What should Colorado do about its housing shortage?

BY FREDA MIKLIN
GOVERNMENTAL REPORTER

It is no wonder that one of the more controversial bills currently before the state legislature is HB24-1313 Housing in Transit-Oriented Communities. 

According to the bill’s Democratic sponsors and dozens of business leaders and government officials, along with leading public policy officials from national research organizations, the shortage of attainable, affordable housing across the state is responsible for:

  • High housing costs;
  • Employers having a difficult time recruiting and retaining talent;
  • Negative environmental impacts to air, water, and energy. 

The proposed law maintains that the, “state demographer estimated that between approximately 65,000 and 95,000 housing units are needed to keep pace with Colorado’s current population growth.” 

In its current form, it strongly encourages, many would say requires, local governments to tailor their zoning codes to potentially allow significantly more housing to be built near transit centers, which would address all three of the concerns outlined above. It also provides a set of financial incentives to do so. 

HB24-1313 passed the House Transportation, Housing & Local Government Committee on March 6 and the Finance Committee on March 25, picking up amendments along the way. The vote in Finance was 6-5 with one Democrat, Douglas County Rep. Bob Marshall voting no. The bill now moves to the House Appropriations Committee, which has not yet scheduled it for hearing.

The Colorado Municipal League (CML), which represents the cities and towns across the state, Colorado Counties, and several individual cities have voiced robust opposition to the bill based on their fervent belief that land use policy, including the level of allowed density, “is not a state power.” Rather, “It is a matter of local concern.” Kevin Bommer, CML’s executive director, openly predicted legal action, saying, “If the state tries to force the issue, the courts will concur with us, as they have before.”

In our area, while Greenwood Village’s land use code permits residential development near its transit centers, its comprehensive plan, which spells out the city council’s development policy, states that new higher density development, defined as more than four housing units per acre, is discouraged in the area bound by Belleview Avenue on the north, Arapahoe Road on the south, Quebec Street on the west, and Yosemite Street on the east, which includes both the Orchard and Arapahoe Light Rail Stations. Leaders on the GV City Council have maintained for the past six plus years that additional multifamily housing would create unmanageable traffic.

Not everyone believes the state’s action to force more housing to be built is necessary. GV’s city attorney recently pointed out in testimony at the House Transportation, Housing & Local Government Committee that 92,500 housing units have been approved and are awaiting construction across Arapahoe County alone, which would mathematically cover the entire state deficit, based on the numbers in HR24-1313. 

The question of how much new housing should be built also ties into the question of how much population growth is expected and how much Colorado wants to encourage. 

A February 1 research report by the nonpartisan Common Sense Institute said, “In 2013, Colorado captured one in 12 people who moved to a new state that experienced net population growth. In 2023, that dropped to only one in 120 people… Between 2020 and 2023, Colorado had an average net gain of only 6,645 people from other states each year. That is compared to an average of 41,540 every year between 2013 and 2020… More people left Colorado for other states than arrived from other states in 2022.” That seems to paint Colorado as a place where population growth has slowed due to our state having become a less desirable location to people who are relocating from other parts of the country.

That is very different from the data included in HB24-1313, which indicates that the state demography office, “estimates that Colorado will add 1,700,200 people by 2050, bringing Colorado’s population to nearly 7,500,000.” 

The editorial section of the Sunday Denver Post on March 24 contained an article that went much further in the same direction. It said, “According to a 2023 survey of 1,000 Americans, discussed in a recent Forbes story, Denver took first place as the most desired place to live,” with 17% of respondents putting Denver as their first choice, a number that, “represents 58,000,000 people nationwide.”  The article does some math for us, explaining that if one out of five people who would like to relocate to Denver does so, it would triple the state’s population. 

Is anyone old enough to remember the bumper stickers that said, “Don’t Calfornicate Colorado?” If memory serves (it was pre-Google), those were part of the anti-growth movement of the late 1970s that included a vote of the citizens rejecting the Winter Olympics after they had been awarded to Denver, a lasting black eye or badge of honor for our state, depending on one’s point of view.

Add to the conversation that, according to Senate Bill 24-106 Right to Remedy Construction Defects, which has passed the Senate Committee on Local Government & Housing and was debated on the Senate Floor on March 25, “Condominium construction in the front range…is now 76% lower than it was between 2002 and 2008, and the number of entities developing condominiums decreased by 84% between 2007 and 2022.” 

Most people believe that the huge drop in available for-sale multifamily homes, an important step of the ladder of building equity for first-time homebuyers, is directly related to the Construction Defect Action Reform Act (CDARA), signed into law in 2003. SB24-106 aims to fix that law to revive the condominium industry while still offering consumers needed protections. The lack of available condominiums and townhomes is a significant factor in Colorado’s housing shortage.

The questions around housing are complicated. The editors of the Denver Post on Sunday, March 24, offered qualified support for HR24-1313, saying, “The bill in theory gives local governments the ability to gently up-zone (some) communities, however, the bill should be amended so it does not penalize communities that want to put strict setback requirements for dense housing in neighborhoods facing big changes.”