Colorado Democrats unveil a massive housing policy bill that would significantly rewrite land use policies

Colorado Democrats unveil housing policy bill that would rewrite land use policies
Posted at 5:36 PM, Mar 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-24 20:18:59-04

DENVER — A broad coalition of lawmakers, cities, counties, climate advocates and even the business community came together on the west steps of the Colorado State Capitol on Wednesday to unveil a massive bill that’s aimed at addressing the housing crisis in the state.

Senate Bill 23-213 is 105-pages long and is the result of many months of work and 125 meetings with stakeholders around the state.

“Housing and the cost of housing and high cost of living Colorado is an issue that we know we need to take action to do something about for the state,” Gov. Jared Polis said during a news conference Wednesday.

Last year, Colorado lawmakers passed bills to infuse $500 million in federal pandemic relief funding into housing construction around the state. Then, in November, voters added hundreds of millions more to address the affordable housing conundrum by passing Proposition 123.

This year, lawmakers are debating even more bills to put guardrails around affordable housing, like giving localities the right to impose a rent control measures.

The latest package will make major changes to land use policies in the state and works to expand the types of housing allowed in different areas.

“The last time Colorado made major land use changes was nearly 50 years ago, we were a very different state,” said Polis.

The bill will prevent local governments from banning the construction of accessory dwelling units, duplexes, triplexes and townhomes in bigger cities like Denver. They would no longer be allowed to restrict zoning to only single-family housing in areas but would need to allow the construction of so-called middle housing.

Other potential development barriers like per-unit parking requirements would also be removed.

The bill would also block municipalities from regulating how many unrelated people can live in the same home, open the door for the creation of more manufactured homes, limit the power of homeowners’ associations to restrict housing and more.

It will cut red tape and reduce building limitations for the time so that projects can be constructed more quickly and cheaply.

It also aims to encourage denser housing development around transit options.

“Colorado simply cannot continue with the status quo to address our affordable housing crisis,” said Boulder Mayor Aaron Brockett.

Despite the sweeping reforms proposed, parts of the bill will be tailored to the individual needs and constraints of communities depending on population size and the needs and resources within that community.

Representatives from Boulder and Teller County who attended the news conference and who support the legislation insist that this will not take away local control but say this will set minimum standards for communities by the state.

A second bill will ban localities from setting growth caps to prevent development in some places like Golden has done in the past.

“We need to start not allowing these localities to arbitrary limit where people can and cannot live and also limit where we can have more, slightly denser and more affordable and resilient communities,” said Rep. Ruby Dickson, D-Arapahoe, one of the bill’s prime sponsors.

Dickson said she understands the concerns some communities might have about growth happening too quickly, like limits on water and conserving green space. However, she and supporters of the idea say the housing crisis is a statewide problem that needs a statewide solution with buy-in from every community.

“We want to make sure that localities are still able to make policy as they need. It's just that we need to make sure that statewide everybody is doing their fair share to support housing affordability,” Dickson said.

There is an exception built into the bill that would allow communities to limit growth for a period of one year where a natural disaster occurred.

History of land use laws

Jeff Engelstad, a professor of the practice of real estate and construction at the University of Denver says land use laws and zoning policy has existed in Colorado to some extent since the early 1900s with a specific purpose.

“Zoning was a tool to separate incompatible land uses. That's what it was, its original intent,” Engelstad said.

For almost all of that time, zoning has not been a state issue but one for localities to decide. A big part of the reason for that is due to the diversity of the state itself, from population size to unique geographic challenges.

Places like Denver don’t face the same challenges as mountainous communities like Telluride which, in turn, don’t face the same hurdles as areas on the Eastern Plains.

Engelstad is a firm believer that zoning should continue to remain a local issue.

“I think that having a statewide one size fits all policy, as it relates to land use is dangerous in many different ways,” Engelstad said.

Placing dense housing in some communities that have not historically experienced it could cause a unique set of challenges like water availability, firefighting capabilities, access to emergency services, road congestion, trash services and more.

He believes there are areas where the state can wade into the housing crisis to help localities, like encouraging the creation of more accessory dwelling units.

“I think where the state can come in is in providing some guidance and some education and even some tax credit funding for affordable housing and workforce housing in areas where it makes sense,” Engelstad said.

However, he believes that’s where the state’s purview should stop.

Concerns of overreach

Despite the broad coalition of support, the Colorado Municipal League has already come out in opposition to the legislation, saying that it will strip away home rule and give away local control to special interests without any guarantee of affordability.

“A decision was made to toss over a century of home rule and local control out the door and just toss the keys to folks that have their own interests in mind,” Bommer said.

While Bommer said many of the communities he represents were invited and did participate in the more than 100 meetings in the crafting of this legislation, he clarified that meeting with communities and truly listening to them are two different things.

“I think they're going to hear very overwhelmingly, that this is a massive overreach by the state, and one that's completely unnecessary and a terrible precedent. You know, if the state can start legislating away, you know, local authority to ensure livability of neighborhoods and communities... where does it stop?” he said.

His bottom line is that mandating density and imposing these land use rules on communities will have long lasting, detrimental effects.

He hopes there’s still time to find a meaningful compromise for localities.

In the end, advocates said that while this bill is a massive undertaking, change won’t happen overnight, but this bill will work to seriously address the housing crisis in the state. The question is whether this solution is the right one for Colorado.

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