Major land use bill gets first committee hearing in Colorado Senate
Proposal would allow development of wider housing variety in most Colorado cities
The Colorado State Capitol building is pictured March 22, 2022, in downtown Denver. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)
Colorado lawmakers heard hours of testimony concerning the Legislature’s massive, marquee land use bill that would reform the state’s zoning codes to spur more affordable housing development, including intense opposition from some mayors who bristled at the state’s potential intervention in local zoning issues.
“In Commerce City today, you can’t find a home today for less than $400,000,” bill sponsor Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno told the Senate Local Government and Housing committee Thursday. “It leads me to think, Where do people go? Where do those families go that are just starting out? Where do immigrants go? Where do the people who contribute to the fabric of our society go if they can’t afford a place to live? Senate Bill 213 aims to increase housing supply, to improve affordability, to cut red tape, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to ultimately lower costs.”
The committee only heard testimony on Thursday, a move Moreno said was about extending the stakeholding process. Nearly 300 witnesses, from housing experts to mayors to leaders of economic organizations, signed up to give their input and the hearing lasted late into the night. The committee will consider amendments and vote on whether to move the bill forward at a later date.
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Senate Bill 23-213 is a sweeping, multifaceted legislative approach to the state’s housing crunch that promotes increased density. Primarily, it would require that major cities allow diverse housing types like townhomes, multiplexes and accessory dwelling units in places currently restricted to single-family homes. Those are the types of middle housing options that experts say are missing from the current stock. It would also encourage more housing along transit corridors, get rid of occupancy requirements and nix some parking mandates.
“The current system is a bit of a patchwork. Every community has complete autonomy in this space, so there really is a lack of a statewide or regional approach to addressing the housing needs in our state,” Moreno said.
“It is not a bill to prevent the existence of single-family homes or to tell cities what they have to build or to apply a one-size-fits-all standard,” he said. “It’s about making sure that housing of all types is available to Coloradans.”
Tension between state and local control
Supporters say that the intensity of the affordability and stock issue requires state collaboration and participation, even if that infringes somewhat on local control.
“This bill is a first attempt,” said Teller County Commissioner Dan Williams, noting that first responders often drive into the rural county from Colorado Springs where they can afford to live. “I believe in the free market. I believe in local control. But we can’t hide behind local control as an excuse not to have a conversation. We can’t lead from the front in Colorado and ignore our neighbors.”
Opponents, on the other hand, say it goes too far. Many city leaders say they are making progress on the issue already and are doing just fine on their own.
“I simply do not accept the fact that the state is in a superior position to impact housing affordability in Colorado than is our local governments. I think that is contradictory to our history and experience,” Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said. “Land use in Colorado has been a matter of local concern for 149 years. And if you take away citizen input into that process, you are going to have an exacerbated decline in public trust in government.”
He said that his city has “basically tripled” affordable housing units over the past eight years and expects to accelerate that development following the passage of Proposition 123 in the fall, which will provide funds for affordable housing.
Breckinridge Mayor Eric Mamula also pointed to progress the city has made on affordable housing without government intervention. He said that by the end of this year, there will be about 1,500 affordable units in the town of 5,000 residents. The push for higher density, he said, could be detrimental to a resort community like Breckenridge.
“Any change to local land use by right must be accompanied by local affordability and work restrictions,” he said.
He wants to see a revised bill with more input from municipalities that includes an opt-out provision for cities that can show they are producing a certain amount of workforce and affordable housing.
Mountain and rural communities expressed concerns Thursday about how infill housing could impact limited resources such as water capacity and strained to non-existent public infrastructure.
Kevin Bommer, the executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said that results from the legislation wouldn’t come quickly enough. Developers would still need to buy land, come up with plans and construct units in the new zoning reality.
“It would take years to see anything develop,” he said.
Several witnesses suggested that possible litigation could drag things out even further.
Despite fierce opposition from many city leaders who said the bill would preempt local control and disregard individual community intricacies, supporters see the bill as part of an answer to stagnated progress on a worsening housing situation in the state.
Brian Connolly, a land use planner and lawyer with the Colorado Housing Affordability Project, said opponents are painting a “false dichotomy” of local control and state intervention. There needs to be action at both levels to be successful.
“Today, despite the best efforts of many local officials, Colorado’s current all-local approach has failed to resolve our housing crisis. Every other state in the nation that has faced a housing affordability crisis has employed some statewide controls to create a level playing field between jurisdictions and ensure that local efforts are effective and address regional housing needs,” he said.
He said that from a legal standpoint, housing is a matter of both state and local concern, so any concerns about the bill’s constitutionality are unfounded.
Bill still a work in progress
Committee members received a memo Thursday with potential amendments to the bill. One would strengthen affordability requirements.
“(This bill) might create more housing, but there’s no guarantee that a house will be affordable unless we intentionally incorporate affordability and anti-displacement principles and strategies into this bill,” said Cathy Alderman, the chief communications and public policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Another amendment would clarify a city’s ability to adopt local inclusionary zoning ordinances, which require developers to set aside a certain number of affordable units into market-rate projects.
The requirements for so-called rural resort job centers, like Breckenridge, could be tweaked in another amendment so that they could choose from a menu of affordability options based on local needs without zoning for increased density for second homes or short-term rentals.
Other amendments would redefine middle housing as a building with two to four units, create a waiver for smaller cities to opt out of housing needs plans along major transportation corridors and add more local representation to a multi-agency committee.
“I am proud to say that no conversations have broken down with associations that represent local governments,” Moreno told lawmakers. “We are still talking. We met yesterday. We will meet many more times as this bill moves through the process in order to make sure concerns get addressed.”
The land use bill is the largest housing-related bill this session, but it fits in with other bills that would encourage public-private development partnerships, let towns enact rent stabilization and make it easier for cities to buy property, among others.
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