbors.” — “Exclusionary Zoning Continues Racial Segregation’s Ugly Work,” The Century Foundation, Kimberly Quick
  • “The hypocrisy of eagerly inviting low-income individuals into communities to provide vital child and elderly care, or work in jobs from landscapers to waitresses to checkout clerks — while effectively zoning them out from living anywhere in the community — should be more broadly exposed and reconciled.” — “An Economic Fair Housing Act,” The Century Foundation, Richard Kahlenberg
  • “Among the varieties of residential housing, single-family houses are by far the most environmentally destructive. The key is examining the difference between the average carbon dioxide emissions of single-family houses and denser kinds of housing — a Sasquatch-sized contrast in carbon footprints, made worse by the fact it’s illegal to develop anything other than single-family housing on approximately 75% of residential land in most American cities … Single-family housing requires a deep pit of electricity consumption to heat and cool its environments. Multiplied on a neighborhood, city, or countywide scale, single-family clustering spawns a host of systemic emissions problems beyond this simple per-unit differential.” — “Green Houses and Greenhouse Gases: Why Exclusionary Zoning Is a Climate Catastrophe,” Georgetown Public Policy Review, Devin Edwards

Boulder, we can keep playing pretend, keep widening the gap between talk and reality. We can choose Joe Rogan as our epidemiologist, urban planner, and social and climate scientist. Or we can follow the accepted science of 40-plus years of research.

Build abundant, compact, dense housing. It is long passed time to: end exclusionary zoning; end parking minimums, free on-street parking, and car-centric traffic planning; prioritize streets for pedestrians and cyclists — for people; challenge our ManiestSuburbia mindset; and thrive as a more diverse and welcoming community.

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Mark Gelband
Mark Gelband

Mark Gelband is a 31-year Boulder resident currently on self-granted sabbatical in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he and his family are working on a large-scale art project centered on sustainability, affordable housing, green energy, fostering creative passions, cooperative ownership and living wages, shared food, and community good. He supports Bedrooms Are For People, housing the unhoused, and the CU South agreement as baby steps toward the common good of building abundant housing and a less car-centric future.

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