By Peter Mayer and Allyn Feinberg
“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” – Greta Thunberg
For more than 60 years, Boulder’s civic organization, PLAN-Boulder, has championed open space, the environment, and carefully managed growth. If you moved to Boulder to access open spaces, parks and recreation, and large public spaces like the Pearl Street Mall and Farmers Market, and if you support species diversity and floodplain restoration , know that the citizen volunteers of PLAN-Boulder have been, and continue to be, an essential advocate for all of these things.
Advocates of forced density such as Jan Burton and his business-backed organization Better Boulder and those profiting from the financialization of Boulder’s housing market like to scapegoat PLAN-Boulder, because PLAN believes that a reasonable balance between jobs and housing and a stable population are good things. PLAN-Boulder is a favorite punching bag because we support citizen power, neighborhood planning and a thoughtful development process, which frustrates those looking to make a quick buck.
We were disheartened to read Ms. Burton’s February 22 guest posting: “Walking Away From Anti-Growth” in which she promotes standard myths and attacks on PLAN-Boulder County and its volunteers who have been engaged for years in our community and in doing so perpetuates harmful division. The problems facing Boulder are real and significant and will not be solved by the “winners and losers” and “blame PLAN-Boulder” mentality that characterizes much of Burton’s published public speeches.
PLAN-Boulder believes that planning for a stable population and the long-term health and sustainability of Boulder is a good thing. Eternal growth is an unsustainable fantasy. PLAN-Boulder believes there is an ultimate size that a mature city reaches, called building. PLAN understands that Boulder is a carefully planned city with limited resources and ultimate carrying capacity. Boulder, like a human body, grew from infancy to maturity. Now that Boulder is mature, are we going to overeat and become obese with clogged arteries and roads, or are we going to stay healthy and fit?
PLAN-Boulder has long been an advocate of strong affordable housing policies like buying existing homes and rent subsidies, requiring construction of affordable units, high connection fees and rent control. Time and time again we have seen our recommendations for higher commercial connection fees that go directly to affordable housing and more affordable housing rejected by those profiting from the urban growth machine. The demand for housing in Boulder is inelastic, which means that more people want more housing than the supply can ever meet. It’s an economic fantasy to believe that we can change the trajectory of Boulder’s real estate market by building to bursting. We cannot produce enough housing to meet the demand for that housing by people who want to live in Boulder, especially when we continue to use land that could have housing to add expensive commercial space.
In Boulder, developers can produce market-to-market housing at an excellent profit by foregoing the construction of required affordable housing and instead providing funds through the Cash Affordable Housing Program. Funding provided under the financial compensation option covers less than half the cost of a new affordable home, while allowing for the creation of one or five rental units at market price. Naturally, this program has caught the attention of out-of-town developers, who are now jumping on the gravy bandwagon and joining “progressive” voices in forcing density into neighborhoods as an answer to the housing crisis of Boulder (see “More Development, But No Rent Control,” a Feb. 23 guest review by Lauren Brockman, a Denver real estate developer). PLAN-Boulder believes that market interventions such as ensuring that existing housing remains affordable and rent control would far outweigh all of Brockman’s suggestions.
Does the “build baby build” strategy create affordability? Boulder, at 4,000 people per square mile, is already denser than many US cities, including Austin, Phoenix and New Orleans. A comparison of the density of US urban areas with their housing affordability shows a clear correlation: density makes housing less affordable, not more. Density, whatever it is, is not enough on its own to create affordability. To ensure affordability, local governments must step in with programs or obtain additional concessions from the developer of new high-density units. That’s why PLAN-Boulder has always supported the work of Boulder Housing Partners, who build new buildings and buy existing buildings to create affordable housing.
Recent efforts to suggest that PLAN-Boulder and its members are racist are deeply offensive. Over the years, our Boulder citizen members have been active in the fight for civil rights, unions, fair housing policies and enlightened elected leaders, as well as open spaces and the environment. We have heard statements during the last election campaign and read words on these pages that are deeply offensive and hurtful to the citizens of Boulder who have worked tirelessly to ensure public access to great public spaces for all, regardless of or their race. PLAN-Boulder strongly believes that we can all continue to learn to be more mindful of meaningful inclusion and more sensitive to the impact of our actions on others. But we also strongly believe that Boulder must move beyond the false narratives and polarizing name-calling that have recently prevailed.
How big should Boulder be? According to census data, the current population of Boulder is 106,319. There are currently proposals for approximately 6,500 additional units (mostly multi-family) throughout the city. Assuming the current average of 2.5 people per household, this will bring in an additional 16,250 people. If we were to increase infill by 10%, that could add another 10,600 people, bringing the total to 133,169. Do we have the water and infrastructure to support and sustain this population? This analysis is essential and must be done.
PLAN-Boulder supports slow, sensible, planned growth with a focus on affordability for Boulder while continuing to expand open space and recreation. We think a building population of around 135,000 makes sense to plan and prepare for. We invite all citizens of Boulder to join us and support our work. What is your vision for Boulder?
Peter Mayer and Allyn Feinberg are co-chairs of PLAN-Boulder County