Commentary

A speech that put NIMBYs on notice

Gov. Polis declared himself on the right side of the affordable housing debate. Decisive action must follow the rhetoric.

January 19, 2023 7:46 am

Gov. Jared Polis arrives to deliver the 2023 state of the state address to a joint session of the Colorado Legislature in the House chamber at the Capitol on Jan. 17, 2023, in Denver. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post, pool)

Roughly a third of the way into the annual State of the State address delivered by Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday before the Colorado General Assembly, he said, referring to the state’s housing crisis, “We need more flexible zoning.”

And with those words, along with the larger position Polis staked out on housing, he put the state’s NIMBYs on notice: the status quo just won’t do.

Colorado, like many other states, suffers from an extreme shortage of affordable housing. The debate about solutions implicates every resident in the state, and the conversation is deeply personal, since a family’s own home is part of its identity and the qualities of its neighborhood determine much about its lifestyle. 

Also, as the governor noted in his speech, housing policy is inextricably tied to other critical public priorities, such as climate action, the economy, transportation, water resources, public health and equity.

The governor, in choosing the side of housing density, declared himself an opponent of the numerous “neighborhood character” defenders who haunt city councils throughout the state and public-comment regulars who so often can be heard extolling a single-family-zoning ideal. Polis chose the correct side. However, his success will depend on whether he’s willing to enact reform rather than just ask nicely for it.

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The problem — essentially one of supply failing to meet demand — is enormous. Polis noted that housing prices have increased about four times the rate of income in the last 50 years. Colorado has seen chronic housing shortages during much of the past two decades. Before 2006, an average of 48,000 housing units were added to the state’s inventory every year, and this matched employment growth. Since then, an average of only 26,500 units have been added — much fewer than needed, according to one study released in 2021. Returning Colorado’s housing market to “a functioning level” would require the addition of almost half a million housing units by 2030.

The crisis affects tenants as much as owners. As would-be buyers get priced out of the market they join the ranks of renters, expanding demand for a dwindling supply of vacancies. Rents have soared in cities throughout the state, and more than 40% of renters are now “cost burdened,” meaning more than 30% of their income goes to housing costs.

These are welcome goals. But what's missing is a clear approach to achieve them.

The crisis touches every part of the state, and it especially burdens Black and Hispanic households. More than 70% of white Coloradans own their home, but only 51% of Hispanic and 43% of Black Coloradans do, according to The Bell Policy Center, which notes that this circumstance reinforces economic inequality.

So what’s Polis’ solution?

“Flexible zoning” was a remarkable prescription that surely made planning board members and HOA officers throughout Colorado shudder. Polis also mentioned “streamlined regulations that cut through red tape, expedited approval processes for projects like modular housing, sustainable development, and more building in transit-oriented communities.” Previously Polis has criticized local rules that restrict the number of unrelated people who can occupy a home.

These are welcome goals. But what’s missing is a clear approach to achieve them.

In a post-State of the State interview, Ryan Warner of CPR asked Polis several times whether he would mandate that municipalities enact housing reform, and each time Polis evaded the question.

“It’s not about the state or local government telling you what you can and can’t do. It’s about what your rights as a property owner are,” he said. How he expects an assertion of property rights against adverse local ordinances to play out is obscure.

But he did appear to offer a key to his unstated preferences. In response to conservative radio host Ross Kaminsky, who challenged Polis’ position on housing, the Democratic governor tweeted a link to a 2021 Colorado housing policy brief from the conservative Common Sense Institute, calling it a “blueprint for action.”

The report goes awry in places. For example, it largely dismisses the trailblazing move by the Minneapolis City Council in 2018 to eliminate single-family zoning, which is rooted in racial segregation policies and does so much to drive up housing costs. The report faults the new Minneapolis policy for lack of results, but other sources have documented a positive outcome.

Many of the report’s recommendations are sound, however. The authors take a dim view of minimum parking requirements, encourage the creation of more accessory dwelling units (commonly called “granny flats”), call for far greater housing density, and excoriate antigrowth extremists — the NIMBYs who want to block others from residing not just in their backyard but also their city or anywhere in Colorado.

“We view no growth ordinances as the biggest threat to affordable housing in Colorado,” the authors write. “The legislature should act to eliminate this threat.”

Is that a bill Polis would sign?

The governor articulated an impressively progressive position on housing reform during his address to the Legislature. If he’s willing to back up the rhetoric with decisive action, affordable housing might again be within reach for thousands of hard-working Coloradans.

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